Sunday, October 6, 2013

Learned Helplessness, Learned Helpfulness, and Differential Diagnoses

My dad's really good at fixing computers. Me, not so much. My computer broke, and although I do own a book that could teach me how to fix it, I just had my dad do it.

My dad joked that I was too lazy to fix it myself. "You have a master's degree," he said. "I think you could figure it out!" But that's really not why I asked him to do it. Life has taught me time and time again that I'm just not great at fixing computers. The last time I tried to fix my computer I broke it permanently and lost all of my important work. I was afraid to attempt it this time.  

Does this ever happen in your classroom? Do you have students that could solve a problem if they really tried, but they just won't? Do certain problems make them shut down? Are they constantly asking for help or putting forth minimal effort?  

Your students aren't lazy. They're learned helpless in some areas. Here's how it works.

Educational Consultant Rick Lavoie described something called "Differential Diagnosis." A doctor sees two patients for headache symptoms. He determines that one patient needs brain surgery, and the other has allergies. They both are prescribed very different treatments. Doctors are skilled in differential diagnoses. Conversely, a teacher sees five students with their heads on their desks and assumes that they are all lazy. We've got to get better at differential diagnoses. One student may have been up all night helping a sick parent, while another may be suffering from learned helplessness in reading. This child has learned from experience that each time he attempts to read, he is unable and feels frustrated and embarrassed.

Brain Based Learning theorist Eric Jensen described common learned helpless behaviors and provided ideas for replacing them with learned helpful behaviors.

Learned helpless behaviors
  • apathy
  • sabotage positive outcomes
  • give up before they have started
  • refuse to follow directions
  • engage in passivity rather than activity
  • adhere to limits that they have set upon themselves
  • believe that things will happen regardless of their input
  • enjoy humor that is hostile
  • argumentative
  • avoid learning activities
  • feign illnesses
  • engage in “class clown” type behaviors
  • express a “Why try?" mentality 

What educators can do to replace with learned helpfulness
  •  engaging students in community service
  • giving students activist roles
  •  encouraging active hobbies
  •  implementing physical activity
  •  practicing personal skills
  •  encouraging students to begin making contributions to family
  •  redirecting negative states in class
  • enhancing positive states in class
  •  giving students choices
  • providing plenty of opportunities to increase self-worth
  •  utilizing confidence-building activities
  •  thanking students for something they've done
  •  helping students increase feelings of inclusion and ownership
  •  giving specific positive praise and encouragement

Rick Lavoie compared learned helplessness to an elephant at the zoo. A baby elephant was tied to a post in a zoo and tried to pull away, but no matter how much the elephant tried, the chain wouldn't budge. Eventually, the elephant stopped trying. After a few years, the elephant was full grown and strong enough to tear that tiny post right out of the ground and break free-- yet the elephant had been trained to stay put. Students with learned helplessness are a lot like this elephant and should be encouraged to "give the chain a tug."

Lavoie tells the story better than I do. Watch him here! (The whole video is awesome. Fast forward to 3:31 into the video for the learned helplessness information)

Buy the whole video Motivation Breakthrough by Rick Lavoie here:

Do you have any students who exhibit learned helplessness? Do you have any strategies that help? Share in the comments below!

Happy helping,

A Peach for the Teach


  1. We all have those days, heh. But this temporary incapacitation can be swiftly dealt with through praxis and study. Or through a helping hand we can get from either a father, such as yours, or professional service, which is alright.


  2. That's true. Anything we can do to help our students!


  3. I have a student that this description may fit to a T. She is six years old and exhibits mastery of skills one day but refuses to comply the next with disruptive behaviors, etc. I had come to the conclusion she doesn't want to be smarter than her mother (she already is though). But now I'm trying to see how learned helplessness fits into her schema.

  4. That's so common in our classrooms. Rick Lavoie calls that "performance inconsistency." That's common with ADHD and learning disabilities. That's interesting about not wanting to be smarter than her mother! Do you think mom could talk to her about that? Maybe to encourage her in that area specifically. What a challenge! Keep me posted if you find anything that helps!


    1. I'm the K-5 teacher at a small alternative school in a low social economic Appalachian community. The mom seems content only completing middle school. This child was on a behavior plan prior to coming to our school. She has a learning disability with a discrepancy model but it is believed she intentionally did not perform well on that assessment. I will look up "performance inconsistency"; although I'm the one feeling helpless to help her at the moment.

  5. Ohh, that's tough! A lot of kids with learned helplessness appear to have learning disabilities for the same reason you describe! I'd try varied forms of assessments to get an idea of what she can really do-- think fun things that are assessments disguised as games and toys. Your helpless feeling is normal. The fact that you've already sought out to help her even by taking the time to read this article shows how much you care and are willing to help her. If you continue like that, she will see it, too. I'm sure she already has. Six is a tough age, because she can't really see her future and how education plays into it yet. I'd set up a lot of environmental print around the room and set up activities that demonstrate the many purposes for reading and writing (e.g., ordering food, shopping, making a phone call, emails, sending a letter, receiving mail-- think penpals with other schools). At her home, she might not see mom writing or reading. Point out environmental print in her neighborhood, and show her the different reasons people read to live in the world. Do the same with math. Find numbers in important areas (telephones, signs, posters), count things around the school, etc. It will take a lot of time, but when she feels that sense of accomplishment coupled with seeing the purpose for education outside of her home, you might slowly begin to break away at that learned helplessness. Maybe you could set up a special project for her to do with mom-- something easy for mom that would be special between them, like mom draws a picture for her to caption. Maturity will help, too. That's great for you, as you teach K-5! Please keep me posted!

  6. This is so all so true. The "poor me, I suck at that" thought, once it gets planted in a kid's head, is hard to erase. I don't want to kidnap your thread, but would like to share two sources for Anon. We have a Fearless talkie 2 minute lesson vid on pinterest with a little girl in it that says "How do I KNOW who and what I am? I just got to this planet!" that might be cool for your student to watch. Also, we have a "Monkey" video that shows kids worrying when they don't really have to. Sometimes hearing from other kids can make a difference. After all, grown ups are so tall! Also, as an ADHD adult, I relate to that frustrating feeling inside that leads to "I can't see this through. My mind won't stick." Often, all it takes is a kind person who understands looking straight at us saying "Ooh, your mind is going a little crazy now, huh? That's okay, sweet pea. I know you can tame your beast and stay on task!" A little humor can help a lot.

  7. Lessia, that's such a good point about having students talk to each other! I completely agree about humor, too! Do you have links to those videos? I think they would be super helpful for Anon and for my class. Thanks for your comment!


  8. What a great post! In special education, learned helplessness becomes all too apparent. We have to not do FOR the student, but instead help the student do for THEMSELVES. Even the lowest functioning students can do for themselves, if we will step out of the way and allow them to. I appreciate this post very much!
    I am also happy to find your blog! I am a special education teacher in Kentucky and I also write a blog. I would love for you to check it out. I look forward to reading more of your posts!
    Mrs. H's Resource Room

  9. Kim,

    Thank you for your kind words! I love how you worded it-- not FOR the students, but to help them do it for THEMSELVES. Well said! I couldn't agree more about stepping out of the way and allowing them to. I'll definitely check out your blog!


  10. Hi Brandi! Great post!! Would it be possible for me to get your permission to use the graphic and the information listed from Eric Jensen's work in a report I am doing for an online class? This is good stuff! :)

    1. Thanks, Angela! You're welcome to use my graphic, as long as you credit me! You should probably cite Eric Jensen's book directly-- That's where I got the information. Hope that helps!

  11. This post was very well written, and it also comprises a lot of useful facts. I enjoyed your differentiated way of composing the post. Thanks, you have made it very simple for me to realise.

    Learned Strengths