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Straight Talk About Special Needs Kids #1 — What is "Learned Helplessness'?

The author in a school setting

by Matt Posner

“Learned helplessness” is a behavior we find among all kids of struggling students — not only those who are classified as learning disabled (LD) or special needs, but among those who have a history of failure for whatever reason you may think of. The term means that the student has found a way to get by without an effort by pretending to be incapable.

Learned helplessness in the classroom is a consequence of flaws in our educational system. Teachers need to keep kids on-task and busy at all times, both for the reason of their education, and, more practically, to prevent the misbehavior that results from idle time. Most kids in this most squirmy of generations will move directly to some form of disruptive behavior if left alone, and many LD kids are particularly given to behaviors that aren’t school-friendly.

Given the pressure upon a classroom teacher to keep kids occupied, the teacher will often compensate for a difficult student by making up the deficiencies through her own effort.



1) The child never has pencil, pen, or paper. The teacher then gives her own to the child so the child will have no excuse not to work. The child learns that it’s not necessary to take responsibility for bringing supplies because the teacher will do it.
2) When asked to demonstrate what they have learned, the students fall silent, and if pressed to respond, say “I don’t know.” Some will add foul language to the denial in an effort to deflect the teacher’s attention to behavior or to release subconscious frustrations. The teacher, unable to elicit a verbal response, takes over and fills the whole class time with lecture or with “going over” (and supplying answers for) an assignment the students were supposed to do on their own. The students do nothing, feel bored, and look for ways to amuse themselves through inattention and disobedience.

Of course, learned helplessness is not only in school — it’s everywhere the child interacts with adults. Parents are likely to be familiar with the behavior too. It’s the same reason the child doesn’t clean her room, wash her own dishes, put her dirty clothes in the hamper, or perform any other responsible task — because the parent can be induced to take over, allowing the child to continue being indolent and passive.

So, what do you do about it?

To begin with, insist upon the behavior you want.

In the case of the kid without a pencil, you can’t insist that the child have something she doesn’t have, so the insistence will come in the form of repetition over time. Do you have a pencil today? Tomorrow, I insist that you come with a pencil. Assuming that calling home is an option (i.e.that the parents are present and not difficult or ill), you can use that as well.

Gentle verbal correction is an option you can try. “You know it is a rule that you must bring a pencil to class. I am not happy that you are unprepared, and I expect you to be prepared the next time I see you.” Depending upon your personality, with some kids you can be a little more frank and direct. If I think a kid is emotionally suited to the following tactic, I use it: “I’m going to nag and annoy you whenever you’re unprepared, so if you don’t want to hear it every day, then get your act together.” If a kid is very emotionally unstable, oppositional, or easily angered, I switch to a joking or clownish approach, not sarcastic (which is confrontational and painful) but maybe in an exaggerated sad voice, pretending to cry, etc. I am a male teacher, however; a female teacher might find success being more severe than I can be, since classroom severity from a male is often interpreted like a street challenge.

When it comes to verbal responses, it’s okay to create some uncomfortable silences, to give slight verbal prompts, and to say encouraging things like “I know you can say something about this,” or “I just need a little from you before we can move on.” Then wait for the student to respond. You may slowly and gently repeat the question, or reiterate some information to compensate for deficits in the student’s mental processing ability. But in the end, hold out until the student gives some kind of verbal response. A slight response can build confidence for a longer one another time. When a reluctant talker finally responses in an at least remotely on-task fashion, say “Thank you,” and move on. Return to the student for another verbal response later. Progress can at best be incremental, though. Be slow and steady rather than rapid and aggressive.

It’s not impossible to explain “learned helplessness” as a concept to kids as part of your refusal to tolerate it. You can say, “Learned helplessness happens when a student avoids following instructions by doing nothing. I care about you as students, so I can’t afford to take the risk of letting you get any bad habit like that. So, no learned helplessness in this class.” Not every class will benefit from doing this — choose your battles — but it might work with some kids as part of the generally good policy of telling students what you expect and what you won’t tolerate. You can’t really control the kids, and you may not get the behavior you want, but in the long term, you can improve some relationships and send messages to other kids in the room about your expectations for them.

About the author: Matt Posner is a high school English teacher who has extensive experience with learning disabled students. He is the author of the School of the Ages series of books about a magic school in New York City. http://schooloftheages.webs.com.

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