In the 1960s, Martin Seligman tested conditioned responses in dogs, giving them mild but inescapable electric shocks. Later, the dogs were moved to new enclosures in which they could escape shocks by simply stepping over low dividers onto non-electrified flooring. Seligman found, however, that many dogs did not step over. They just laid down on the electrified floor and continued to take the shocks. They had learned that nothing they did could prevent those shocks. They had learned to not even try to escape the shocks. In other words, they had learned helplessness.
Seligman’s discovery of learned helplessness has been utilized in understanding children’s behavior in classrooms. Many school children are presented with lessons or tasks that they are not ready for and when these kids meet with repeated failure in the form of criticisms or low grades, they often give up. They learn that no matter how hard they try, they fail. Many kids decide that they will continue to fail in that context, and some kids generalize failing expectations to other subjects or activities.
What does all this classroom stuff have to do with homeschooling?
Many parents take their kids out of school and begin to homeschool them precisely because their kids’ readiness, energy levels, or interests just didn’t align with the demands of the classroom. Unfortunately, learned helplessness may continue to affect kids’ academic progress at home.
Learned Helplessness: How to Spot It
In studies of the phenomenon, kids who performed equally well at a particular task were challenged with an impossible problem. Of course, none of the kids could solve the problem. It was impossible! The kids were then given a task, one that was almost identical to the first. Some kids did as well or better than they had with the first problem; the unsolvable problem seemed to make them work harder. They displayed mastery orientation. They assume that they can indeed solve difficult problems or learn material, and they roll up their metaphorical sleeves and try harder. Other kids fared far worse with this task than they had with the original, almost identical, task. Their failure with the impossible task had apparently eroded their confidence and ability.
If your child has little motivation to learn, if she displays sadness, anxiety, frustration, or anger when faced with a difficult lesson or task, she may have learned helplessness.
Learned Helplessness: How to Overcome It
Remember, learned helplessness is something a child has learned. Children develop their attitudes toward challenges by watching their parents, through criticism (especially criticism from parents and teachers), and from events (especially crises) in their lives.
It’s not easy to change kids’ attitudes, but research suggests the following:
• Allow your child to control at least some aspects of education; especially, and as much as possible, the pacing of her work or learning.
• Be sure to watch your child for signs of readiness to do particular chores and academic tasks, allowing him to try all sorts of things, including things he may not be ready for. However, don’t push him if things don’t click.
• Don’t be too quick to step in and solve all of your child’s problems, fix every mistake, right every wrong. Consider allowing her to suffer the natural consequences of her mistakes. Of course, you will want to rescue your child from dire consequences – but watch for the no-biggies that your child can fix on her own.
• If your child has met with failure and seems to be giving up, reaffirm your belief that he can do it and then help him refocus on the task. Instead of repeating, “Try again! Work harder!” say something like, “I know you can do it if you keep trying. I wonder if you can figure out a pattern...”
• Search for problems that are just a bit harder than the problems your child can already do. Studies of “flow” indicate that people get most excited, and learn best, when they face relatively small, doable challenges – rather than when they feel bored by already-mastered tasks or overwhelmed by seemingly impossible tasks.
• Teach kids to be “thought detectives” who can spot their own negative self-talk. Encourage them to look for thoughts like, “Why bother, anyway?” or “I’m too stupid to learn this.” Once kids recognize these sorts of downer thoughts, they can replace them with positive self-talk such as “I’m good at ___, so I can probably do this, too,” or “This is a really hard problem, but if I try again, maybe I can solve it.”
• Encourage your child to take breaks. When we give our brains a rest, they continue to work on unsolved problems. Outdoor, physical activity can promote learning and problem solving. Tell your child these brain-facts, and then have her go for a walk or play an active game before returning to the problem.
• Encouragement to try again, harder, only helps when the child perceives the message (and the messenger) as credible. If he doesn’t believe your exhortations, he may feel more demoralized than encouraged. Be authentic and sincere. If you can see that your child is close to success, tell him so; however, if the task is obviously far above his capacities, praise the attempt but encourage him to turn his efforts elsewhere – and be sure to add “for now”!
Cathy Earle is an education writer who homeschooled her three daughters up to college. You can read what one of her daughters now writes about those experiences at The No-School Kids: A Homeschool Retrospective, and you can find Cathy's free resource for kids at Every Day is Special.