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The Effect of Learned Helplessness on Student Success

by Hope Fleece, Teacher

There is a perception that today’s students show a general lack of respect for the rules and expectations of school. This has contributed to some students becoming disruptive in the classroom, falling behind on their academic expectations, and developing social anxiety or emotional trauma, requiring alternative educational settings with therapeutic support to achieve academic success. Unfortunately, students enter these alternative educational settings demonstrating disruptive behaviors and with an outlook of being helpless to achieve academic and social success.

Battal Odabasi (2013) conducted a study and found that the success or failure of an individual is related to learned helplessness, or the “mental situation appearing after a person is not able to control the actions or chain of actions due to a negative event or many events”. For the students described above, these negative events are their trauma. Being a trauma-informed educator, it is my understanding that a student’s experiences will contribute to this feeling of helplessness and a lack of motivation to change what is perceived as unchangeable.

Further, learned helplessness affects the way a student approaches their educational environment. Students who perceive themselves as helpless, and the tasks before them as too hard, show a lack of confidence and self-respect that creates a pattern of failure that is observable in negative self-talk, inappropriate behaviors, task avoidance, and lack of academic motivation and achievement.

Alternative education support and transition classrooms where both academic and emotional needs are addressed in small group settings can provide a safe and consistent environment where students can learn. Some students act out or disengage from their learning because their schoolwork is not what is most important to them. More often, a student who is traumatized is concerned for their safety and comfort level, not their graduation checklist.

When something becomes difficult, it is natural to want to give up or accept that where they are currently is all they will ever be able to achieve. Providing a safe learning environment and encouraging a student to push past this thinking will be crucial to change failure into success. The student needs to move from a comfort zone where failure is acceptable to a growth zone where success is possible.

Students attend alternative education environments due to reaching a critical point where they are in danger of falling behind academically, or are disrupting the learning of others in the traditional classroom setting. In these classrooms, students have adopted a perception of being a victim. There is a sense of entitlement that, because they are owed an education, everyone should do their best to make sure they are successful. However, when their lack of effort and disruptive behaviors lead them to experiencing failure in the traditional classroom, they seem to lack any accountability and responsibility for the choices they have made that contributed to that failure. As Hua He (2021) notes, “failure is an expected issue in the process of learning; nevertheless, it is not failure that stops education, then again it is student’s response to failure that forms his/her learning that leads learners to gradually lose attentiveness in learning and develop their learned helplessness”. He goes on to suggest that educators need to help the student develop suitable goals with guidance.

The classroom environment becomes a place where a balance between educating and managing behaviors is created to encourage resilience, so the student can be successful. Much of that balance is based on the ability of the teacher to establish a culture of care where a genuine concern for the student is expressed, a level of rapport and trust is built, and accountability and responsibility is expected from the student. The teacher needs to show care, while also addressing behaviors consistently. Setting clear expectations and providing clear consequences will allow the teacher to be successful in these endeavors. Further, intervening and disrupting the thoughts and subsequent behaviors behind the helplessness of the student is crucial to the student’s ability to develop resilience.

It is also important to recognize positive behaviors and address negative behaviors. Students need to chunk their overall goal of transition and/or graduation into manageable steps and be expected to make progress, with consistent intervention by the educator. Additionally, students need to learn to change their mindset to a growth perspective. If students constantly view themselves in the classroom as failures, then changing their mindset by modeling celebration of progress and success will allow them to adjust their perception and make strides to accomplishing their goals. Kevin Kruse was quoted on Twitter in 2018 as saying, “…there is no such thing as failure. You either succeed or you learn.” When students think in black and white terms, where something is either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure, they limit their ability to see progress. However, using positive self-talk about the things they can control can provide a level of self-care for the student that can open them up to the possibility of success. A growth mindset will allow the student to understand that some things are within their control, and reduce the idea that they are helpless to make change.

Learned helplessness is a result of trauma and the inability of the student to take control to achieve their goals. The student may think that it does not matter, but we need to teach them that quitting a task, or giving up before they start, is the only way they fail. Students need to learn that they are ultimately responsible for their success in as much as they succumb to the expectation of failure. It is important for educators to help the students establish goals, monitor progress, help the student recognize that progress, and hold the student accountable. We cannot erase the trauma students have experienced, but we can teach these learners resilience and that there is always a solution.


References

Billionaire Secrets. (2018, August 7). There is no such thing as failure. You either succeed or learn. –Kevin Kruse. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/billionaire_key/status/1027016599478456320

He, Hua. (2021). Students’ Learned Helplessness and Teachers’ Care in EFL Classrooms. Frontiers in Psychology. 12. 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.806587.

Nuvvula, Sivakumar. (2016). Learned Helplessness. Contemporary Clinical Dentistry. 7. 426-7. 10.4103/0796-237X.194124

Odabasi, B. (2013). The Effect of Learned Helplessness to the Success. Int. J. Acad. Res. 5, 125-133. Doi: 10.7813/2075-4124.2013/5-4/B.18

Zorbas, Andrea. “Nothing Is Ever Black and White, and That's Okay.” Therapy Now, Therapy Now, 29 Nov. 2021, https://www.therapynowsf.com/blog/nothing-is-ever-black-and-white-and-thats-okay.