This is part two of a three-part series on learned helplessness You can read part one here and read part three here.

Learned Helplessness Begins at Home

The more we do for our children, the less they do for themselves. The less they do for themselves, the more helpless they seem.

As parents, when we over-function for our children—typically by doing something for them that they are capable of doing themselves—we can be enabling learned helplessness to set in. Unsurprisingly, learned helplessness often starts in the home, where there are many opportunities for it to develop (be it through chores, homework, or just everyday routines). Michelle Smith Lank, owner of Kids World Learning Center in Georgia, issues a wake-up call about the vicious cycle of learned helplessness to caregivers by reminding us, “Yes, we want our children to be successful and we may be afraid that they might fail. We feel our job as a parent is to ensure that they don’t fail; however, we are undermining our children’s progress through learned helplessness. It becomes a cycle. The more we do for our children, the less they do for themselves. The less they do for themselves, the more helpless they seem. The more helpless they feel, our response is to do more. Instead of learning life skills our children are learning helplessness.”

When we get stuck in the role of doing too much for our kids, we might find it hard to stop. We feel needed when they rely on us. The problem arises when they come to expect us to do these things for them.

Below are some common examples of learned helplessness from empoweringparents.com. Do any of these sound familiar? 

Your toddler knows how to tie her shoes, but you tie them for her anyway because it’s faster.

  • You run back to school when your forgetful 13–year–old son forgets his homework again.
  • Your teen leaves his dirty clothes all over the house. Instead of getting into another argument about it, you do it for him. It’s easier that way.
  • Your daughter with ADHD is having problems completing her science project. She can’t seem to focus and complains that it’s boring and too difficult. After she goes to sleep, you finish it for her. After all, you don’t want her to fail.

Often we do these things to manage our anxieties about our kids’ capabilities and wellbeing. We’re scared they might fail, so we do what we can to ensure that they don’t. In the process, we unwittingly undermine their progress. Doing too much for—and essentially functioning for—our kids sets them up for failure rather than success.

How to Overcome Learned Helplessness in Your Home

It is imperative to recognize patterns of behavior that we (as adults) are doing to contribute to the problem of learned helplessness. If you rush to finish a task for your child just to speed things up, prevent an argument, or make things easier, take a minute to step back and acknowledge this is part of the problem. The best way to overcome learned helplessness is to encourage children to become motivated and independent and let them do a little productive struggling. Help guide them in the right direction while giving them the space to do the things needed to complete their tasks. Offer them support, comfort, and an ear to listen when they struggle, but do not do their tasks for them.

Cognitive behavior techniques supporting learned optimism have been found to combat learned helplessness.

If your child is exhibiting behavior that suggests a problem with learned helplessness, you can take action to help them before their learned behavior develops into worse problems with anxiety or depression. Cognitive behavior techniques supporting learned optimism have been found to combat learned helplessness. According to verywellmind.com, mental health professional believe that by using these techniques, we can teach children to dispute their own negative thoughts and promote their problem-solving and social skills. They also give us several helpful parent “scripts” to help us reinforce learned optimism in our kids:

  • “It seems like you feel discouraged by doing poorly on your test after all the studying.”
  • “It can feel overwhelming when you are a good friend to others and they don’t return the favor back to you.”
  • “You feel down and lonely by things not working out for you. How can we figure this out together?”
  • “I don’t know. I would have to think about that. What do you think would be helpful?”
  • “Tell me more about what you are struggling with?”
  • “Where are you with this problem?”
  • “What led up to this problem?”
  • “What do you think would be a good solution?”
  • “Can you name two other possible solutions?”

Parents should also take steps to avoid over-functioning for their kids and prevent learned helplessness from gaining a foothold—or stop it in its tracks. Empoweringparents.com provides guidance on how to stop doing too much for your child by slowly incorporating changes into your routine: 

  • Do just one thing differently at first.
  • Play a different role than the typical one you’ve played.
  • Be responsible, but don’t rescue.
  • When your child comes to you with a problem, be a listener. Don’t jump in and fix things.
  • Take on the role of coach and teacher, not the doer.

Conclusion

Empowering our children enables them to build the life skills they need to problem solve and build their confidence. As parents, it’s our job to encourage them along this path, and help them to continue trying newer and harder things. Failure is an essential part of the learning process, and not something parents should attempt to avoid or compensate for. When failure occurs, focus on developing learned optimism to help offset the sting of failing and reduce anxiety and depression.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website

This is part one of our series on learned helplessness. You can read part two here and part three here.

Finding the right balance between helping your child and hindering their growth is a fine line that we always seem to be balancing as caregivers and educators. However, one thing we often don’t consider is that if we do too much for them we could be robbing them of learning necessary life or executive function skills. Oftentimes, if we allow them to struggle we feel guilt, frustration or even impatience. But if we over-function for our children, this prevents them from getting the essential practice that it takes to develop control over their outcomes and in their lives. Over time this can lead to what psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. You can read  all about learned helplessness (and strategies to overcome it at home and at school) in this three-part blog series!

Learned helplessness ‘exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events’ (Seligman, 1975).

Learned Helplessness Defined

In Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, Martin Seligman described learned helplessness as something that “exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events”

At home when you ask your child to do something, is their first response or attitude, “I can’t do it”? Do you find yourself cleaning up after them because it is easier than arguing? Children who have developed learned helplessness might ask you to put their coat on or tie their shoes even though they know how. They might not take responsibility for remembering their homework, but expect you to drop everything and bring it to the school. Michelle Smith Lank, of Kids World Learning Center in Georgia, cautions us that, “Parents are teaching children their ability to not get things done and robbing them of gaining the skills and practice necessary to develop self-competence. After enough time, children don’t realize their true ability and potential. They begin to lack the tools needed to accomplish the tasks we are asking them to do.”At school, learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness. For example, your student has a quiz on Friday so you offer to help them study the evening before. The first thing out of their mouth is, “I’m going to fail anyway, so why should I waste my time studying?” They feel defeated before they have even started. They do not see that any input on their part will change the outcome of their success. Another behavior is the waiting game. This is when you or the teacher is helping your student with their work and they stay silent until someone gives them the next step or the answer. Does your child wait for someone to point to a hint or give them the answer out of pity or impatience?

Learned helplessness can show up through lack of self-confidence, poor problem-solving skills, attention issues, and feelings of hopelessness.

 Characteristics of Learned Helplessness

Some characteristics of learned helplessness, as identified by numberworksnwords.com, are:        

  1. Low motivation to learn, and diminished aspirations to succeed in school.
  2. Low outcome expectations; that is, they believe that, no matter what they do in school, the outcome will always be negative (e.g. bad grades). In addition, they believe that they are powerless to prevent or overcome a negative outcome.
  3. Lack of perceived control over their own behavior and the environmental events; one’s own actions cannot lead to success.
  4. Lack of confidence in their skills and abilities (low self-efficacy expectations). These children believe that their school difficulties are caused by their own lack of ability and low intelligence, even when they have adequate ability and normal intelligence. They are convinced that they are unable to perform the required actions to achieve a positive outcome.
  5. They underestimate their performance when they do well in school, attributing success to luck or chance, e.g., “I was lucky that this test was easy.”
  6. They generalize from one failure situation or experience to other situations where control is possible. Because they expect failure all the time, regardless of their real skills and abilities, they underperform all the time.
  7. They focus on what they cannot do, rather than focusing on their strengths and skills.
  8. Because they feel incapable of implementing the necessary courses of action, they develop passivity and their school performance deteriorates.

Conclusion

It is never too late to develop skills to help educate and motivate our children to become the best versions of themselves that they can be—and improve ourselves in the process! In our next two blogs we will explore some of the strategies families can practice at home, and teachers can implement at school, to prevent and overcome learned helplessness.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website

Do you and your child struggle with similar executive functioning skills?

Author and learning coach Marydee Sklar humbly tells us that, “Executive functions generally improve over time as our brain ages. That said, not all brains achieve maximum EF over time. They are a very complex interconnected network of interacting neurons spread primarily across the front of our brain and deficits in these neural networks will vary from person to person.”  When she has a client come to her to discuss their frustrations with their child’s executive function (EF) challenges, she asks them to pause and reflect on their own struggles. 

Executive functions generally improve over time as our brain ages. That said, not all brains achieve maximum EF over time.

A Real Life Example as an Adult 

You need to get ready for work and get the kids off to school. You need to plan: what you are going to wear, what the kids are going to wear, what you’re all going to eat, what you need to bring with you for work, and ensure the kids have what they need for school. Make sure to prioritize your time and tasks—don’t get distracted by Facebook posts (or arguments), or caught up in other frustrations when you should be getting ready for your day. You need to manage your time by allowing yourself enough time to get showered, get dressed, pack everyone’s lunch, and drive the kids to school (and yourself to work). You need to organize everything you need for the day, especially since you’ll be headed out to dinner straight from work for your co-worker’s 40th birthday, and you won’t have time to come home if you forget something (like your co-worker’s birthday present). In order for you to remember this change in schedule in the first place, your working memory better be on point. Did you remember to confirm with your hubby or sitter?  After dropping the kids off at school on your way to work, there is an accident on your typical route, so you need to reroute yourself to get to work on time, for which you’ll need to engage your flexibility. Maybe someone cuts you off in the heavy traffic along your detour. You need to use your impulse control skills to ensure you don’t get arrested for endangering others (I joke…sorta). Once you get to work, you need to begin planning your work day and prioritizing your tasks, making sure to utilize those time management skills to adhere to that deadline that’s today! While at work, you realize what you’ve been working on isn’t turning out exactly like it should, so you utilize your self-monitoring skills to determine if a change is needed. Make sure you initiate those tasks that need to get started today in order to plan ahead those big projects that are coming up. Oh, and later, at a team meeting, you need your working memory up and running so you can remember the important points of the meeting and begin employing those in your work that afternoon. And just wait ’til that after-work birthday celebration—there will be lots of opportunities to employ some of those impulse control skills with no parenting responsibilities for the night!

Checking Yourself

As you read through the story above, think about all the areas you might struggle throughout a typical day such as that one. I remember trying to get my 3 sons out the door for school in the mornings wishing I would have made their lunches the night before, or planned what I was going to wear instead of staring blankly at the clothes in my closet. If only I had organized things the night before! I am also one of those people who tries to live in the moment, but I, then, cram as much as I can into a day so sometimes time management can be a struggle for me. As Marydee Sklar likes to say, “Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree!” I think about all the times my mom would be late or the fact that family gatherings never start on time because we are always waiting for one of my now adult son’s to arrive. Upon reflection this is a skill I wasn’t taught at home and it isn’t one I was able to teach my own children. However, with awareness as an adult I have been able to make a conscious decision to find tools and resources to support this area of my own EF struggles. Learning to utilize these tools when my son’s were younger would have helped me to support them, so maybe we wouldn’t be waiting around the table to eat for Sunday family dinners!

With awareness as an adult I have been able to make a conscious decision to find tools and resources to support this area of my own EF struggles.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website

Originally published on LinkedIn on January 11, 2022.

As highly effective vaccines rolled out across the U.S. in January of 2021, the year ahead was optimistically labeled as a “return to normal.” Several variants and surges later, the year was anything but normal.

While some schools did return to the classroom, many adopted a hybrid schedule. The stop-and-go nature of these Covid-19 surges created a disruptive whiplash for students, parents, and educators—preventing them from getting into a rhythm and hindering learning. Meanwhile, schools became the epicenter of political polarization on issues around masking and vaccination. 

Thankfully, the digital platforms and eLearning tools leveraged by educators and students were once again able to help salvage a disruptive academic year. We continued to see that eLearning, when used effectively, can sometimes lead to better results than in-person learning. One study found that, on average, students can retain 25% to 60% more information when learning online.

But we cannot rest on our laurels in 2022. There are still many challenges our society faces when it comes to education. Success for learners and educators in the new year hinges on whether schools and society can continue to capitalize on technology and evolve it to meet the new needs of learners as we emerge from the ongoing global pandemic—while improving conditions for educators.

Teachers on the Brink: What It Means for Schools, Students, and Society

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were many articles about the impact Covid-19 was having on teachers. Teachers were rightfully getting media attention about how much more difficult their job had gotten: they were now teaching in their homes and apartments, often tending to their own children who were now learning remotely—in addition to their students. Meanwhile, their students were dealing with an entirely unprecedented situation, making their job as educators exponentially more difficult. 

Unfortunately, the spotlight on the heroic efforts of our teachers has dimmed in 2022. But the problem has not: a National Education Association survey of 2,690 members, released in June 2021, found that 32 percent of educators said the pandemic led them to plan to leave the profession earlier than anticipated. The state of Florida alone saw 9,000 staff shortages in the past year, up 67 percent. Among teachers 55 and older (a cohort that includes some of the most experienced educators) 34% said they considered leaving or retiring because of COVID-19. And those who are not ready to retire may still view being unemployed as being more preferable than being a teacher given the current circumstances. 

The situation is as unmistakable as it is dire—schools will close due to a lack of teachers. At first this will be a day here or there. Then entire weeks or semesters may be cancelled. In fact, it is already happening: in Michigan, eight schools across the state either moved entirely online or even entirely cancelled classes or semesters due to staff shortages

“We just didn’t have the human resources to be able to test the kids, teach the kids, meet their needs,” reported Bob Cassiday, a superintendent at one of the impacted Michigan districts. 

A future where learning in person in a physical classroom environment—at least part of the time—is desirable for our learners for a number of reasons. But unless we do more to incentivize teachers to join or stay in the profession, some districts may never recover from what is being called “the Great Resignation.”

The Unbundling of Education

Due to the changes in our school system, parents—many of whom are working at home and have a front row seat to their kid’s education—have become more involved in the learning process. A range of parents have taken it upon themselves to offset some of the impact of the pandemic on their learners. 

As a result, innovative technology and eLearning solutions have risen up to meet the market demand. At Learnfully, we see it paralleling the unbundling of television and streaming services. Several decades ago, there were a few broadcasting stations that dictated what and when we consumed television programming. This gradually ‘unbundled,’ leading to on-demand services like Netflix, and eventually HBO Max, Hulu, Disney+, and the ecosystem we all know so well today. Consumers now have the power to decide when and what they watch.

Now we’re seeing a similar trend in education, one that is only accelerating in 2022. We’re moving away from a one-size-fits all education, and new offerings fill certain niches and specific learning needs. Content is available on-demand in many instances, allowing learners and their parents to self-drive their curriculum. This shift has also empowered educators, especially those with specific expertise that is untapped or underleveraged in their school environment. Now on their own schedule, they can instruct learners who need their services across the country—or even around the world—creating a win-win for the learner and educator alike. At Learnfully, providing this type of empowerment and educational access speaks precisely to our mission. 

Parents are getting more involved, often even taking control of their kids’ education. This increased involvement is leading to innovation in personalized learning. The result of this changing dynamic is a more consumer-friendly, widely accessible set of learning solutions—just like we now have with streaming services. 


2022: The Year of EF Awareness

Awareness of mental health issues has gained widespread attention as the pandemic has progressed. This has helped pave the way for greater public recognition and awareness of neurodiversity needs. With this greater focus comes a better understanding of the impact that things like social-emotional well-being, the differences in individual learning abilities, and preferred learning style has in academics. 

One of the most critical issues that has gained prominence for parents is Executive Functioning (EF). Due to the disruptions of routine, many parents and educators have seen students struggle during the pandemic to perform daily tasks related to EF—like time management, prioritization, organization, effective listening, emotional regulation, planning for future events, and more. 

This trend is expected to continue in the year ahead. Many schools are starting to include EF training, such as our EF Simulation, and coursework in their classrooms. Some states may take the step to implement mandatory Pre-K, which has been shown to help develop EF abilities. In addition, parents will continue to seek out solutions that can help their children overcome EF challenges (in and out of school settings). We’ve seen a notable increase in EF conversations and interest from both parents and educators. 


Conclusion

With our rapidly evolving educational environment—thanks to emerging technologies, a heightened awareness of neurodiversity, and the teacher crisis—we find ourselves forced to reevaluate our priorities. If anything good can be said about the pandemic, it is that we are rethinking everything: how we treat teachers, how we educate learners, and how we prioritize neurodiversity. And while there are many issues we must address, I’m hopeful that this revaluation period will lead to innovation and improvement in the year(s) ahead.