I struggled with math throughout my childhood, constantly felt inadequate compared to my peers, and cried in the corner of my classroom often. I wholeheartedly relate to learners who reach their threshold of learning frustration, particularly as it pertains to mathematical conceptualization and automaticity. It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math. Learners who face similar struggles as I did, often give up, signaling a need for personalized instruction and, quite possibly, a formal diagnosis of Dyscalculia. Here, I will provide insight into the diagnostic definition, overt and covert symptoms, and effective strategies to help learners find their way towards mathematical confidence and, ultimately, feelings of success.

What is Dyscalculia?

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected. So what exactly is Dyscalculia? According to understood.org, “Dyscalculia is a condition that makes it hard to do math and tasks that involve math. It’s not as well known or as understood as dyslexia. But some experts believe it’s just as common. That means an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people might have dyscalculia.”

It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math.

What are the symptoms?

As clearly stated on LDA America, “(Dyscalculia) Affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Individuals with this type of learning disability demonstrate impaired math calculation skills and difficulty understanding numbers and math facts. Dyscalculia is associated with weaknesses in fundamental number representation and processing, which results in difficulties with quantifying sets without counting, using nonverbal processes to complete simple numerical operations, and estimating relative magnitudes of sets. Because these math skills are necessary for higher-level math problem solving, quantitative reasoning is likely impaired for these individuals.”

Common symptoms of Dyscalculia include difficulties with:

  • Seeing how numbers fit together 
  • Counting
  • Calculating 
  • Recalling math facts, like 3 + 2 = 5
  • Using concepts like “less than” 
  • Using symbols like + and – 
  • Telling left from right 
  • Reading a clock 
  • Working with dollars and coins
  • Analyzing numerical data, graphs, charts

If you, as a caregiver and/or educator, would like to learn even more about the symptoms of dyscalculia, please visit either dyscalculia.org or childmind.org.

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected.

How can you support learners with Dyscalculia?

There are many studies substantiating the efficacy of multisensory, evidence-based practices in strengthening the underlying foundation and application of mathematical skills thereof. Curriculums such as Making Math Real, Touch Math, and Mathematical Mindset Some of these explicit strategies include, but are not limited to:

  • Manipulatives such as blocks, number lines, and other tools to visualize how to solve math problems 
  • Explicitly develop working memory, concept imagery, growth mindset and self-regulation skills to bolster processing foundation 
  • Advocate for extra time for tests and other tasks that involve math 
  • Allow access to technology like calculators and math apps to help make math easier to navigate
  • Play card, board and virtual learning games to develop problem-solving skills and a positive association to thinking mathematically
  • Incorporate mental math organically into daily conversations when you are having dinner, driving in the car, and so forth

Some learners are unresponsive to the above or make slower progress than one would anticipate. This lack of receptivity is the feedback that you need to reach out to your pediatrician and/or psychologist to explore the possibility of a Dyscalculia diagnosis as well as recommendations for placing them on the path towards their potential. 

There are many layers of processing, executive functioning, and problem-solving skills that equally contribute to and, thus, are involved in one’s ability to reach a level of mathematical independence. We must establish a strong framework for learners to stand upon before expecting them to lean into discomfort and then rise above adversity. It is imperative to keep in mind that math may never be easy for learners like me, but it certainly can become less daunting and more enjoyable with the right strategies and an open mindset in place.

Behind every parent with a child going through a school assessment is a story. It’s never a cut-and-dry process—never a simple request with an instant “assessment granted” response. There is always more that transpires along the path to getting a child evaluated.

The Story Behind the Assessment

I remember the first time someone told me something “wasn’t quite right” with my child. A preschool teacher pulled me aside at pick-up one day and mentioned some things she had noticed about my son. Loud noises bothered him. He was breaking crayons. He hugged the other kids too hard. These observations continued. Every night one of the teachers rattled off a laundry list of “offenses” for the day, causing anxiety for my son and me. I used to dread picking him up—it was stressful, and I wanted nothing more than to hug him and get him home where he could break as many crayons as he wanted to and not feel threatened.

I was offended and angry when a woman told me she thought my son could have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). How dare she suggest something abnormal about my kid. I confided in a couple of friends, sharing my commentary about the nerve she had to approach me as she did. However, my curiosity had been piqued. After a quick google search of SPD and an Amazon Prime Delivery Day later, The Out-of-Sync Child arrived at my home. We found ourselves at our first assessment for SPD soon after–our first school assessment didn’t come for a few more years.

I wanted nothing more than to hug him and get him home where he could break as many crayons as he wanted to and not feel threatened.

The Assessment

We had assessments for SPD, OT, and ADHD more than once before kindergarten. Watching my son go through an evaluation was always a bit unnerving. I often paced around. If available, I’d watch through the observation windows, wondering. I wondered how he was doing. I wondered if he was okay and  how he felt. I wondered if I’d done something wrong. It was agonizing.

The first school assessment he had was a long time coming. I had requested a complete evaluation for a year and a half, and by that time things had gotten pretty rough in the classroom. I remember reviewing a form that was passed to me, simply asking for a signature— seemingly to grant permission for the testing to start. I felt uneasy signing it and asked for a few days to consult with my advocate to go over all of the different areas of testing.

Every State has established its own policies, and many school districts within each State may also have different procedures.—LDA America

In addition to not fully understanding the different components of the assessment plan, I wasn’t present for any part of the testing that occurred in school. This was a blind spot I disliked. Other parents have said they felt the same way—one even stating they wished all sessions had been recorded. As parents and caregivers,we want to be included; the assessment process had many of us feeling the opposite.

Instinctively, we often head online to gather information, which can quell the need to know more. But it can also be confusing. For example, the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), an organization whose mission is to make learning disabilities universally understood, points out the evaluation process and requirements are not universal at all. Fortunately, LDA has links to each state’s local chapter, which can provide parents and caregivers with resources and support in their region.

Although each state’s procedures may be different, for the most part, the same areas are tested, like intelligence, academics, behavior etc. Below are the Seven Basic Areas for Assessment as found in the SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area—local to California) Assessment & Prior Written Notice.

  • Academic Achievement
  • Health
  • Intellectual Development 
  • Language/Speech Communication Development
  • Perceptual Motor Development
  • Social/Emotional
  • Adaptive/Behavior
  • Post-Secondary Transition

The Results

When I received the assessment results, I was confused. I didn’t understand how to put everything together. The pages seemed endless, and by that point my nerves were shot. The only thing I understood and was able to focus on were the words that said my son qualified for support and accommodations, which upon reading caused sadness, anger, relief, and joy to flood over me. I felt sad to know he’d been struggling more than I was aware of, and angry at the school for pushing my concerns aside for so long. I was relieved knowing I had been right about him requiring more support for his needs, which did not come packaged in a one-size-fits-all desk. And I was happy, so happy, knowing he would finally receive his education in a way that best served him. 


I started to go over the evaluation with my advocate, who acted as my translator, walking me through the verbiage, definitions, scores, and the different tests used (I later found The Arc Minnesota provides a comprehensive list of definitions). She prepared me for what to expect at the IEP the following day and what accommodations we did and didn’t want.

The Path Forward

Now, several years later, I am confronted with emotions anew—mainly fear and anxiety. My son is thriving, and it’s time for a triennial evaluation, but there’s a bit of a catch-22 involved with starting this complete re-assessment. What if he’s doing too well? I fret thinking about losing his current school placement. I wasn’t the only parent who felt this way either—I found myself in a support group joking with other parents about the desire for our children to have a meltdown—to show they still need their current level of support. 


Although I’m anxious waiting for the evaluation results, this time around, I feel more supported and confident that he will continue to learn in the way that best suits him. The past few years have helped me embrace my child’s learning differences. My child is different: he is unique and he thinks and learns differently, and that is worth celebrating. So as we wrap up our triennial evaluation, I bought a cake to do just that.

Conclusion

If you think your child may need an evaluation, (or are waiting on an assessment, and aren’t sure where to begin), I hope the links provided in this article can help you better understand the process, decode the paperwork, request an evaluation, and even direct you to support groups.

About the Author

Kendra Demler

Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.

What is a SPARK Learning Assessment?

Although it can be a scary and confusing process, getting your child evaluated for potential learning differences helps pave a path for their success. An assessment not only gives caregivers and educators a better understanding of the underlying processes that impact learners’ ability and potential, it also sheds light into learners’ strengths, and the actionable steps we can take to positively shift a child’s learning trajectory. Experts generally agree on the importance of assessments, when done correctly. According to understood.org, “Getting an evaluation is the best way to understand your child’s struggles, and how to help.” The value of a learning assessment, when combined with personalized learning recommendations and aligned with matched educational specialists, provides the greatest potential to improve learning outcomes for a child—that’s why we created the SPARK Learning Assessment.

SPARK helps bridge the gap and put learner on the path to their potential

The SPARK Learning Assessment is a whole-child evaluation that gives parents and caregivers insights into their child’s unique learning needs much faster than traditional clinical or classroom evaluations. Typically, while a family waits on a lengthy waitlist to see a psychologist for a full psychoeducational evaluation, a learner may fall further and further behind, experiencing negative results both in terms of academic achievement and feelings of self-worth. We felt it was imperative to create a comprehensive assessment, conducted with urgency, to avoid this dilemma. 

There are many benefits of the SPARK Learning Assessment, including: 

  • Provides a comprehensive learning overview for a child—in as little as two hours.
  • Establishes a cognitive baseline to help get your child on the path to their potential.
  • Gives you a detailed look at your child’s strengths and how they learn best.
  • Delineates differentiated recommendations for areas in need of attention and the impact of their learning in and out of the classroom. 
  • Matches a learner with a personalized instruction plan aligned to their unique strengths and weaknesses.
  • Serves as a tool to educate your child’s team in order to create clear communication amongst all.
Typically, while a family waits on a lengthy waitlist to see a psychologist for a full psychoeducational evaluation, a learner may fall further and further behind, experiencing negative results both in terms of academic achievement and feelings of self-worth.

It’s easy to get a SPARK Assessment set up for your learner. To help you know what to expect, I’ve listed what happens at each step, and given a bit of context as to why each is important to the overall assessment process. 

What is a SPARK Learning Assessment?

  1. Getting Started (with the Caregiver’s Help)
  2. Taking the SPARK Assessment
  3. Caregiver Consultation & Learner’s Instructional Plan
  4. Educational Specialist Matching: Connecting Learners to their Best-fit Specialist
  5. Ongoing Progress Monitoring

Getting Started (with the Caregiver’s Help)

Five dimensions of learning measured by SPARK

There are many types of tests used (and frankly, abused) in academics these days, so it may be helpful to take a momentary step back and start with a simple definition. The Edvocate lays out a basis for using assessments to “gather relevant information about student performance or progress, or to determine student interests to make judgments about their learning process.” This approach to assessments aligns with the Learnfully way of thinking: the goal of the SPARK Learning Assessment is to identify any gaps that exist between a child’s potential and their current performance, and recommend programming that has been proven to develop the right skills and strategies to close the gap. 

To do this, we first need some assistance from the parent or caregiver. We start with a quick phone call with the caregiver (which we call the “intake call”) wherein we gauge the areas impacting a learner’s ability to thrive in all of the various aspects of their learning. During the call, we ask specific questions to uncover a more fully-formed picture of a learner’s unique profile. This profile helps us personalize the evaluation to target a child’s challenge areas. 

After the call, we’ll share the Learnfully Caregiver Survey. We respect and appreciate the perspective of our caregivers, so we ask that they fill out a 10-15 minute survey prior to scheduling the SPARK Learning Assessment. Once submitted, we quickly follow up to schedule the assessment.

The goal of the SPARK Learning Assessment is to identify any gaps that exist between a child’s potential and their current performance, and recommend programming that has been proven to develop the right skills and strategies to close the gap.

Taking the SPARK Learning Assessment

The SPARK Learner Assessment typically takes two one-hour sessions to complete. So that our Assessment Specialists can provide the most accurate appraisal of a learner’s skillset, we schedule the evaluation using all available information provided by the caregivers (like their intake survey, reason for referral, learner’s energy levels, and scheduling needs). On the day(s) of the assessment a battery of measures will be conducted, reflecting the needs of the learner. 

There are five skill components measured as part of the SPARK Assessment:

Emotional & Behavioral: Helps determine any social-emotional factors that can inhibit the learning process, like body regulation, distractibility, endurance, and more.
Cognitive Skills: A baseline that measures a learner’s reasoning, processing, and problem-solving capacity. Those with learning differences and average-to-high IQs often have underdeveloped executive function profiles, resulting in underutilized cognitive abilities.
Executive Functioning Skills: Scores on a set of metacognitive skills used to control abilities and behaviors like attention, organization, planning, and working memory. Understanding a learner’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to help them consume and process information, facilitating their learning.
Literacy Skills: Measures a learner’s reading and writing skills at grade level. Skills areas tested include decoding, fluency, comprehension, automaticity, and more.
Math Skills: Measures a learner’s math skills at grade level, based on abilities in computation, problem solving, story problems, and conceptual understanding.

Caregiver Consultation & Learner’s Instructional Plan

SPARK Learning Assessment Report

Following the assessment, we host a consultation to defrief the results of the report. This is a critical part of the assessment, as it helps us provide transparency to caregivers and educators (as well as the learner themself). An Assessment Specialist will conduct this meeting within a few days following the final evaluation to walk through our findings, a learner’s strengths and challenges, and review individualized recommendations that will place them on the path to their full potential. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate and connect with a learner’s team (such as teachers, outside specialists, and others included in the learning process ) and review the report with them as well. Once a learner is enrolled in programming matched to their needs, we stay in close communication to discuss observations and progress. 

Research substantiates that established rapport and strong connectivity between a learner and their educator yields the highest level of results, thereby expediting progress.

Our report is broken into easy-to-follow sections, as follows: 

  • Summary
  • Tests Conducted
  • Learner Strengths
  • Learner Challenges
  • Learning Impact
  • Recommendations
  • Skills Targets
  • Results
  • Appendix

Educational Specialist Matching: Connecting Learners to their Best-Fit Specialist

Research substantiates that established rapport and strong connectivity between a learner and their educator yields the highest level of results, thereby expediting progress. This is the Specialist-matching part of our SPARK Learning Assessment that is so crucial. A child is matched to an Education Specialist based on several factors, like the Educational Specialist’s training, their certifications, and their personality characteristics (to achieve maximum learner engagement). We also take into account the learner’s interests and strengths to help bolster their attitude toward learning and furthering their own progress.

Ongoing Progress Monitoring

Continuously measuring, monitoring, and communicating a learner’s progress is embedded into everything we do, and this starts with the SPARK Assessment. Within the included report, we delineate the short- and long-term goals (micro-objectives and macro-objectives, respectively) for a learner’s instructional plan. Once we begin supporting services for a learner, we provide frequent session notes and monthly Progress Update meetings, both of which are written in accordance with the short- and long-term goals outlined in our various assessment methods. Additionally, our Assessment Specialists reassess a learner every 6-12 months, depending on the frequency and duration of a learner’s instructional sessions. 

In Close…

The SPARK Learning Assessment provides the perfect opportunity for caregivers, educators, and the learner themself to uncover what is blocking their path to potential. Rather than waiting months to see a psychologist, our SPARK Assessment can help save time, money, and invaluable learning time.

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

Learned helplessness affects neurotypicals, as well as neurodiverse learners in schools. Unfortunately students with learning disabilities may experience many more failures, which contribute to a never-ending cycle of learning struggles.  These difficulties are reinforced over an extended period of time, across a variety of tasks, assignments, school settings, teachers and experiences. These challenges often contribute to a student’s feeling of helplessness.

Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style.

What Does Learned Helplessness Look Like at School

“In school, learned helplessness relates to poor grades and underachievement, and to behaviour difficulties. Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style. Because of repeated academic failure, these students begin to doubt their own abilities, leading them to doubt that they can do anything to overcome their school difficulties. Consequently, they decrease their achievement efforts, particularly when faced with difficult materials, which leads to more school failure. This pattern of giving up when facing difficult tasks reinforces the child’s belief that he or she cannot overcome his or her academic difficulties.”

(numberworksnwords.com)

Classroom based practices may come from good intentions, however constant failure can lead unintentionally to learned helplessness. Ginna Guiang-Myers observes some of the ways learned helplessness could manifest in the school setting:

  • Refusal to accept help, even if the teacher repeatedly offers it
  • Frustration leading to easily giving up
  • Disengagement from effort
  • Lack of motivation
  • Diminished self-worth and self-efficacy (such as providing a myriad of reasons why solutions will not work)

Strategies to Overcome Learned Helplessness at School

  • Examine grading practices and offer rewrites, redos and retakes.
  • Normalize and celebrate failure.
  • Praise and encourage the effort, not the perceived intrinsic ability of the student.
  • Teach specific lessons on optimistic mindset.
  • Work with students to set bite-size goals, and celebrate in a big way when they achieve each goal.
  • Let students have some productive struggle time, do not over scaffold.
  • Define partner or group work so students don’t rely on others to do the work.
  • Teach learned optimism skills and strategies
Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style.

Another useful strategy is to use questioning to drive learning. Find ways to use open ended questions and avoid right and wrong answers. If a student makes a mistake you can ask them to explain how they arrived at their answer. Sometimes thinking it through exposes the error. You could also ask questions such as:

  • What else could you try doing?
  • Have you explored any other ideas or methods?
  • Why do you think that is?
  • What makes you think that is true?
  • Questioning is a powerful tool to keep students engaged in their own learning. 

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism created the ABC model. He believes overcoming Learned helplessness in school might be as simple as ABCDE…that’s the acronym for shifting one’s personal narrative. Part of our job as teachers is to help students become more optimistic and establish a positive identity as a learner.

Here’s a short overview of the steps:

Step 1: Have the student name the Adversity or challenge he’s facing.

Step 2: Have the student recognize his underlying Beliefs about the challenge.

Step 3: Have the student identify the Consequences resulting from his negative beliefs.

Step 4: Help the student Dispute or push back on his negative beliefs and gather evidence as to why they are wrong.Step 5: Energize. Help the student generate a positive and more useful alternative belief and help him get energized to act according to the new belief by creating a new “back story” to go with it.

Conclusion

Andrew Miller, reminds us that we need to take responsibility for empowering our students, and to scaffold the process of self-direction. Empowering and building grit in students will not happen overnight. However, there are many steps we can take as educators to avoid the structures and systems that encourage learned helplessness. If they have already fallen into some bad habits, we can also take students from where they are and support them with strategies to overcome the pitfalls of 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

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

The holiday season is upon us—which means many of us will spend time with our immediate and extended family, whether in person or virtually. For neurodivergent learners, the holidays can present challenges: sensory overload, feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed, social isolation…the list is practically endless. I sat down with Suchi Deshpande, Learnfully co-founder and a parent of two neurodivergent learners, in order to uncover all the ways we can embrace our learners’ needs during the holidays (and frankly, all year long). In this timely discussion, we went over many of the common misconceptions family members have regarding neurodiversity, and the impact these misunderstandings have on learners. We strategized about ways that we (as parents) and our loved ones can advocate for better awareness and acceptance for our neurodivergent children to allow them to become their authentic selves. 

Here are some of the notable misconceptions (along with their more reality-based counterparts) that we discussed and felt were important to pass on to our community:

Misconception
Reality
When a family member expresses incredulity at a child’s diagnosis, e.g.“Matthew doesn’t act like he has ADHD.”” We know diagnoses are often invisible, and stereotypes are superficial. Assume your family member has the best intentions, and acknowledge them for making an effort even if their observations are incorrect or don’t tell the full story.
When a family member assumes a caregiver does not want to be asked how they are doing, e.g. “I’m sure you’re tired of being asked about Lexi’s dyslexia diagnosis.” It’s important to understand the human side of caregivers as well as their learners. We want to be heard and seen and feel supported. While we aren’t looking for sympathy or offhand solutions, it’s important to consider (and nice to know) that family members genuinely care and want the best for our children.
When a family member thinks every diagnosis falls into a cliche or stereotype, e.g. “Since Adam has autism, he’s super smart, right? Like the Rain Man?” As caregivers we know not to assume or draw conclusions based on a societal impression of a learning difference. It’s important to impart this understanding to well-meaning family members, and help guide them to ask the right questions to learn more about a child.
When a family member misinterprets a diagnosis as the result of poor parenting, e.g. “Sara needs discipline—she’s just being naughty and acting out because she wants attention.” We know that neurodivergent learners are processing what is often an overwhelming amount of sensory information and trying to cope the only way they know how. Emotional and behavioral regulation come with effort and practice, and family members need to understand that it takes many small steps to meet these big goals.
When a family member incorrectly believes learning differences are related to IQ, e.g. “Jonah seems really smart, why doesn’t he perform well in school?”. IQ has no correlation with the natural brain variations that result in learning differences. Parents and caregivers of neurodivergent kids know that they are sufficiently intelligent individuals, and that it takes repetition and consistency to build the underlying skills to help these learners succeed.

Caregivers of neurodivergent learners ultimately want what is best for their children, and it can sometimes feel like a tightrope act to balance this with the natural desire of their family to feel included. By leaning into this discomfort and airing potential misunderstandings with your family, you’ll set a course for them to embark in an honest discussion and orient them to better embrace your child for who they are. You’ll also be doing your part to debunk the many common misconceptions about neurodiversity and help our community evolve into a warmer and more welcoming support system. Try to release your preconceived notions. Instead, listen attentively to your family’s concerns and seek to understand their actions.  Do your best to afford every family member the level of involvement and understanding they need to accept your child and feel accepted themselves.

One of the most commonly unnoticed and, thus, undiagnosed diagnoses is Dysgraphia, a diagnosis involving the impairment (physically and cognitively) with written expression. Here we explore the definition of this diagnosis, the symptoms one can look out for, and how it is treated. 

So what exactly is Dysgraphia? 

A recent study conducted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information stated the prevalence of dysgraphia is, “between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing.”  According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Dysgraphia is a learning disability which involves impaired ability to produce legible and automatic letter writing and often numeral writing, the latter of which may interfere with math. Dysgraphia is rooted in difficulty with storing and automatically retrieving letters and numerals.” Like several other learning differences, dysgraphia can stand alone or can go hand in hand with one or more learning disabilities. Common morbidity presents itself in learners who are diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and executive dysfunction, just to name a few. 

What symptoms are paired with Dysgraphia? 

One of the first signs that a learner is struggling with writing is noticeable in their actions. They might refuse to write their name on a worksheet, crumple their papers up or even avoid writing tasks by creating excuses (frequent bathroom breaks, anyone?) In essence, learners with dysgraphia have unclear, irregular, or inconsistent handwriting, often with different slants, shapes, a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as a combination of cursive and print styles. They also tend to write or copy things slowly.

Caregivers or educators may notice symptoms when a child first begins writing assignments in school. Some key signs of dysgraphia to watch for include:

  • Cramped or improper grip, which may lead to a sore hand/fingers
  • Difficulty spacing things out on paper or within margins (poor spatial planning)
  • Varying shades of writing (i.e. darker letters or small tears in their paper due to tight grips/force when writing)
  • Frequent erasing and/or scratching out
  • Difficulty organizing their written work 
  • Inconsistency in letter and word formation and spacing
  • Poor spelling, including unfinished words or missing words or letters
  • Unusual wrist, body, or paper position while writing

What methods are used to treat Dysgraphia? 

“Writing is a skill, not a talent, and this difference is very important because a skill can be improved by practice.”

Robert Stacy McCain, American Journalist 

Oftentimes, a combination of personalized Occupational Therapy and Educational Therapy strategies are needed for learners to strengthen the underlying cognitive and motor skills that correlate closely to writing with independence. Occupational Therapists, for example, can address the fine and gross motor skills that are responsible for serving as a foundation for formation, spacing and endurance, while Educational Therapists can provide systematic support to the organization, planning, thought process and the like that goes into fluent written expression. In all honesty, writing and the layers of complexity that it involves may never be easy for dysgraphic learners, but, with the guidance and help of certain specialists, learners can apply differentiated techniques that work best for them so that they are not limited by their challenges. 

Understood has created a fantastic list of methods one can use in order to develop dysgraphic learners’ writing skills as well in their blog, 8 Expert Tips on Helping Your Child with Dysgraphia. Assistive technology is also one of the most widely accepted accommodations for learners who struggle with the symptoms of dysgraphia. Potential solutions include, but are not limited to: 

  • Utilize pencil grips and hand strengthening toys (such as stress balls) to encourage a healthy, proper grip. 
  • Provide extra time to take notes and copy material. 
  • Give the learner access to peer or teacher notes to remove the variable of notetaking altogether. 
  • Allow the learner to use an audio recorder or a laptop in class. 
  • Provide paper with larger spaced, different-colored or raised lines to help form letters in the right space. 
  • Allow the use of graph paper (or lined paper to be used sideways) to help line up math problems.
  • Encourage learners to type and utilize keyboarding when possible/appropriate. 

It is better to catch writing challenges early in order to alleviate unnecessary struggles.  If you notice your learner struggling with any of the aspects within the writing process, please do not hesitate to reach out to your support ecosystem (educators, Learnfully Specialists, OTs, other caregivers, etc.) because they very well could qualify for a dysgraphia diagnosis or at least get access to techniques that will make their writing lives easier. Silencing one’s voice by not allowing them to communicate in written form can be detrimental to their self-esteem and their ability to express themselves in general. So, please join our mission to empower neurodiversity and seek support if your learner is facing written expression hardships. 

As an Educational Specialist myself, I have always prided myself on maximizing learner engagement and, thus, expediting progress through positive reinforcement and the fun-factor. If learners feel seen, heard and understood, they are more likely to lean into discomfort and to challenge themselves towards success. Motivators such as positive praise and token-based systems can ignite a profound drive in learners. As a result of this, Learnfully developed a research-based reward system, Success Sparks, that are used as a driving force throughout instructional sessions. We reward effort and not accuracy for it is effort that cascades change in performance and underlying ability. Let’s explore why and how Success Sparks work to develop, strengthen and apply our learner’s skills to guide them towards realizing, then reaching their full potential.

Start with Why

Token Reward Systems have been used for centuries to encourage and shape desired behaviors because they enhance intrinsic motivation so that individuals can conjure up the strength they need to face adversity and overcome learning obstacles. Research with individuals in classroom settings using token economies has been firmly established the efficacy of token reinforcement in altering a wide range of responses (Kazdin, 1977). In a study conducted by Gonzaga, educators utilized a token reward system with preschool, elementary, middle, and high school learners experiencing behavioral challenges and found great success.   The majority of individuals respond positively to rewards. For those who do not, we differentiate our use of positive reinforcement accordingly. 

How it Works

Here’s how our Educational Specialists use the Success Sparks System:

  • Break the session down into smaller chunks of time. Waiting an entire instructional session to earn a Success Spark can seem like too big of a goal and many learners will lose interest therefore impacting the efficacy of the system.
  • Choose up to three behaviors to address at one time, rewarding effort over accuracy. We select a behavior that your child is already doing well, one behavior that needs a little improvement, and one challenging behavior to allow learners to see and feel success one step at a time. 
  • Create an appealing reward menu or game board with a variety of learning tasks. Our Educational Specialists set an agenda at the start of each session to maintain clear goals, then offer rewards worth a variety of Success Sparks to keep it exciting.
  • Frame the desired behaviors in a positive way. Instead of saying, “Don’t sound the word out aloud,” we create a goal like, “Say the word in a burst.” Using positive reinforcement, state which behavior we want to see so we can reward the good behavior with a Success Spark.
  • Place a Success Spark on their chart as soon as they earn one. We offer immediate acknowledgement for good behavior by giving our learners a Success Spark for meeting his goals. 

Small Steps to Big Goals

Studies have proven the efficacy of successive approximations or baby steps towards a larger goal – one step at a time, in other words. Once a learner earns a set number of Success Sparks (small steps), our Educational Specialists reward them with a handwritten note and a Spark Award in the form of ribbons (big goals). Many of our learners, then, hang the ribbons on their wall to serve as a constant reminder of the hard work and dedication they put into our sessions. As their efforts unfold, their collection of ribbons grows. This form of delayed gratification can be difficult to employ as a motivating force which is why the ​​Success Sparks are in place for immediate inspiration towards the larger goal.  

Learnfully’s Educational Specialists are experts in positive reinforcement and are loyal to personalizing their approach to meet each and every learner’s needs. The use of a structured, reliable system such as Success Sparks dramatically improves learner engagement and grit so that they can achieve their goals and feel confident while doing so. Spark Success in your child by enrolling in one of our many programs, your learner will assuredly find joy in the learning process as a result.