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.”


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.


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 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, 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. 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.


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, 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.


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

As a mother of four children, three of whom are school-aged, I can empathize with the roller coaster of emotions that caregivers and educators are feeling at this time of year. Not only are we faced with the whirlwind that is back-to-school season, but we are still in the peak of a pandemic, which continues to create quite a bit of anxiety in society as a whole. I am torn–on one hand, I am overjoyed that our kids are returning to school in person with their peers after 18 months of distance learning. On the other hand, however, I am terrified for several reasons. I am sure that we are all facing this to some degree. Will our children feel safe? Will our children have the tools that they need to re-engage with their peers? Will learners be able to focus in a classroom while thinking about protocols and risks? Well, we can only control what we can control, so here I will discuss how my family is processing all of these variables in the hope you will find some reprieve in your own journey. 


Our kids need structure and routine in their lives, as most kids do. As parents, we are able to perform at our best when we follow a schedule ourselves. To achieve this level of stability, we have created a routine in our family that helps our children feel secure. They know what to expect and when to expect it so they have one less thing to worry about. The timing of their daily activities does not cause them stress or angst. In fact, it creates the direct opposite. Our schedule remains relatively the same every day. From the time that they wake up to the space where they complete their homework, each of our kiddos can breathe a little easier throughout the day. We have learned to create a visual schedule at the start of the school year and a checklist of sorts for their morning/night routine so that they also feel a sense of independence each day. This boost of confidence launches each of our children into feelings of success so that they can approach the day with a layer of bravado and confidence. 


As challenging as it is, the importance of modeling positivity, growth mindsets and finding joy are, without a doubt, at the top of our priority list as parents. Children need to feel validated when they experience emotions, no doubt, and they need to see people who they trust counteract those big feelings with optimism. One day, their internal voice will replay the scene or conversation that you had with them when they felt this same way in the past. “What did Mama do when she felt disappointed?” “Mama always says that I am strong enough to handle this.” Whatever the situation, modeling your emotions and sparking a conversation during an organic moment (at the dinner table, while playing a family game, driving in the car, etc.) helps children feel like they are not alone and that what they are facing is expected, thus, relieving any unnecessary stress from the adversity itself (it is stressful enough, right?). 


Oof, this one is probably the most difficult of them all. Striking a level of balance between work and play, serious and lighthearted, excitement and calmness take quite a bit of reflection and time. My partner and I have had many conversations about this element of our family (and personal) life. We want our children to grow up with appropriate expectations of themselves, to live life to the fullest, and to work towards their goals wholeheartedly. As caregivers and educators, we are the first ones to let go of our self-care because the nature of our roles in life are selfless. Without balance in our own lives, it is nearly impossible to establish balance in our children’s lives. Even if you only have ten minutes a day to yourself, you are then better equipped to handle challenges as they come your way and you are better able to model balance and positivity now when our children need it the most. 

Yes, our children deserve an education and yes, our children need socialization. In order for them to maximize the time that they have in the classroom this year, they also deserve and need structure, tools, validation, and balance. This is your calling, your chance to reframe this back-to-school season as an opportunity to set your learners on the path to victory by providing these layers of support at home and beyond. 

And they’re off! Most of our children have returned to the classroom after much anticipation and are now faced with socializing with (some new, some familiar) peers without much practice for the past 12 to 18 months. We thought it only right to provide you, caregivers and educators, with some quick tips and reminders as to how to reshape social skills, collaborative play, and social problem-solving in your learners after a potential hiatus!

Review: Social Emotional Learning

First, let’s review the five key SEL components of social-emotional learning that the majority of educational environments do a brilliant job of addressing all school year long. 

Self Awareness–to consider your own thoughts and emotions, and understand how they impact others.

Self Management–the ability to regulate and control your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Responsible Decision Making–to consider consequences, know capabilities and seek help as needed.

Relationship Skills–ability to make positive connections and sustain healthy relationships.

Social Awareness–ability to empathize, take perspective, understand the impact on others and act accordingly.

Even before the pandemic, SEL was a major focal point in classrooms nationwide. Learners require repetition and constant review, especially at the beginning of the school year, so it makes sense to start here, lay the foundation. Then, tap into the next resources as mediums to develop each of these skills in your learners. 

Books as Activators

Stories and narratives are the perfect tools for modeling social norms as they are not only engaging, dynamic, and colorful, but they also take the pressure off of learners. This way, you can spark a discussion through these ideal conversation starters that, then, leads learners to reflect and to make connections. For learners who need more explicit, direct modeling in socialization, Carol Gray’s Social Stories are phenomenal tools for accomplishing this goal! By definition,  “Social Stories are a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages.” Gray has created such brilliant, simplistic stories for learners (not solely for those on the Autism Spectrum) who benefit from step-by-step directions as to how to initiate conversation, ask for help, and so forth. Our learners who are feeling overwhelmed with socializing now or at any point, have books to guide them through these challenging situations. 

Role Playing 

Incorporating movement and acting adds an element of fun that some learners are more likely to retain and hold onto, so why not act it out? PBS Conflict Resolution includes a few engaging methods for role-playing a variety of social obstacles. Modeling a diversity of scenarios and responsible solutions to each problem will help children feel more equipped to handle obstacles on their own in the future. When learners, then, encounter a similar scenario that they have already acted out, they will be able to tap into their memory as a resource and feel more comfortable and, thus, confident to embrace the challenge as an opportunity to grow. When in doubt, we can always teach our kids to ask for help. Role-playing when, why, and how to seek support is of great benefit!

Play Dates are Back!

What is a playdate? Some of us are asking just that, it has been so long since some of our children have enjoyed time with their friends outside of school or while being socially distanced. Taking the proper safety precautions is still necessary, of course, but hosting playdates in a secure way allows you to facilitate and model social problem solving and collaboration. Be prepared for your children to feel a bit lost and unsure as to what to do since they have been without this level of social stimulation for quite some time. Inspire creativity, ignite imagination, orchestrate games – providing several options for engagement can ease kids into play and relieve some of the stress that they might feel having to generate ideas on their own. Check out USA Today’s article, “6 ways to create fun, healthy playdates for kids during the pandemic” for more guidance.

At the end of the day, children learn a lot about themselves through play and social interaction. As trusted adults in their lives, it is our responsibility to support them socially and by allowing them access to tools such as books, role-playing activities, and fun-filled playdates, we are setting them up for success socially and emotionally!

With the first day of school approaching, parents and guardians are scrambling to get school supplies, working to reinstate routines, and trying to prepare their children to rejoin a physical classroom for the first time in months or longer. For many students—particularly students who think and learn differently—the excitement of a new school year is often paired with worry or fear. Those internal worries can manifest behavioral changes or physical discomforts, and leave parents unsure about how to help in a way that makes their child feel supported while building the coping skills they need to face the unknowns of a new school year. 

At Learnfully, our specialists help learners and their community develop plans with this exact goal in mind: strengthen the skills they need to independently take on challenges while providing a supportive ecosystem that meets the needs of the whole child. Here are some ways that you can develop similar plans to build confidence and reduce anxiety as they transition back to school.   

The Pandemic & Back-to-School Anxiety

Neither children nor adults need a formal diagnosis of anxiety to experience symptoms, although “39% of teenage learners (13-18) are diagnosed with one of the following: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Phobias, Panic, Social Anxiety” according to Mental Health America, and across all age ranges, anxiety has significantly increased over the past 18 months. Massive schedule changes, new instructional methods, lack of exposure to social settings, and varying expectations have all contributed to spikes in school-related anxiety. Understanding the different types of anxiety then developing healthy habits when addressing symptoms is crucial to helping your child navigate fears.


So, how do I know if my child is feeling anxious about the upcoming school year?

Transition periods often produce normative behaviors we’re used to seeing, such as butterflies in the stomach, restlessness, and even sleep disturbances. Your emerging first-grader may have an increase in clinginess or your high schooler may become restless. These are nervous behaviors that we’ve all experienced at some point, and when experienced in reasonable amounts, stress can be helpful to a child’s ability to develop coping skills and build confidence.

When these behaviors become consistent or start limiting a child’s ability to complete tasks or attend school, it can develop into an anxiety disorder. And for students who are neurodiverse or have specific learning disorders, the risk of experiencing back-to-school anxiety is even higher. If you feel your child is experiencing continued physical or emotional symptoms of anxiety, it is important that you consult a pediatrician or mental health professional that can best advise with next steps.

Top Tips for Parents and Guardians:

1. Actively listen and validate feelings. If your child expresses worry, actively listen instead of using a common dismissal response. Saying “There’s nothing to worry about” puts them in conflict with what their body is telling them. This can make them question themselves instead of questioning the anxiety as a separate entity. It can also lead to children trying to ignore feelings or dismiss warning signs that arise in the future.

Instead, offer them a safe-space to share with you what they’re feeling and remind them of the positives that come with school. Saying something like, “I understand why you’re nervous. You’ve been home for a while and being away from us can feel scary. But there are also exciting things at school, too, like…” This reminds them that they can feel more than one emotion at the same time, which validates the feelings but challenges the anxiety.

2. Help them mentally separate from the anxiety. Sarah Levine, a marriage and family therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders among other special interests, shared in our most recent webinar that helping a child better understand anxiety disorder starts with a shift in perspective. Remind them that the anxiety is separate from them. They are not the problem that needs to be addressed, the anxiety is the problem. This reminder can help children challenge their anxiety without feeling like they are challenging who they are.  

3. Develop a routine before school starts. The routines of summer break differ from the procedural timelines of school days. Starting a routine for meals, sleep, media consumption, and other responsibilities even a week or two early can give your child a sense of mental calm, and, in turn, ease the stress of transitioning back to school.  

4. Let them struggle. As parents or educators, we want to help a child experiencing anxiety by relieving the feelings of nervousness they are having. Sometimes, we over-control a situation or try to rescue them from the problem. Dr. Anne Marie Albano, the Director at Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, explains that the “undoing of anxiety is letting them struggle.” Anxiety craves avoidance and refusal, a quick way out of the fear-causing situation. By letting your child work through the problem instead of solving it for them, and praising them along the way, you are strengthening their coping skills. We need to be their coaches, guiding and providing support, but once we start over-controlling a situation, it can backfire.

5. Expose them to what is feared, then practice. If letting them struggle begins to undo anxiety, practicing that same struggle with repetitive exposure is anxiety’s Achilles’ heel. Exposure trains the mind that the situation does not always require a fight-or-flight response and increases their confidence to confront not only the situation, but the thoughts telling them there is something to continuously fear.

If as parents or educators we let the child avoid these situations, we are solidifying the idea that there is something to fear. Practice navigating the hallways of a new school a few days before or even simulate the first conversation with a new teacher. This can make the task seem less scary and more manageable to learners.

6. Normalize talking about anxiety. Be open with your own personal anxieties, and share how you have worked through them. It’s healthy to share personal success stories as well as times when you didn’t respond the way you would have liked to. What were the results of both? What can be learned from what you did or didn’t do? Sometimes sharing mistakes and how you navigated them afterward can be just as powerful as sharing positive experiences with anxiety.

7. However, avoid projecting your own anxieties onto them. It’s not just our children who are struggling with anxiety; parents are experiencing it, too. We worry about whether or not they will make friends, or if they can handle the increased workload in high school. If we project these worries onto them, worries they are most likely contemplating themselves, we are reinforcing that fear. Instead of asking “Are you nervous about being able to handle how much work you’ll have in Algebra?” ask, “What are you looking forward to this year?” Instead of “Did you make any friends today?” consider, “What’s one positive thing that happened at school today?”

8. Share and collaborate with your child’s learning team. From an educator’s perspective, sharing information with their teacher (to the extent that you are comfortable) can be extremely helpful, not only for them to recognize the signs of anxiety quickly, but to proactively develop a plan for intervention and support. It strengthens the success of coping and problem-solving skills to be generalized within their ecosystem of support, both inside and outside of the classroom. Don’t worry that you are bothering the teacher; I want to know what works and what doesn’t, because it is the best way to ensure generalized success.  

As an educator, coach, and parent to neurodiverse kids, the most effective form of teaching personal skills has been modeling. One of my favorite quotes from James Baldwin says, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Children absorb our energy, and according to the Child Mind Institute, “Anxious parents send anxious kids to school.” Being able to model a sense of calm or demonstrate positive problem-solving skills in authentic situations will naturally teach your child to do the same. We can talk about expected behaviors, but until they see that we can do it too, it is hard for children to emulate it. Practicing deep breathing techniques when anxieties arise in us or self-correcting after we’ve responded negatively are strong ways to reinforce those positive coping skills.  

Alisha Waldrop is a life-long learner who has worked in education for ten years serving as a classroom teacher, educational leader, literacy coach, advocate, design strategist, and curriculum developer. She graduated from Queens University of Charlotte with a BA in English Literature and Education as well as an MFA in Creative Writing. She now lives in Charleston, South Carolina where she loves playing sports, writing poetry, and spending time with her family.

Join us for the third annual SEL Day coming up on March 11, 2022!  SEL Day promotes Social-Emotional Learning, a proven method for teaching kids the emotional life skills that every parent wants for their children to excel in school, work, relationships, and life. Find out more about how you can participate here!

As schools look to return fully in person next year there will be many uncertainties educators will face. While, there are hundreds of questions going through the minds of teachers, there are even more going through the minds of parents as they have had to navigate the ill prepared education system over the last 14 months.  There are numerous resources to measure and prescribe curriculum to meet the academic needs of students as they return to the classroom. However, the social and emotional requirements of students have changed while the resources and training necessary have not caught up to the needs of our families, teachers and students. As parents advocate for their students, it is imperative that they have awareness of the social emotional and Executive Functioning needs of their students.  Creating informed relationships and partnerships with the educators, tutors, counselors and any other support your child is fortunate to have in their family will ensure a happy, healthy student with a bright future.

How did you become interested in/passionate about SEL growth? 

My favorite Maya Angelou quote has always been: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Reading this quote as a teacher stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink everything I was doing in my classroom.  As an educator in an inner-city school, I felt the pressure to ensure my students were achieving at academic levels of their uptown peers.  I didn’t want them to continue in the cycle of poverty they had come from, so I felt a personal responsibility for their future.  However, after years of district prescribed, skills-based teaching and testing, I knew there was something missing.  No one had ever asked these students what they wanted, what they needed and what they thought.  This was my first step into the realization that relationships are as important (if not more) than the lessons in any text book.  This was where my passion for social emotional learning (SEL) began.

As a parent of three sons who struggled with learning disabilities, I knew the emotional hardships learning could take on a student and their family. Schools would focus on their reading and math skills, which often left them feeling disconnected and defeated.  I knew that they learned differently and struggled constantly, but my greatest concern was that they were also not learning skills on how to be successful in life.  Although the boys were well behaved, teachers were always frustrated and impatient with them because teaching them was so difficult.  One by one they lost confidence in themselves and began to show signs of struggle in their social emotional skills and overall mental health.

What is Social-Emotional Learning and why is it important? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning (SEL) as, “The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”  They remind us that SEL is an integral part of education and human development. These systems of emotional intelligence help us navigate our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship building skills, which lead us to responsible decision making.

How do learners present when they are facing SEL challenges?

Students who struggle with gaps in their SEL might be: insensitive to other’s feelings, judgmental of others, have a hard time accepting criticism, argumentative, blame others, have emotional outbursts, exhibit bullying behavior, struggle making friends, overreact, have poor coping skills, or feel the need to always be right.

What role does Executive Functioning play in SEL? 

Along with their learning difficulties came large gaps in their Executive Functioning (EF) skills.  These are areas of learning such as adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, which help us to navigate the world as we focus our attention, remember instructions, multitask, set and achieve goals and control impulses.  The EF skills combined with SEL, support student success because when students have self-awareness and self-management skills they have stronger social awareness which leads to successful relationship building.

With a lack of EF skills and/or low social emotional skills there are many issues that could arise, such as socially inappropriate behavior, trouble controlling emotions or impulses, easily distracted or hard time paying attention.

For my own sons they withdrew, struggled with attention, became depressed and one even ended up with school-based anxiety.  Although this is a worse case scenario, when the needs of students SEL and EF are not met, this can become the outcome.  This is why in my own classroom, with the school I led as a principal and in my own home I have become an advocate for programs that support the whole child.

What programs or curriculum have you utilized to address said struggles?  

Many schools, including the ones I have worked in have successfully used curriculum, training and ongoing professional development from Second Step, Soul Shoppe and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  I have found these to be powerful tools if they are used and monitored to fidelity. The schools that educate parents, teachers, school staff and students find the most success with these programs.  The entire culture of a school can be positively changed with a commitment to social emotional learning as families, teachers and students feel safer and are happier. These types of programs bring awareness to struggling students and provide resources to teachers, families and students, so that stories like my sons’ don’t have to happen to others.

Using what I had learned about SEL and EF I was able to help my boys become successful young men who are passionate in their careers, thrive emotionally, and build healthy relationships.  They went from students who lacked confidence and deemed themselves as, “dumb,” to adults who run their own business, manage others and are compassionate beyond their years.

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

“When we can imagine someone else’s experiences or feelings as different than our own, and understand that they are no less important- we learn to sympathize and empathize.”

-Michelle Garcia Winner

In this month’s Educator Spotlight, we celebrate and honor Michelle Garcia Winner as she has brought so much joy and empathy into our lives as educators, learners, parents and the like. The Social Thinking® and ZONES of Regulation® practices are top tier, our learners’ lives would certainly not be the same without the programs that she has created to improve their lives in the short and long term. According to, “Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP specializes in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges and is the founder and CEO of Social Thinking®, a company dedicated to helping individuals from four through adulthood develop their social competencies to meet their personal social goals.” Winner has made strides in building several social-emotional learning curriculums and, thus, drastically impacting learners’ lives for good. Here, we will provide an overview for the core methodologies Winner and her team have developed to give insight into the efficacy and need for social thinking strategies in and out of the classroom.

Zones of Regulation

ZOR®  is a cognitive-based, self-regulatory framework for students with challenges in sensory processing and integration. Through building self-awareness of the student’s internal state, this methodology helps them better navigate social situations and foster better relationships by breaking down complex social norms into smaller, more understandable parts.  Using the latest research, Zones encourages students to utilize a variety of tools and strategies that explore mindfulness, movement, sensory integration, wellness and more to create a systematic approach to teaching skills in executive functioning, social-emotional learning, perspective taking, social problem solving and self-regulation. A byproduct of the Zones approach is better school and work performance while continuing to honor the student as a unique individual with talents of their own.  

You are a Social Detective®

You are a Social Detective®  is an illustrated and engaging curriculum written to support teachers and parents in their efforts to help learners (with and without diagnoses) experience social cues and learn how to take perspective while doing so. As an ideal introduction to social thinking, You are a Social Detective® empowers elementary-aged children (and beyond) to discover dynamic tools to explore relatable vocabulary that allows them to apply their understanding in a streamlined fashion. The program is available in both book and app form, so its versatility allows the audience to access its invaluable resources from wherever they are needed!


In conjunction with other materials, Superflex®  has proven to be one of the most entertaining methods to teach learners social awareness and self-regulation. According to her website, “Superflex® provides a fun forum in which they can explore their challenges and identify ways to modify their thoughts and behavior in different settings. Depicting behaviors as cartoon characters (a.k.a. the Unthinkables) helps students learn about their own behavior in a non-threatening way.” 

There is no denying the immense impact Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum on learners near and far.  The diversity of resources for learners of all ages and needs is impressive to say the least. As an organization of parents and educators, we are so very grateful for her ongoing development and research. 

For more information, please visit or view Winner’s overview of Social Thinking here!

Carol Dweck

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence. This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most.”

In 1988, Dr. Dweck first presented a profound research-based model, A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality,” to show the impact of mindsets. She showed how a person’s mindset sets the stage for performance and learning goals. A learner with a performance goal might avoid perceived challenges because he/she is worried about looking smart all of the time. In contrast, a student with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.In 1988, Dr. Dweck first presented a profound research-based model, A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality,” to show the impact of mindsets. She showed how a person’s mindset sets the stage for performance and learning goals. A learner with a performance goal might avoid perceived challenges because he/she is worried about looking smart all of the time. In contrast, a student with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.

In Mindset, Dr. Dweck further explains that “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” According to her research, a growth mindset is what motivates you to put in that effort. It’s what makes you dig deep to get through the difficulties of learning something new. When you believe you’re capable of growing and overcoming obstacles—and that the process can make you smarter, stronger, or better—you feel a lot more motivation to put in the hours of difficult work that will actually get you there.


You’re striving for something that you know you can achieve, so you’re at peace with the struggle, but when you’re stuck in a fixed mindset, you’re exactly that: stuck. This model of the fixed vs. growth mindset shows how cognitive, affective, and behavioral features are linked to one’s beliefs about the malleability of their intelligence.

Key Steps to Teaching Growth Mindset

  1. Model it yourself! Learners follow their parents’ and educators’ lead, so by showing examples of yourself having a growth mindset (or working your way out of a fixed mindset), it will help children feel safe and empowered to do the same.
  2. Utilize imagery and analogies to make it relatable. Helping learners “see” how growth mindsets can shape outcomes will increase connectivity and confidence.
  3. Help learners discover the significance of mistakes as a key part of their learning journey. Failures are stepping stones to success, without them, learners can never truly reach their full potential.
  4. Reinforce that change takes time just like learning how to read or walk. Oftentimes, change needs constant repetition before it becomes automatic. It is helpful to stress the importance of flexibility and grace while children are learning how to apply Dweck’s theory.
Growth Fixed Mindset
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

Dr. Dweck’s studies continue to find that people’s perceptions about their own intelligence have a significant impact on their motivation, effort and willingness to challenge themselves. Those who believe their abilities are changeable are more likely to embrace challenges and persist despite failure. Ultimately, if you can’t grow, if you can’t learn, if you can’t change, why would you bother trying? You don’t think you can do it, and failure would just confirm it. Helping learners see failure as a valuable part of the learning process, are more likely to take risks and achieve success by doing so. To learn more about Stanford University’s Dr. Carol Dweck’s invaluable work, feel free to watch her world renown TED talk, “The power of believing you can improve,” review Education Week’s article, “Carol Dweck on Nurturing Students’ Growth Mindsets Through Protest and Pandemic” as well as read Riskology’s article about the science behind growth mindsets.

Growth Mindset