Avoiding Learned Helplessness

Categories: Parent Perspective

The term was first mentioned to me by the brilliant woman who ran our Home Applied Behavior Analysis Clinic when we were discussing her decades of observations in classrooms and in the world. My boys were young, and I was still feeling my way in the dark. My heart stopped for a second as the impact of the words hit my soul.

It’s one of the scariest terms I’ve ever heard. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. And it’s happening every day in some classrooms and some homes. This goes way beyond mom nagging, or an off day where you do it for them because it’s just easier sometimes.

Learned Helplessness is a culture of constantly setting the bar so low it’s on the ground. It’s what you do consistently over time that builds patterns. In this case, it’s used as a term used where people (in our case usually children/students) are made to be MORE disabled than their disability would ever create. Instead of teaching independence, it means teaching helplessness. Not always on purpose. Some people do it from apathy or not knowing. Sometimes it’s with the best of intentions, although it does much more harm than good. Luckily it’s pretty easy to spot.

Here are some ways it’s created:

Consistently Presuming Incompetence: This sounds like, “That’s too much for them. They won’t be able to handle it.”  “No, they can’t go on a field trip”. “No, they can’t do the Science Fair with peers.” “No they can’t get a job.” “They don’t do well at the grocery store, so I’d rather go on my own.” “Outings are too hard for me, so I don’t take them.” “I don’t take them to Target because they expect a toy, so now they just don’t ever go.”  It sounds a lot like- No no no, and can’t can’t can’t. 

My motto is: We like to learn the hard way. When they boys were younger, there were too many Target trips where I bought a toy to avoid a meltdown, and tried to go on my own instead of bringing them. But this isn’t sustainable- so we all braved several trips where no one got a toy and everyone wound up in tears in the car after. Was it fun? No. Did I think this was going to be what the rest of our life looked like at the time? Yes. (Dramatic much=me.) But over time (and LOT of advance prep, and reinforcement during (ahem- but not with a newly bought toy!) we can now go to Target and not even stop in the toy aisle and no one cries. To be fair, I do not allow myself to browse the Dollar Aisle or the clothes either.

Set them up for success, and assume it might be really hard until the right skills are learned.

My boys LOVE outings now. What used to feel IMPOSSIBLE (staying safe in the parking lot, not eloping, tolerating people, not always getting what we want) is now second nature to them. Consistently and high expectations pays off.

Overprompting in Every Situation: This sounds like, “Throw that away” the second a snack bag is finished.  “Pick that up”, the second an item is dropped. “Give it to me, I’ll open it,” the moment a student appears to potentially struggle with something. “Write your name” while tapping on the line as soon as a paper is handed out. In learned helplessness, a child will not be taught to zip their jacket. We will zip it up for them. Even when they are 12, and have no mental or physical issues making it not possible. Children will only do something when told to do something. The intrinsic motivation of completing a task is killed, prompt dependency is born.We don’t teach age appropriate skills or interests. We don’t give them chores to contribute. We don’t teach leisure skills. We don’t do inclusion. We don’t strive for independence.I’ve found a silent count to ten in my head works WONDERS. My boys OFTEN surprise me on second 9 and 10…picking up what they dropped, asking for help on their own, writing their name on their paper. Make the 10 second expectant pause your BFF.

Rely on Diagnosis Versus the Individual: Boy my blood is boiling just from typing that. Ha! This sounds like- “They can’t play with Gen Ed at recess because they are autistic, and they don’t like social interaction, so I’d rather they have a break.” There’s a lot of “Theys” said in this one. “They can’t go on Field Trips because they elope and are dangerous.” “They can’t try out for the school play because they use a device to speak.” “They can’t sign up for school jobs because they can’t do it independently.” This one is the EXACT opposite of accommodations and creative thinking. Some of the most empathetic, driven, social creatures I’ve ever met are autistic. We can never simply rely on exactly what the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says. We must get to know all individuals as just that- an individual.

From bike riding to swimming to reading to hanging out in restaurants- assume excellence and teach the next right thing.

Not Giving Students the Tools to Thrive in a World that is a Majority of Neurotypcial folks: Let’s be real, many Special Education students are NOT best suited to learn in a General Education classroom. There are many Self contained classrooms that are the perfect Least Restrictive Environment for our learners. One thing parents and educators must always keep in mind is our Special Learners don’t live in Special Needs neighborhoods, or go to Special Needs Grocery stores. They must be able to navigate a typical world that doesn’t always understand or care about their needs, so part of their learning must include exposure to this world. The flip side is true- General Education students need exposure to Special Education students starting as soon as preschool. At that age differences aren’t yet judged or feared. I’ve seen some downright miracle occur when these groups of children get together. Everybody wins. Don’t be afraid to go out into the world, loudly and imperfectly. My kids can’t learn what to expect and what is expected of them in public settings if we don’t try. So we try a lot.

Now that you’ve heard this term, look for it. If you see it, together we can do our part to stop it.


Chrissy Kelly
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  1. Thank you for this reminder.

    • Hope this was helpful for you! Thanks for reading 🙂


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