Tackling learned helplessness


Teachers should reward effort and perseverance, not just achievement, writes Katharine Moylan

Learned helplessness can be one of the biggest barriers to learning for many children, and it’s often an issue for teachers too.

Learned helplessness refers to when a student believes that they can’t do something, so they stop trying. Would you continue trying to achieve something if you always failed at it? How long would it take for you to give up? Once a child (or an adult) loses their self confidence, how can we help them to get it back? 

The very nature of learning means that we must do that which we do not know how to do and mistakes are an inherent part of this journey. Inspiring students to take risks is integral to teaching; how to do this can be one of the biggest challenges in teaching.

The antithesis of learned helplessness is self-belief and this is what we must focus on teaching in order to overcome learned helplessness. We need to teach students that as individuals, they will all achieve different outcomes to a particular task and they should motivate themselves to achieve their own “personal best”. We can promote this by rewarding effort rather than attainment. For example, in internal assessments and tests, teachers should reward students who achieve more than they did last time. This cultivates an attitude of personal perseverance, rather than competing against the grades of other students in the class. This means the teacher can celebrate the student’s achievement no matter what their grade, as long as they are showing progress. Developing a sense of self-worth and self-confidence is the first step to overcoming learned helplessness.

Honest endeavour 

To teach self-belief, we must create an inclusive learning environment based on reflection and honesty. Students need to be taught how to reflect on whether they achieved their personal best, without being given a grade by a teacher. In order to do this, at the end of a test teachers could ask the children to close their eyes and put their hand up if they tried their personal best. The children who do receive a reward. This requires a high level of honesty and trust within the classroom, but most of the time children (and adults) are honest and only put their hand up if they really did do their best. This encourages children to reflect on their effort levels and to motivate themselves to try harder next time.

Using this kind of approach, children are regularly rewarded for trying their personal best. Less able children and those with learning differences can receive just as many rewards as the children who get the highest grades. In addition, children should not know each other’s test grades, so only personal effort is visibly rewarded. This means that all children are treated equally irrespective of their attainment level. Children working at all levels can grow in self-confidence and all students learn that they can achieve. 

One of the key roles of a teacher is to inspire self-belief and we must first cultivate a teaching and learning relationship based on honesty, positivity and perseverance. As children learn to trust their teacher, and they realise that effort rather than ability will be praised, they will become more resilient when attempting more difficult work and taking on new challenges. 

About the author

Katharine Moylan has worked as a primary and secondary school teacher in the UK and Spain. She is studying for an MA in Special and Inclusive Education and runs an SEN consultancy for schools.


 Katharine Moylan


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