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  • Katie Moylan

Inspiring Perseverance: how can we overcome learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness can be the biggest barrier to learning for many children, and often the biggest barrier for teachers too. Learned helplessness refers to when a student believes that they can not do something, and so they stop even trying. Would you continue trying to do 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: mistakes are an inherent part of this journey. Inspiring students to take risks is integral to teaching, and 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. In order to do this, we need to teach students that as individuals, they will all achieve different outcomes to a 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 have achieved more than their own previous result. This cultivates an attitude of personal perseverance, rather than competing against the grades of other students in the class. This method means that 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 building block to overcome learned helplessness.


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 can 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 people), are honest, and only put their hand up if they really did do their personal best. This encourages children to reflect on their effort levels and to motivate themselves to try harder next time. The desire to persevere to achieve their personal best overcomes the attitude of learned helplessness.


Through using this system, children are constantly being rewarded for trying their personal best. Children who are low level or have SEN can receive just as many rewards as the children who get the highest grades. Children in the class also should not know each other’s grades from the tests, and so only personal best effort is visibly rewarded. This means that all children are treated equally irrespective of their attainment level. In this way, all children have equal chance to be rewarded, and for their efforts to be celebrated. Children grow in self-confidence at all levels within the class and all students learn that they can achieve, eradicating learned helplessness.


A teacher’s role is to inspire self-belief, and this needs to be at the forefront of our minds and conversations in order to enable students to continually grow. We must first cultivate a teaching and learning relationship based on honesty, positivity and perseverance. As children learn to trust their teacher and that effort rather than ability will be praised, they will become more resilient to trying new challenges and attempting harder work each time. We must teach students that it is the journey which is important, not the destination.

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