The new Learned Helplessness: “You can’t do this, so I will do it for you!”

A teacher’s take on why kids need to learn to do things for themselves…

My 5-6 year old students have their swimming program this fortnight. In my class of 24, there are 2 students that are unable to dress themselves, dry themselves off, and ensure their belongings make it into their swimming bags. The other 22 can do all of those things – granted a bit of help might be needed with things like putting on swimming caps, or the occasional lost sock – but all in all they’re doing very well. Those 2 that I mentioned are also the same 2 that at school, are constantly losing things, leaving things lying around, struggling with such things as the dreaded glue stick etc. It just so happens, that it is the parents of those 2 that are coming to ‘help out’ at swimming every day… You can see where I’m going with this…

The chicken or the egg?
Those 2 parents will tell you, “I’m coming to help at swimming because my child has trouble getting themselves dressed, and is disorganised and always losing things.”
My thought is that the opposite is the case: Isn’t your child disorganised and always losing things BECAUSE you’re doing everything for them? By drying them off, getting them dressed and packing their bags, aren’t you teaching them that these are things which they are unable to do for themselves. Is it that you do not trust them to do it for themselves, or do you think they will be physically, intellectually or emotionally unable to do it for themselves? Either way, you child is receiving a message loud and clear…

“You can’t do this, so I will do it for you!”

 The ‘new’ Learned Helplessness:
“Learned Helplessness” is a person’s sense of powerless, following a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is a term used in clinical psychology. I am not by any stretch a clinical psychologist and am not intending on appropriating the term myself. However… a Social & Emotional Learning PD I was at recently discussed the presence of many of the ‘symptoms’ of Learned Helplessness being present in school-age children. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not intending to minimise the impact that true Learned Helplessness has on people’s lives, particularly following traumatic, horrific events. I do think it’s important to relay some of the comparisons that can be drawn to young children.

What is it?
The majority of people, when in a ‘bad situation’, will do whatever they can to escape it. The truth for people with Learned Helplessness is that when in a bad situation, they feel as though they have no control and will give up and accept the situation they’re in. You can see why Learned Helplessness and depression are so closely linked. When a person is subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape, repeatedly and over an extended period, the person may well become accepting of that stimulus, feeling as though they’re unable to have any control. Do a quick Google search of Martin Seligman to find out more.

What’s the connection to school-aged children?
We’ve all heard of “helicopter parenting”, students being “wrapped in cotton wool”, and so on. Well-meaning parents will do anything – and everything! – for their kids. I’m by no means saying that parents are inflicting trauma on their children by being, let’s say “overbearing”. But… by showing & telling kids (directly or indirectly) that they cannot do anything for themselves, are we engraining the same Learned Helplessness idea which will see that child accept their inabilities?

“You can’t do this, so I will do it for you!”

What are the lastly effects of children receiving that message? A new kind of Learned Helplessness?

Teachling <WordPress>

 More from Teachling:

A teacher’s take on letting kids play, Pt.2…

Re-blog: The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher

A teacher’s take on helping children learn at home, pt2…
A teacher’s take on helping children learn at home, pt1…

A teacher’s take on getting your kids to school on time… And why it’s the least you can do…

A teacher’s take on letting kids play…

A teacher’s take on parent-teacher relationships…

 

 

 

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One thought on “The new Learned Helplessness: “You can’t do this, so I will do it for you!”

  1. I know those children and their parents well. There are always some. I think they do it more because they don’t realise what children are capable of. Maybe by coming along to help they will get to see what others can do independently and help their children to develop the skills too.

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