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…

 

 

 

How to get kids playing again: Make play appealing

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

Your child doesn’t play outside much, because he ‘doesn’t want to’? Well that’s just too bad. Let’s come up with some ideas to get that kid off his butt and out to get some Vitamin-D…

In A teacher’s take on letting kids play… I wrote about the decline in self-guided, outdoors play for children. A recent comment from a parent of one of my students has me feeling quite frustrated. The mother commented in passing that, “[My son] doesn’t just go outside and play much – he’d rather play Minecraft.” Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that I bit my tongue and opted not to ask, “Um, so who was it that bought him the iPad, downloaded the game and allows him to spend so much time engaging in such a sedentary activity?” Don’t get me wrong, technology is great and I have nothing against iPads, Minecraft, or even letting kids have some downtime, but…
Her comments made me realise that in that above-mentioend blog post, I had forgotten one key thing that we as adults can do to get kids playing again. Here’s the simple advice I gave her.

1) Make play appealing.

Imagine sitting a kid down in a chair, at a table with nothing on it, and asking that child to go wild, have fun. You wouldn’t, would you? Perhaps we slightly over-estimate the ability of children to just make things up as they go along. Sure, they are endlessly creative, innovative and imaginative, but at the end of the day, if the prospects are to go outside alone and try to figure out a game to play that will keep themselves entertained enough, with resources that are either missing or that they don’t know how to use, versus plonking down for some screen-time to play a game that they know is guaranteed fun (such as Minecraft – my students don’t shut up about it!) or to watch their favourite show; it’s no real surprise that many kids will choose the latter.

Kids are becoming such un-skilled ‘players’, that I’ve been taking my own grade outside during class time, to help them learn new games, teaching them games to play alone, in small groups or big groups. Helping them learn what you can do with various materials ranging from the traditional (balls, skipping ropes, etc.) to those which require a little more imagination (eg. what can we do with 2 old tyres, some paper and pencils, a length of rope and some sticks?). As a teacher, I wouldn’t just say to my young students, “Go ahead, do math!” So why should I expect them to just go outside at recess and instinctively know what to do? Let alone, figuring out how to have fun by themselves when they’re sent out to play in their own backyard.

Make play appealing by giving a few ideas, perhaps teaching them some games and actually playing outside with them if they’re not one to do so independently. Model yourself, how exciting play can be. Show kids that you love and value play.

Further to that, my original list comprised four other factors…
2) Provide children with the time to play.
That is, don’t over-schedule kids. Even allow them to get bored as that will force them to truly direct their own play.
3) Provide children with the space and freedom to play.
Obviously this is dependent on where you live and safety must be a priority, but maybe we could loosen the harness.
4) Provide children with the resources to play.
For example, construction materials, balls, scooters, sketch pads, rather than iPhones or DVDs. Don’t spend a fortune – You can find most things for free in council throw-outs, or get things on-the-cheap at charity stores.
5) Leave the rest to them! Don’t assume we know what’s best.
Let children make friends with the kids that they want and play the games that they want.

There’s been a bunch of great articles written on the importance of play. It’s a no-brainer, really, but if you’d like to read about why our young people should be out in the sunshine, getting grubby and active, here are some good places to start:
• ‘Why Our Children Need to Get Outside and Engage With Nature‘ (The Guardian)
• ‘Over-protected, Over-organised… Why Kids Needs More Time to Run and Play‘ (The Sydney Morning Herald)
• ‘The Play Deficit‘ (Aeon Magazine)
• ‘All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed‘ (The Atlantic)

Teachling <Twitter>