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…




Mixed-ability classes: How do we teach when the kids are all so different?

A teacher’s take on the ‘setting’ vs ‘mixed-ability’ debate, and the trouble with differentiation…

A parent, following spending the morning in class as a helper during a reading session, asked me, “Wow, do you find it hard to teach with all of the kids being at such different levels? Some of them are really coming along wonderfully. It’s still a slow process for a handful though. “

A post I read a while ago by JackTeacher88, got me thinking about the way classes are structured in most Australian Primary Schools. The setting vs mixed-ability debate isn’t one I’ve ever paid much notice to, because ‘streaming’/’setting’ or like-ability classes are not common in local schools – In fact, I’ve never heard of it occurring in any of my local Primary Schools. Whilst some High Schools set their classes up so that, for example, all of the struggling math students are in the same class, all of the highly-able students are grouped together, and so on, I can’t think of examples in which this happens at the junior level. Sure, there are many instances in which students work in like-ability groups. This happens in my class when I wish for students to work with like-minded students, to enable appropriate levels of support and challenge and sometimes simply for ease of differentiation. In the year level I teach, we also sometimes group children from across the cohort, such as in spelling where we might decide to have students work with students from other classes working on the same spelling feature, for targeted instruction. Some schools offer ‘gifted and talented’ programs or programs such as ‘group literacy support’, but these students would also be part of a regular grade.

So then, back to that parent’s question, how do we teach when the kids are all so different?

Herein lies the trouble many have with ‘differentiation.’ Does differentiation tell us that we need to plan, within the same lesson, different learning intentions, different tasks, gather different resources and orchestrate a different learning experience for each student, or each group of students? That does sound like an awful lot of work!

This blog post, also by JackTeacher88, points out a flawed model of ‘differentiation’, seen certainly when I was at school myself (hopefully not much any more!). That model saw all kids start out with the easiest level of work, the simplest task or set of problems, and as they finished, they simply got more work which gradually increased in difficulty. This meant that by the end of the lesson or spread across a unit, the struggling students would be left fumbling their way through their “dumb kid work”, whilst the highly-able students will have progressed through to work appropriate for their challenge level, leaving the rest of the class somewhere in the middle.

What’s worse, that aforementioned model of differentiation, or no differentiation at all? That is, just pitching the lesson, resources, content and task for the ‘middle kids’, whilst letting the strugglers flounder in the hope that they’ll finally learn something, and leaving those requiring more challenge or extension to go through the motion or completing the work that they find too easy, resulting in boredom. The Telegraph published this article which describes mixed-ability classes as letting down the brightest students; those being ‘held back’ by the fact that the teacher needs to teach the rest of the class ‘easier’ work – “schools fail to stretch the brightest and weakest students by placing them in mixed ability lessons”.

Well, I once heard that differentiation is easiest when it isn’t necessary! That is, if all students are at the same level, the teacher can plan one lesson, with one learning intention and the same content, resources and task which will be perfect for all students. Right?

Honestly, I’ve only ever taught mixed-ability classes, so don’t feel like I’m in a position to pass judgement either way. Are there any teacher bloggers reading this that feel strongly one way or the other? Do any of you teach only like-ability classes?

If mixed-ability classes are the norm, what are we to do? Go with that ‘challenge-gradually-increasing’ model, the ‘pitch-for-the-middle-students’ model, adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach? Of course I’m being simplistic and teachers have a wide range of strategies for ensuring all students get the support and challenge they deserve, but you do get the point I’m trying to make. Might things just be better for all involved if classes were in fact full of students ‘at the same level’?

Teachling <WordPress> < Twitter>

A teacher’s take on students using their teacher’s Christian name…

Do teachers earn respect through their name?

In this Topical Teaching post, it’s suggested that teachers earn respect through their surname. In Australia, I’d say that most teachers go by their surname – Mrs X, Mr Y, Ms Z. In many cultures, honorifics are widely used; think ‘Sensei’ in Japan. The thought of my students calling me ‘Sir’, for instance, is totally bizarre to me. My belief is that nowadays, the kind of ‘respect’ earned through your title is completely artificial. It pains me that at my school the teachers are instructed to go by our surnames. My students do know my Christian name, so why can’t they call me it? After all, I call them by their Christian names.

In the abovementioned post, it states,I don’t want my students to call me Michael because I believe it is important to remind them that I am their teacher and not their friend. This is important, because if you want your advise to be respected, I think it helps to have a more formal title.

Personally, I believe you earn respect through your actions, not your title. I’ve posted previously that teachers need to be warm, be caring, laugh and above all, be human. I find the ‘don’t smile for the first three months’ rule to be incredibly damaging to classroom culture, student-teacher relationships and learning. A combination of great relationships + high expectations = Respect.

Some feel very passionately that respect is earned through a name or title and will take extreme measures to uphold that ‘respect’. In this case in the UK, a student was suspended from school for 5 days simply because, outside of school mind you, he called his teacher ‘Barry’ (whose name is, surprise surprise, Barry!).

Some wonderings I have, for those that claim that allowing students to call you by your Christian name somehow puts their respect for you in jeopardy…
* Is respect only bottom up?
* Do you only respect those that are ‘above’ you and not those ‘below’?
* Do you only hold respect for those with a special title?
* When you call someone by their Christian name (your students, your own children, your wife, your neighbour…), does it mean you don’t respect them?

I know a few Primary schools are catching up to the many Secondary schools that have already made the switch to allowing students to call their teachers by their Christian names. What do you think?

Teachling<WordPress> < Twitter>

More on the topic from Teachling:
A teacher’s take on positive teacher-student relationships…
A teacher’s take on earning respect from students…


Teach Teachers How To Create Magic – Christopher Emdin

How important is the ‘act’ of teaching? No, not those theories of ‘pedagogical practices’ – sometimes ridiculously called ‘best practice’, as though such a thing exists. I’m talking about the ‘performance’; The ‘preacher -in-a-“black-church”’ type performance that truly engages.

This TED Talk by Christopher Emdin struck a chord with me. Like Emdin says, I set out to “be an educator, change lives, and spark magic” and every day I come home exhausted. I feel like an actor that’s been performing a 6 ½ hour show. If there’s every a day when the bell goes at 3:30 and I still have a whiff of energy left in me, I feel as though I didn’t try hard enough – that I didn’t push myself to create that ‘magic’.

Yes, of course, learning tasks should be engaging, content should be relevant to the students, learning should be student-centred, yes, yes, yes, blah, blah, blah. But all of that – the best theory, the best content, the best practice (scoff!) – in the hands of an educator whom lacks that X-factor, will never spark magic.

“So why does teacher education only give you theory and theory, and tell you about standards and tell you about all these things that have nothing to do with the basic skills, that magic that you need to engage and audience, to engage a student?” (Emdin, 2013). Spare a thought for the “aspiring teacher in a graduate school of education, who’s watching a professor babble on and on about engagement in the most disengaging way possible” (Emdin, 2013).

So what makes a great teacher so great?

Teachling<WordPress> < Twitter>

How do journos really feel about Aussie teachers?

A journalist’s take on why teachers are all incompetent, whinging drop-outs that are ruining kids’ lives…

This article claims that, despite increased spending on education in Australia, standards continue to slip. Fortunately for the future of Australia, the article also has the answers! The ‘those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach’ saying is true of Australian teachers: A group of “academic failures… coming from a substandard poor of graduates who themselves struggled at school”. Perhaps “uninterested, incompetent or jaded”, “teachers pass on their own academic deficiencies to their students” and believe they’re “somehow above scrutiny and assessment”. With their “persistent whinging and striking”, teachers can be “a destructive force who can inflict significant damage to a child’s long-term learning outcomes”.

I feel the title “Teaching Should Not Be A Last Resort As A Career Choice”, for Rita Panahi’s column in the Herald Sun this week (yes, I read the Herald Sun now and then over coffee at my local café – don’t judge me!), is a tad misleading and didn’t accurately capture the tone of the article. Perhaps “Why Teachers Are All Incompetent, Whinging Drop-Outs That Are Ruining Kids’ Lives” was Panahi’s first choice but was deemed too polarising by her editors?

Teachers receive a lot of criticism. But hey, scrutiny is fine. Being held accountable is fine. We are entrusted with an extremely important task – Improving the life-chances of children, by facilitating their academic, social, emotional and behavioural development. Yep, pretty important, and of course, we only want the very best for that task! However, there do seem to be awful lot of teacher-haters out there. From politicians, journalists, parents and the wider community, teachers cop a hiding. We do need thick skins, particularly when hearing or reading unnecessarily spiteful and thoroughly ill-informed opinions. Remember, Rita Panahi, teachers are people too… Unlike journalists – Kidding!

While I agree with Panahi’s suggestion of “weeding out the chronic underperformers” and that “teaching should be a profession that is held in the highest esteem, not a last resort option for those who can’t gain entry into any other course”, I can’t help but feel a bit knocked around by her article. Did any other teachers feel attacked?

Teachling<WordPress> < Twitter>

More from Teachling:
A primary teacher’s take on education blogs…
A teacher’s take on parent-teacher relationships…
A teacher’s take on respecting teachers, pt2…
A teacher’s take on respecting teachers, pt1… 

White Men Can’t Jump and Primary Teachers Can’t Blog… About Anything Important, At Least!


A Primary teacher’s take on education blogs…


Like many primary bloggers, I am unable to engage in grown-up discussions about education because my brain is full of glitter, toy bears and gingerbread” – TruthfulClassroom


I once heard, those that can, do… Those that can’t, teach… Those that can’t teach, teach primary! We primary teachers, at the bottom of the food chain, don’t have much to offer the world of ‘professional dialogue’. Where secondary and tertiary teachers are able to talk policies and such, as MissHorsfall acknowledges, we primary teachers are better suited to topics such as:
-Why the hell do the red felt tip pens run out so quickly?
-Why do I either have 5 red pens and no black when it comes time to do the register, or vice versa?
-How exactly do 7 year olds get through so many glue sticks?

TruthfulClassroom and MissHorsfall are joking of course (I would actually, however, like some of those questions answered, to be honest!). 


They write in response to this post in which Michael1979 pondered the lack of primary teacher bloggers. Specifically, the lack of primary teachers that blog about ‘real’ education issues. Hence, wh the above tongue-in-cheek comments came about. He asks, why don’t primary bloggers write about topics such as:
-Will ‘scaled scores’ provide useful information at end-of-key-stage tests?
-Is primary schooling becoming all core and no breadth?
-Will the new grammar requirements in the National Curriculum raise standards of reading/writing?
-Is the current level 4b a viable expectation for 85% of students?
-How is the newly-enhanced Pupil Premium going to have an impact in primary?
-What impact are small cohorts or small sub-groups having on Ofsted inspection outcomes?
-What is the professional view on baseline assessments for children on entry to YR?


Did that list put you to sleep, as it did for me? You can see TruthfulClassroom’s counter-list here, which includes topics from the very *a-hem* important, such as:
-Literally, where the f*** do all the children stash the red felt tip pens?
-Which facial cues alert you to the fact that a child is about to projectile vomit all over their workbooks?
-Do any other teachers feel nauseous when they see Comic Sans?

To the more *literally* important topics, such as:
-How can we expose children to texts that they can relate to, but which also challenge them?
-How can we educate to equip children to challenge the rampant inequalities that face them?
-How can you teach climate change to 6 year olds in a way that scares them enough to care and empowers them enough to acts?
-Do all young male teachers get rapidly promoted out of the classroom, or just most? 


All people are different and bloggers are all looking for something different. Some might get a kick out of dry post about education policy, whereas others enjoy posts that help them, as teachers, make a difference in the day-to-day. Both, of course, have their place. If we don’t get more of the ‘right people’ making big policy decisions at the top, our future generations will be worse off. Similarly, if we don’t have the ‘right people’ at the classroom level, potentially great policies will make no difference.


Jokes aside, I enjoy blogging because it gives me a chance to read and write about education-related topics that interest me, as I work to facilitate the academic, social, behavioural and emotional development of young children. If it relates to kids and improving their futures, I’ll read it… if I have time! Similarly, I don’t try to limit myself to writing about any one topic in particular. I’ve written on topics such as why parents need to get their kids to school on time, why ‘grades’ should be scrapped in favour of real feedbackwhy I think schools are becoming overly ‘academic’ , lots about the importance of ‘relationships’ in education here, here, here and here, and the importance of ‘play’.



I’m always keen to give my 2 cents, or ‘a teacher’s take’ on all sorts of topics that will help children to have the best possible start to life, particularly during their primary school years. So as always, please do let me know if there’s anything in particular that you want me to write about!


Teachling<WordPress> < Twitter>


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What does 6×4 mean?

A teacher’s take on visualising multiplication…

I saw this blog post a while ago on reflectivemaths and after commenting, put it aside. However, recently working on some early multiplication concepts with my own students has brought it back to mind.


So, does 6×4 mean 6 lots of 4 or 4 lots of 6?

The reply by the above-mentioned blogger was “bearing in mind the answers the same of course. I’d say you start with 6 and then multiply by 4. So 4 lots of 6

That makes a lot of sense. Though, my initial response is that I visualise 6×4  as “6 fours”. “x” essentially meaning “lots of”, rather than “times”. As in, 6×4 is 6 lots of 4, or 6 times 4 things (6 packets of 4 pens) rather than 6 things times 4 (4 packets of 6 pens). But yes, regardless, we still get 24 pens either way!

My school has been working with a Maths coach on childrens’ misconceptions, and multiplication is always a confusing topic. To try and stop confusing our students, we talk multiplication in terms of “6 fours” rather than “6 times 4” or “6 lots of 4”. This aims to take the confusion out of the “x”. Further, “6 fours” acknowledges 4 as it’s own whole. Whereas, the 4 in “6 times 4” means children are seeing it as “4 ones”. Basically, why can’t 4 be it’s own being (first version)? Why should 4 only ever be seen as a quantity of ones (second version)? In saying that though, the 4 pens I mentioned above still labels poor 4 as 4 ones.

Again though, the answer is still 24, no matter which way you look at it.

Thinking in terms of ‘repeat addition’ – the concept I was working on with my 7 year olds – do you see 6×4 as essentially 4+4+4+4+4+4 or 6+6+6+6?

What about those good old “times tables”? Going through the 2s, for example, do you start with “1×2=2, 2×2 =4, 3×2=6, 4×2=8”? Or “2×1=2, 2×2=4, 2×3=6, 2×4=8”? Again, even though the answers are of course the same, I think the way you say it makes a huge difference to how the concept is visualised. Hence why, again to try and stop misconceptions, we do 2s as doubles now. That is, “double 1 is 2, double 2 is 4, double 3 is 6, double 4 is 8”.

Maybe the best solution is just to present young children with all possibilities, so that at the end of the day, they can ‘connect’ with whichever way they prefer. 6×4 might be “6 times 4”, “6 lots of 4”, “6 fours”, “6+6+6+6”, “4+4+4+4+4+4”, arrays, maybe even “double double 6”. If the answer is the same, does it matter how we get there?

Teachling<WordPress> < Twitter>