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…




WALT, WALA, TIB & WILF – How do YOU use learning intentions? 

A teacher’s take on using WALTs effectively across the whole week…

I wrote some time ago about the use of the learning intention acronyms WALT, WALA, WILF and TIB: Meet WALT, WILF, WALA & TIB.

Currently teaching Level One, truth-be-told, WALT/WALA is just about all they can handle. TIB is generally put across verbally or in making explicit links to prior or future learning, and WILF – the success criteria – usually takes the form of a very simple rubric or checklist, or again verbally. But, the question I want to pose is…

For how long do you display and refer to your learning intentions?

This came up during a recent observation session of myself by a leading teacher at my school. She noticed that I do the following…

I begin each week with a clean slate, so-to-speak. Each lesson, I will write up the new WALT (under its subject heading such as Reading, Spelling, Mathematics etc), and discuss the WALT along with any new vocabulary that it might feature, before starting the whole class tuning in. That WALT stays on my board all week! At the start of each lesson, I’ll add a new WALT and sometimes, if for example we are doing a unit or sequence of lessons, it might stay the same. The result by the week’s end is a nice collection of 3-4 WALTs for each key curriculum area!

This struck the observing teacher as odd, even pointless. To me, it makes sense to leave recent WALTs up. Learning is a continuum. Concepts and skills are transferable. New lessons relate to past and future learning. I feel as though my technique clearly shows the students this, rather then having them falsely believe that each lesson stands in isolation.

The other benefit is – and I haven’t written about this before – my school has a heavily student-centered developmental curriculum. Some may say ‘play-based’ but I think there might be some negative connotations around that term and it paints a misrepresentation of what exactly goes on. As such, as students navigate their Investigations I and they can refer to our week’s learning intentions and make wonderful, genuine connections between their experiences and what naysayers would call the ‘real learning’. Put simply, having a broader range of WALTs to refer back to, opens up more opportunities for meaningful connections.

That’s my opinion anyway…

So what do you do in your classroom?

Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon

Here’s a timely reminder of why I hate writing reports, for all you Aussie teachers who, like me, are getting ready to undertake the mammoth and unnecessary task. Are you at a school – like my wife’s – choosing to not write comments this time around, opting instead for letter-grades only, plus face-to-face parent-teacher conferences?

Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon.

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>

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>

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>