Learned Helplessness in a School Context: What It Is and How to Deal with It

Imagine a student who’s repeatedly experiencing failure in school. As time goes by and they continue to fail, they start to put in less and less effort as they get the impression that no matter what they do and how much effort they put in, they’ll still fail. Let’s imagine for a second that a student has failed a math exam for the third time in a row. They may start to think that math is too hard for them to understand or even that they’re too dumb for school/math, which can negatively affect their self-confidence and self-respect. The underlying problem is that their lack of trying causes them to fail once more and thus reinforce their negative beliefs about themselves. In other words, they set themselves up to fail before they even try. Ultimately, this can lead to them believing that they’re not capable of overcoming difficulties at school.

This case is illustrative of learned helplessness, the belief that our own behavior has no influence on consequent events [3]. Although learned helplessness can develop in students who don’t fail that often, children who repeatedly fail are at greater risk of developing it [2].

It’s clear from the above-mentioned example that learned helplessness affects three different aspects of one’s functioning [1]:

  1. Motivational: Children lack the will to try to accomplish something and are discouraged to make an effort, believing that their learning process is out of their control.
  2. Cognitive: Students have the notion that failure is inevitable (even though that’s not true), as they miss seeing the logical connection between trying and succeeding (and not trying and failing).
  3. Emotional: Children start to think less of themselves and start to doubt their own abilities, which can lead to lowered self-esteem and even depression.

In this article we will first look at how to identify learned helplessness in the classroom and then explore ways teachers can address it.

How to Spot Learned Helplessness in the Classroom

– A student shows signs of low motivation for work and looks disinterested and passive in class.

– A student rarely asks questions or shows genuine interest and enthusiasm towards topics during class, so the teacher must engage them as they don’t tend to show initiative [4].

– A student is quick to answer the teacher’s question with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”, without really putting any thought into it [4].

– A student has a tendency to get easily discouraged when a teacher corrects them or points out a mistake in their work – this makes them feel like they won’t be able to finish the task [4].

– Getting a bad grade doesn’t make them sweat, as they’re used to it and think that no matter what they do at school, a bad grade is inevitable.

The Importance of Mindset

In another article, we discussed different Mindsets children develop during childhood and at school. In short, students who have developed Growth mindset perceive their abilities as something that can be changed and developed over time. They tend to seek challenges and get engaged when facing obstacles, knowing that’s a good way to increase their knowledge and skills. On the other hand, students with Fixed mindset believe that their abilities are carved in stone and can never be changed, so when they fail, they start to question their abilities. In other words, they make the mistake of attributing their failure to something they can’t influence, instead of towards the effort they put into studying. So, when a student who believes that abilities are unchangeable repeatedly fails in school, they might conclude that there’s nothing they can do to change that, so they just stop trying and start to feel helpless.

This notion is important to bear in mind, because addressing the mindset of a student is an important step in overcoming learned helplessness.

How Can Teachers Help Students Overcome Learned Helplessness?

  1. Tackling the Motivational Aspect

Encourage the Effort and Assure Them There’s No Reason to be Afraid of Making a Mistake. A student’s motivation is a fragile thing. It can be easily diminished. Making a mistake in class tends to put pressure on students and can make them feel like failures. In reality, they cannot grow without making some mistakes, which is something they need to understand. Try not to be critical when they give a wrong answer, otherwise they can develop a fear of trying and making an error. Students should be comfortable with exploring new ideas, without having to worry whether they might make a mistake. So, it’s important that the teacher reassures them that making mistakes is fine, as long they keep going and keep trying.

Take Special Care Not to Overlook Quiet Students. A student can also develop low motivation in the classroom by being overlooked by the teacher and not being given enough responsibilities when it comes to school tasks. Teachers should take great care and give special attention to children who are shy or who feel less competent than their peers, because they need the teacher’s help to become motivated and engaged in school.

  1. Tackling the Cognitive Aspect

Show Them the Difference Between Growth Mindset (effort) and Fixed Mindset (abilities). Be sure to emphasize the effort students put into studying for a test, and not some innate abilities they possess. It may be helpful to say something along the lines of “If you study hard for this test, you’ll certainly do well and your effort will be rewarded”. They need to learn that studying is not about manifesting some unchangeable trait or intelligence, but rather that it’s all about the effort, which is what increases knowledge and skills. In other words, they need to adjust their Mindset and learn to take control of their academic performance.

Educational therapists who work with children with learned helplessness have a great way of illustrating this [1]:

They would turn off the light in a room and ask a student, “Does this mean there is no more light?”

A student will say, “No, the light went off because you turned off the switch”.

The therapists then say, “There’s a switch in your head that you turned off because you didn’t like what was happening in school.”

This can help student change their rationale for failure from “I’m dumb” to “I turned off my switch”, meaning “I didn’t put in the effort”.

  1. Tackling the Emotional Aspect

Slowly Build Their Confidence by Providing Them More Time and Help. When a student doesn’t have the inclination to really think about the questions teachers ask in class, and easily gives up, it’s important that educators do their best to encourage them to try to nevertheless put some thought into it. For example, you can guide them with additional, easier questions so that they can, with your help, come to the correct conclusion. You can also encourage them to take their time or consult a classmate sitting next to them before answering a question.

Praise the Effort, Not Just the Outcome! It’s important not to miss the opportunity to praise the effort a student had put into coming up with an answer, even if it may not be entirely correct. Students often have good initial ideas, but they tend to stumble somewhere along the way. If a student who’s experiencing learned helplessness really tries hard but still gets the answer wrong, it’s very important to give them a “Good job!” or “I like the way you’re thinking”, because they need ongoing encouragement to continue making an effort in the classroom. This feedback should be well timed in order for them to make use of it.

If they’re not doing well in school at all, it’s unrealistic to expect that they’ll start getting the best grades right away. It’s a process and that’s why it’s crucial that the teacher provides encouragement and praise along the way, to let them know that they’re improving, and also to make sure their motivation isn’t fading.

If you’re a parent and you suspect your children are showing signs of learned helplessness regarding school, it’s perhaps a good idea to talk to their teachers or consider consulting our experts here at Nobel Coaching & Tutoring.


  1. Gordon, R., & Gordon, M. (2006). The turned-off child: Learned helplessness and school failure. American Book Publishing.
  2. Licht, B. G., & Kistner, J. A. (1986). Motivational problems of learning-disabled children: Individual differences and their implications for treatment. Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities, 225-255.
  3. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness. New York: Freeman
  4. Yates, S. (2009). Teacher identification of student learned helplessness in mathematics. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 21(3), 86-106.

If you need any kind of advice related to helping your child overcome helplessness, you’ve come to the right place!

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