Methods to Overcome Learned Helplessness in the Classroom

learned helplessness“You can do it, and we aren’t moving on until you do.”—Me being the mean teacher.

It became a standoff between me and a student. Not because I’m mean, lacking compassion, or needing to win. It was a standoff because that student needed to learn confidence, to trust and believe in their ability.

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness happens when we encounter a stressful situation again and again that we can’t control. So much so, that even when we can change it, we don’t because we have been trained to believe it will never change.

Let’s go super small scale, like minuscule. I ask my class to line up. It’s January. They know how to line up. They get to line with chatter, shoving, facing every which way, and practicing the latest dance moves. I can correct every infraction: quiet mouths, feet forward, hands to yourself. But what I reinforce right there is that they can’t do it without me. Lie. It creates the “learned helplessness” I want to avoid. They know exactly what to do. So I simply say, “Return to your seats.” They already know exactly what went wrong. They aren’t lacking instruction or training. Once seated I will simply say, “Do it again.” And this time my line happens without flaw. Not because I’m exacting or cruel. Simply because I know it’s in the best interest of their safety and kindness to other classes that they line up well. And they can.

He’s right there. He sees you. He’s watching. Go back to your instruction manual. You’ve got this. Click To Tweet

Allow Students to Land on the Answer

I can rescue the students. I can applaud every right step in the math problem. I can give hints and flat-out answers to save them from awkwardness. But they already know what to do. So instead, the reverse happens from what you think will happen: Learned helplessness breeds insecurity. When I stay quiet and trust that they have all the tools needed to be successful, they figure it out. Their confidence blooms, and with beaming pride, they move through more problems.

Parenting and Learned Helplessness

This kind of scenario happens in parenting all the time. It’s tempting to make children dependent on us, to give all the help and all the answers. We feel so needed and validated. But it “manifests as a lack of self-esteem, low motivation, a lack of persistence, the conviction of being inept, and ultimately failure” (Psychology Today.)

Okay, okay. Great Ted Talk on teaching and parenting and all, but this is where I’m going:

Jesus has given you tools you need to succeed. His Word has every second of training and equipping imaginable. So in the moments He is quiet—not applauding every step, no hints, no answers—instead of anger and abandonment surfacing, trust the manual and its author. Immerse yourself in the travel guide straight from Him. It will direct every step and situation. Trust me, we all want “rescued out.” But like every good teacher, He knows when that needs to happen.

It’s not abandonment when He’s quiet. It raises self-esteem, confidence, and belief in the power of His Spirit that is in us. If I never lean on that, I never realize what I really have in Him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m dependent on Him. For every breath. But I don’t default to helplessness when something is hard.

So, He’s quiet. And it’s hard. Really hard. That does not mean He’s gone, sweet friend. He’s right there. He sees you. He’s watching. Go back to your instruction manual. You’ve got this.

For more from JoDana Flowers, check out the Teacher Certification program available in Ministry Central.

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