“I don’t get it!”… “Teacher can you help me?”… “I don’t know how to start!”… “Can you show me how to do this?”
If you have ever heard any of those phrases in your classroom, you are not alone. Learned helplessness seems to be a widespread epidemic in elementary schools these days. Learned helplessness can be defined as: a condition in which a student feels powerless, and relies on the teacher or other students for help and answers.
The typical characteristics of students with learned helplessness are: not paying attention when directions are given, being the first student to come up to the teacher’s desk, waiting for the teacher to come around and help, constantly raising a hand, and also verbally stating that they don’t get how to do the assignment.
The burning question for educators is this, “What can a teacher do to change learned helplessness in the classroom?” We have come up with 5 steps to help erase learned helplessness in the classroom.
Teach to the Learning Styles
It may be more work in the beginning, but once you have established a routine, teaching to the auditory, visual and kinesthetic learner will become second nature. How is this accomplished? First, the auditory part comes natural. It is when you are verbally addressing the class and giving them specific directions. (see The Parrot Approach below for more on this). Visually, you will want to have written or typed directions posted either on the document camera, whiteboard, or chalkboard. Sometimes those visual learners tune out what you are saying, so you need to have directions posted. For the kinesthetic learner, use the first to five approach. Based on the students’ level of understanding of the directions they can show you five fingers if they understand, and a fist if they don’t. It is a quick and effective check of the class.
The Parrot Approach
Repeat, repeat, repeat. After you have given directions, have the students repeat them. Usually, most teachers pick one student to do this. You want them ALL to be able to repeat what is expected. In order to do this, keep your directions simple and in easy to remember steps. If there are too many directions, then the task is probably to difficult to do independently anyway.
As a teacher you need to model how to solve a problem. If you know what the problems will be ahead of time, model aloud in front of the class ways to solve the problem. Whether it be following written directions, solving a math problem, getting stuck on a writing assignment, or adhering to project guidelines, doing a think aloud on potential problems can be a game changer for your sanity.
Before releasing the students to independent work time, you MUST check their level of understanding. If you did not teach the lesson clearly enough, that it is on you if there are tons of questions. You can use the fist to five method mentioned in #1 above. You could also have students repeat the directions to a classmate sitting close by. Another reality check option would be to underline or highlight the directions they are to do if it is a written task.
Time to Time
Another strategy that has proven effective is to set a timer for 3 minutes. The students cannot come up to you for help during those three minutes. They have to use their own brains to figure out what they need to do. If your directions were clear, the students should know what to do. After three minutes, if a student has a question, have them ask a classmate for help. Instead of letting them choose a friend, which could teach them to wait for three minutes so they can talk with their friend, have a few designated helpers each day who they could go to for assistance.
These are our top 5 methods on how to decrease learned helplessness. We would love to hear what has worked for you in your classroom. Please leave a comment. We’d love to hear your strategies!