Learned Helplessness in Early Childhood & How We Can Respond


By Kristen Varley, RECE, BPHE
Preschool teacher

There is nothing more stressful than a weekday morning. That dreaded routine in which we run full speed around the house, attempting to multitask well beyond our capability to get ourselves, our kids, our pets, our life, ready for the upcoming day. Walk the dog, shower, pack lunches, dry hair (only if there is time, of course), wake the kids, feed the kids, dress the kids, get out the door. We pretend like we know what we are doing, but the reality is you can never predict what is going to happen next and most likely are still struggling to find your keys.

shoesIt is no secret mornings are hectic and rushed, especially when we have family to take care of, and getting everyone out the door with their clothes on the right way can feel like a great accomplishment. But what happens when one of the kids throws a wrench into our routine because they are struggling with a task like dressing themselves and can’t seem to figure it out fast enough? It’s cringe worthy, and our typical reaction is to take over for them to keep the flow going. Like when you are right about to walk out the door and little Gus looks up at you with his adorable brown eyes and says, “Mom, I just need to put on my shoes.” And then you wait. And you wait. And you wait. And little Gus is putting his shoes on the wrong feet and then he starts putting his foot on top of the shoe laces or he just can’t get his heel in the right way, all the while grunting and confused why his foot just won’t fit. And you’re watching, and we need to get out that door– and we need to get out yesterday– so habitually we resort to a parental, “Here, I’ll do it.” Then, without thinking, we go back to our routine and manage to get out the door intact.

What we fail to realize is those three simple words, “I’ll do it” is communicating much more to little Gus than just us offering our help. “I’ll do it” translates to Gus as, “You can’t do it, and that frustrates me.” And chances are, the more we do this, the more Gus is internalizing these words and transferring them to his other tasks throughout the day.

What is Learned Helplessness?

bikeLearned helplessness is exactly as it sounds: a sense of helplessness. Though this characteristic is common in adults, it has potential to start as early preschool. “I can’t do it,” or “do it for me,” are common things you will hear children say as they are expected to complete tasks throughout their day. These children are also frequently dependent on adults to do tasks for them, and are typically attached to adults in their classroom and home environment. The worst part is learned helplessness acts as a vicious cycle that is always reinforcing itself. As children consistently perceive that there is nothing they can do to control their outcome, they make less and less of an attempt to do so. And as their effort dissipates, they continue to fail.

Why do children develop this mindset?

The manner in which we respond to children’s successes and failures plays a huge role in our children’s self-esteem and effort to perform tasks. And consequently, how children perceive success and failure determines their overall behavior. So when we are consistently putting shoes on for our child, or feeding them, or carrying them everywhere, not only are we taking away their chance to strengthen these skills, we are silently communicating that they are not capable of doing these things themselves. In turn, when children believe they are not capable of doing certain things themselves, they develop a negative perspective of failure and therefore lack effort in other daily tasks in order to avoid failure altogether.

So, How Should We Respond?

kideatingIt is important to praise success attributing to our children’s ability (as opposed to luck). Children love to hear they have done something well, so when little Gus gets that shoe on the right way, it is important to recognize his accomplishment. “You did it all by yourself!”; “I like how you problem-solved to get your foot inside the shoe. And look! It worked!”

With regards to failure, it is inevitable so it is important we empathize. But, if a task is within your child’s developmental skill level, it is also important to encourage them to try again. Let your child know they are capable; they just need to problem solve and find a better way. Whether that may be that they need to try harder or continue to work out alternate strategies, convince your child they are capable. By doing this, children will perceive the task is in their control. And when a child believes something is in their control, they are more likely to sustain their level of effort and continue trying on their own. When you get frustrated and take over the task, children instantly assume that they are not capable and that having an adult do it for them is the only alternative. This is the last thing you want to do because you are communicating to your child that: a) Failure is something that frustrates you, and b) they are unable to do anything on their own. So, ensure you are responding in a way that allows your child believe they can do it. Maybe their first or second or third or tenth time didn’t work, but they can do it.

Repeated success is not enough to build confidence. Children need to experience failure to gain problem-solving skills and develop their autonomy. Both experiences are crucial to their development and will translate into their school years and adolescence. Therefore, how we respond to success and failure will build the foundation of our children’s self-esteem and effort level much further than just preschool.

So what can you do?

Focus on early stages of learning. It’s those early years that make the most difference. This is when the patterns are established and children learn their OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAabilities. It is important as parents, caregivers and educators to identify any deficits or patterns and intervene with appropriate reinforcements for positive self-esteem and effort. The longer helplessness is established, the more difficult it may be to remove in later years. Focus on encouragement. Remember, success is attributed to your children’s abilities and failure is inevitable, so respond appropriately. If little Gus needs more time to put his shoes on in the morning, try adding more time into your routine as opposed to rushing him through it. And if he is really having a hard time, rather than taking over, you can try “hand-over-hand” strategies to assist (ie. Take his hands through the motions of putting on his shoe with your hands).

At the end of the day, the best thing we can do for our children is be an effective role model. Be aware of how you are responding to success and failure—not only in your children, but also in yourself. We are the grown-ups, and our kids are watching us every second of the day. As summer vacation is fast approaching, try to use this time to really help your children’s skills develop. Summer mornings are always less hectic, so take advantage of that time and encourage little Gus’ independence. He can get those shoes on! He just needs to believe he can—remember, that’s half the battle.

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