“I can’t do it,” Sara whines as she pulls at your shirt. Sara thrusts a magazine at you and commands, “Do it for me.” Sara has not yet attempted to cut the picture from the magazine, but she is certain she cannot do it herself.
The other children are independently and actively engaged with peers and equipment, but Sara sticks close to you, demanding assistance with everything from painting a picture to zipping her pants. Why does Sara feel helpless? Is there anything a preschool teacher can do to help Sara become more independent?
Sara may be exhibiting helpless behavior and dependence on the teacher because she is not feeling well or because of some prior unsettling experience. We all feel a need for help from time to time. However, if Sara’s dependency is a behavior pattern which continues over time, she may have learned to be helpless and dependent.
Dweck (1978) used the term learned helplessness orientation to describe children who believe they lack ability and feel frustrated. Consequently, they stop attempting new tasks and act helpless. While most preschoolers are rosy optimists who believe they can succeed at any task just because they want to (Stipek, Roberts, & Sanborn, 1984; Stipek & MacIver, 1989), learned helplessness has been observed in children as young as four (Heyman, Dweck, & Cain, 1992; Smiley & Dweck, 1994). Some signs of learned helplessness have even been observed in infants (Watson & Ramey, 1972).
The manner in which adults react to a child’s successes and failures has been found to influence the child’s view of whether or not he or she is competent. How the child interprets successes and failures determines behavior. Therefore, adults need to be aware of the most appropriate ways to react to children who have learned to be helpless.
How Should Adults Respond?
Dweck (1978) found that when a child succeeds at a task, adults should praise the child’s ability. It is important that the success be attributed to ability rather than to luck or hard work. On the other hand, if a child does not succeed at a task, the adult needs to emphasize that the child is capable and just needs to try harder. By placing the focus on insufficient effort, the child comes to realize that he or she can change the outcome. The child feels enabled because he or she focuses on effort, which is something he or she can control. Ability, on the other hand, is interpreted as being beyond one’s control.
If a child has learned to be helpless, one might think that it would be sufficient to provide the child with many successful experiences. However, research studies have found that experiencing repeated success is not enough (Dweck, 1975). The child needs to be trained to attribute success to ability and task failure to lack of effort. The child needs to change her thinking about the attributes associated with success and failure.
Assuming that the child is attempting developmentally appropriate tasks, teachers need to address success with compliments about ability and unsuccessful attempts with comments about effort. For example, supportive teacher comments might include, “You are very good at keeping your balance on the walking beam,” “You know a lot about dinosaurs,” or “You must be very smart to work on that difficult puzzle.” If the child is not successful, the teacher might say, “Try a little harder...you almost did it,” “Use all of your muscles this time,” or “This job takes lots of practice, so try as hard as you can.”
It is important for adults to help children interpret their successful and unsuccessful actions because once established, learned helplessness tends to continue over time (Fincham, Hokada, & Sanders, 1989), even in children who are bright and talented (Phillips, 1984). We want children to believe that they can master their world. They are more likely to develop a mastery orientation in which they persist at tasks if they have a sense of being able to control the outcome (Weiner, 1986).
Pride, confidence, and self-esteem are more likely to result when adults recognize appropriate responses to the child’s successful and unsuccessful activities. Teachers and caregivers can support the child who has been frustrated into helplessness by pointing out the child’s abilities and encouraging the child to make the effort to master those developmentally appropriate tasks yet unconquered.
Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.
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Dweck, CS (1978). Achievement, in ME Lamb (Ed.) Personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
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