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Preventing Learned Helplessness in Students with Language Impairments

A few weeks ago in one of my private speech language therapy sessions, I was reviewing the homework  of an 11-year-old student,  part of which involved  synonym and  antonym production describing abstract feelings (e.g., disinterested, furious, etc.). These words were in the client’s lexicon as we had been working on the concept of abstract feelings for a number of weeks. I was feeling pretty confident that the student would do well on this assignment, especially because prior to assigning the homework we had identified the exact emotion which required the generation of antonyms and synonyms. So all was going swimmingly,  until she made the following comment when explaining one of her answers: “I was thinking that this word ____ is not really an appropriate synonym for _________ but I put it anyway because I couldn’t think of any others.”

That gave me a pause because I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. So I asked: “I completely understand that you might not have remembered some words but what could you have done to help yourself in this situation?” Without any prompting, the student readily identified a number of strategies including: looking up the words in a thesaurus/dictionary, “Googling” them, or even asking an adult to help her with choosing the best answers from a number of choices.

My follow-up question to her was: “Why didn’t you?” The student just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me in surprise, as though this concept had never occurred to her.

This incident got me thinking regarding the pervasive influence of learned helplessness, and how our students continue to be impacted by it long after they begin receiving the necessary therapies to improve their academic performance.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, here is a brief overview. This phrase was coined by a US based psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967. In a series of experiments they exposed dogs to electric shocks that they were unable to escape. After a little while the dogs stopped trying to avoid the aversive stimuli because they became conditioned to the fact that they were helpless to change the situation. However, the most fascinating aspect in these series of experiments was the fact that even after the opportunity to escape became clearly available, the animals still failed to take any action and continue to behave as though they were still helpless.

How does this apply to students with learning disabilities? 

Many students with language impairments and learning disabilities struggle significantly in school setting due to failing academic performance. The older they get, the more academic demands are placed on them.  This includes but is not limited to the amount of homework they asked to complete, the number of long-term projects they’re expected to write, as well as the number of tests they are expected to study for.

Because they are unable to meet the ever increasing academic demands, their parents begin to actively micromanage their academic life by scheduling the times when the students are expected to perform homework, study for tests, do projects, and much much more. As a result, many of the students do not know how to do any of the above activities/tasks independently because they are conditioned  by their parents/teachers to tell them what to do, how to do it, and how to lead their academic life at any given moment.

The students begin believing they they are helpless  to change even the most basic situations (e.g., take an extra step during the homework assignment and look up a vocabulary word without anyone telling them to do it) and continue to behave in this fashion long after they begin receiving the necessary therapies, coaching, or in school assistance. This is especially true of students whose language/learning disabilities are not identified until later in their school career (e.g., late elementary years, middle school, or even high school).

What are the Symptoms of Learned Helplessness in Children?  

The below poster from Dragonfly Forest Blogspot/Forest Alliance Coaching summarizes it quite nicely.

Other symptoms of learned helplessness include:

  • Lack of motivation/task initiation
  • Poor critical thinking abilities
  • Reluctance to make independent choices
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Blaming a disability: “I act like this because I have _________”

It is important to note that the above symptoms are most applicable to students with learning disabilities and average cognition.  However, learned helplessness is equally pervasive (if not more so) in students with developmental disabilities (e.g., ASD, genetic syndromes, etc.)

Below are just a few examples of learned helplessness in students with developmental disabilities, which were inadvertently (and/or deliberately) reinforced by the adults in their lives(e.g., family members, educational staff, etc.).

  • Spoon feeding a three-year-old with ASD who has already mastered this particular ADL skill
  • Having a non-verbal eight-year-old correctly identify the PECS card for “open” but then always opening the door for him without giving him an opportunity to do so himself
  • Keeping a 12-year-old with ASD on puréed diet despite multiple MBS and FEES studies indicating that there are no structural abnormalities which would prevent this student from successfully trialing solid foods
  • Not placing basic expectations such as cleanup of toys on a verbal seven-year-old with Down Syndrome, simply because of her condition

Changing the Patterns of Learned Behavior:

According to available literature, when psychologists had tried to change learned helplessness in animal subjects it took them between 30 – 50 times of physically moving the dogs across the barrier before they proceeded to do so independently. Thus, it stands to reason that the process of rewiring the brain in humans with learned helplessness will be a lengthy one as well.

The first task on the part of adults  is active analysis of all the things  we may be doing  as  parents and educators,  which inadvertently  reinforces learned helplessness in our children/students.   Some  things may surprise you.   For example, I frequently ask the  parents of the students on my caseload what chores and responsibilities  they give their children at home.   In an overwhelming majority of the cases  my clients have  very few chores/responsibilities at home.  This  is especially apparent in families  of language  impaired children  with typically developing siblings. Conversations with parents  frequently reveal that many typically developing siblings (who are sometimes younger than my clients)  have far greater responsibilities  when it comes to chores,  assignment completion,  etc.

Did you know that an average 8-9 year-old is expected to remember to do chores for 15-20 min after school (“prospective memory”), independently, plan school projects (select book, do report, present in school), keep track of changing daily schedule, do homework for 1 hour independently as well as keep track of personal effects when away from home? (Peters, 2013)

Did you know that an average —12-14 year old is expected to demonstrate adult level planning abilities, have daily chore responsibilities for 60-90 minute in length, babysit younger siblings, follow complex school schedule, as well as plan and carry out multiple large semester-long school projects independently? (Peters, 2013)

While our language impaired children of the same age may not be capable of some of the above responsibilities they are capable of  more then we give them credit for given appropriate level of support (strategies vs. doing things for them).

Where do we begin?

It is important to recognize the potential of the children that we work with without letting their disabilities to color our subjective perceptions of what they can and cannot do. In other words, just because there are significant physical/cognitive handicaps, it does not mean that given appropriate accommodations, therapies, resources, as well as compensatory strategies that our student will not be able to reach their optimal potential.

Working with Physically/Cognitively Impaired Children: 

  • Uphold accountability 
    • You wouldn’t let a typical four-year-old get away with leaving a mess and not cleaning up their toys, so why would you let a four-year-old with Down syndrome or ASD slide?  It might take a tad longer to teach them what to do and how to do it but it certainly is more then doable
  • Do not excuse inappropriate behaviors and attribute it to a disability
  • Assign responsibility
    • Even in the presence of physical and cognitive disabilities students are still capable of performing a number of tasks and chores. This may include but not be limited to cleaning up own room, making up one bed, loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, vacuuming the floor, pushing the grocery cart in the store, loading and unloading food at the cash register, and much much more.
  • Encourage Hobbies 
  • Explore Adapted Sports 
    • Similar to hobbies adaptive sports can be incredibly beneficial to children with developmental disabilities. Movement helps to rewire the brain! Adaptive sports participation increases the child’s independence as well as fosters socialization with others.  Engagement in adaptive sports can also combat learned helplessness.
  • Support Quality of Life Experiences
    • Unfortunately the quality of life of the children with developmental disabilities that we work with is often compromised. Because there is inordinate focus placed on “just existing” and fitting in all the therapies, frequently joyful experiences are few and far between. If the situation allows it needs to change! There are so many simple activities we take for granted, which can bring true happiness to the children that we work with.
      • Swimming in the pool
      • Visiting a museum
      • Going into an amusement park
      • Picking berries or mushrooms in the woods
      • Going to the beach
      • Bird watching
      • Taking a vacation (if financially doable)
  • Expect more
    • Don’t let the child’s cognitive and/or physical limitations  stop them from reaching their true potential.
      • This may mean disagreeing with well-meaning but limitedly knowledgeable school-based professionals, who may tell you that your child with genetic syndrome such as Down Syndrome or Fragile X will never learn how to read (see Case C
      • This may mean finding accommodations and compensatory strategies for a student’s severe disabilities to make that person’s life more meaningful and enjoyable.  To illustrate, many years ago when I just started working for a school for severely medically fragile children, I’ve worked with severely physically impaired nonverbal young adult  (21) who had a limited use of his right arm (gross motor movements]only).  That did not stop us from ‘discussing’ works of literature, studying SAT level vocabulary, as well as learning Greek and Latin Roots of English.   It also didn’t stop his parents from exposing him to a variety of life experiences, aimed to make him feel like an average young adult, such as allowing him to taste a few drops of sake even though he was NPO (lat. for nothing by mouth)

Working with Language Impaired and Learning Disabled Children with Average IQ:

  • Increase their accountability in own education
    • Teach useful compensatory strategies
      • Have the children wear a watch to be more mindful of the passage of time (a child 6+ years of age could be an appropriate candidate)
      • Use of schedules, planners, and timers to be more mindful of time spent on homework, assignments, and test studying
      • Use charts listing various strategies of asking for help to teach children to increase ownership of their learning (FREE HERE)
  • Teach them to speak up regarding needed accommodations
    • Use of software applications
    • Time to prepare for oral responses
    • Use of choices when answering questions of increased complexity
    • Audio recording of newly taught information in the classroom
  • Develop their critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities
  • Change your outlook
    • Replace doing everything for them attitude or finger-pointing and blame attitude with solution- focused constructive criticism by teaching specific strategies which will help the student succeed
  • Encourage perseverance
    • Teach the students positive strategies of not giving up and persisting through the difficult situations

Changing the ingrained patterns of learned helplessness is no easy feat.  It requires time, perseverance, and patience. But it can be done even in children with significant developmental and learning disabilities.  It is a difficult but much needed process, which is instrumental in helping our students/children attain their optimal potential.


  1. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco : Freeman.
  2. Peterson, C., S. Maier, and M. Seligman. (1993). Learned Helplessness. New York: Oxford University Press.