Learned Helplessness (page 2)
By first or second grade children begin to connect their successes and failures to the amount of personal effort they put into a task. They're confident that they can do well if they try. As they get older, however, they add ability into the equation and begin comparing their performance with others. It does not take long before the string of failures of the child with a learning disability inevitably leads to distrusting his or her abilities and giving up: "Why bother, I'm so dumb."
Such children learn to adopt a "learned helpless" attitude toward achievement, an attitude that it's just not worth trying to do better. Studies have shown that as many as 70 percent of students who are learning disabled believe that they have little control over success. They are no longer motivated to prove that they are competent and are defeated even before they begin because they believe they are "too stupid," or that something external to them will prevent success (such as "the teacher is too picky").
The lower the child's self-concept is, the more that he or she points to poor ability to explain failures and the less persistent he or she is likely to be, even when the outcome could have been positive. Turning around this negative self-evaluation is a very important goal for teachers, because self-concept has been found to be a far more powerful predictor of academic progress than IQ for students with LD.
Unlike poor achievers, good achievers are internally motivated. They have learned that success is related to personal effort and that it's always worth trying because success is likely. When they fail they might blame bad luck or external factors, or admit that they didn't put in enough effort ("I deserved a D since I chose to go to the movies rather than study").
Students with learning disabilities understand that lack of effort contributes to failure, but they are much more likely to chalk up their failures to their poor abilities. When they do succeed, they credit good luck or some other external factor, such as "the teacher was just being nice to me." They find it extremely difficult to take personal credit for success. As a result, they see no purpose in struggling with difficult tasks, putting time into studying, trying to be organized, or watching others' successful strategies and copying them. Tanis Bryan explains, "Not expecting to be in control of learning, the learning disabled may wait to be rescued" (1986, p. 227). (This kind of helplessness is not limited to those with LD. Average achievers, too, may stare blankly at a teacher who has posed a question, waiting and hoping that the teacher will provide the answer and spare them the effort of even trying. Sometimes even the best of teachers tend to oblige).
When we discuss with students their beliefs about what causes success and failure, help them make choices about what to achieve and how they will achieve it, let them know we're there to support them, help them break tasks into more manageable parts, and attribute their successes to very specific abilities and efforts rather than to luck, these students stand a chance to regain their interest, enthusiasm, and motivation to put energy into learning. Specific praise—"Good try at sounding out"—is better than saying simply, "You're great." Because these children do not believe they are capable, general praise means little. When we instead praise a concrete effort, we've shifted their attention to what they can do to meet the curriculum's challenges.
The good news is that when students with LD begin to understand the relationship between effort and success, they do persist longer on difficult tasks and are more strategic at going about learning. They begin to see themselves as more able and responsible for successes. In addition, because their initial performance is so diminished by low motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivational techniques produce great increases in performance for the learning disabled, even greater than those for their average achieving classmates.
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