Preventing Learned Helplessness

By George Clark, M.Ed, CI, NAD IV and Laura Scheele, M.Ed

"Deaf and hard of hearing students are entitled to and can become independent, self-sufficient adults." (The National Deaf Education Agenda, Goal 3.4) Achieving this seemingly simple goal can be more difficult to accomplish than it may first appear. Deaf and hard of hearing (d/hh) students often encounter barriers that hinder true independence, easily leading to a state of learned helplessness. Often we, the professionals and parents working to provide them with the best education possible, are the obstacles. Our well-meaning attempts to support these students can actually promote learned helplessness and hamper their ability to learn the skills necessary to self-advocate and become independent and self-sufficient adults.

Defining Learned Helplessness

The phenomenon of learned helplessness was first recognized by Martin Seligman, a present day leader in the field of positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and in the study of optimism and pessimism. Seligman conducted research in 1975 based on Pavlov's work related to classical conditioning. Seligman theorized that, like Pavlov, he could condition dogs to make an association with an external stimulus upon hearing a tone from a bell. Unlike Pavlov's positive reward-food upon salivation-Seligman's stimulus was negative and undesirable. In his experiments, dogs were exposed to low-voltage electric shocks while in a shuttlebox and harnessed so that they could not escape.

In theory, the dogs were meant to associate the tone they heard with the fear of the shock. In reality, because of the harnessing mechanism the dogs learned they were helpless to escape the shock. When the harnesses were removed and escape was possible, the dogs were unable to escape because of the previous internalized learning.

Upon this discovery, Seligman removed the barriers completely and even placed food in the safe part of the shuttlebox, but the dogs remained in their helpless state (Seligman, 1975). As a result, a new understanding about learning was born. It was found that learning was not solely based on receiving positive rewards, but could also be influenced by negative stimuli. Since those early experiments, much as been studied about positive and negative reward systems and how education and learning can be affected because of these influencing factors in schools.

Independence and D/HH Students

While the barriers for d/hh students may not be as obvious as those used by Seligman, they can be just as paralyzing. For example, a student depends on his interpreter or teacher of the d/hh to inform the classroom teacher about closed captioning needs, to tell him when it is time to go to speech class, and to provide extra explanation when he does not understand the assignment (or perhaps was not paying attention when directions were given). Such behaviors are barriers that prevent students from being independent and empowered to self-advocate, hindering them from accepting responsibility for their education. When students are not given responsibility in a safe environment where they can practice and learn, they will not be prepared for it when they transition into adulthood.

"Transition planning" has traditionally been considered only for students who are nearing graduation and need to plan for college and career. Yet teachers and parents need to consider transition planning the day the student first enters school, thus allowing students to generalize skills taught in school to everyday life outside of school. The educational team must keep learning relevant to the students' needs by looking for immediate and future application of skills outside of school. Students need to be taught pragmatic communication, problem solving, and advocacy skills in order to manage real-life challenges effectively, and they need opportunities to practice those skills in their school and community. This speaks to the need for good communication between school and home so that we all have the same goals in mind and are "rowing in the same direction."

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

In order to achieve synchronization of thought within the educational team, we should first be able to recognize the symptoms of learned helplessness. It manifests itself in many forms, but is often apparent in detectible symptoms including low self-esteem, a lack of motivation and poor problem solving skills. A student may demonstrate a lack of initiative or persistence; thus, they may be afraid to try a new task, so they look to someone else to "do for them," or they give up on a task too quickly. Others refuse to try a new task independently until they have had adult prompts and examples. They also are reluctant to make choices without looking to an adult to tell them which choice is "right." Some students with learned helplessness even become depressed or withdrawn. The language of learned helplessness can include noticeable language patterns that the deaf student uses such as, "I can't because I am deaf," or "this is too hard for me."

When a child learns to be helpless, this state of mind is personal, pervasive, and permanent. Students who have learned to be helpless are emotionally bound by the belief that they, personally, are the problem, while at the same time creating cognitive connections that they have no control over any aspect of their lives. In addition, they cannot see an end or escape from the beliefs that they can do nothing to change their circumstances. When the mind says, "I can't do this," the rest of the body obeys, whether it is true or not. By third grade, most children have developed either an optimistic or pessimistic overall view of life (Gordon, part 1).

Setting Right Paths or Rewiring

Establishing good patterns of behavior and modeling appropriate problem-solving skills during the early years of child development are critical. If patterns of dependence are created early, they can have long lasting effects. According to Eric Jensen, a renowned authority in the field of brain-compatible learning, "the brain must rewire itself to change the behavior," (Jensen, 1998); however, it is a slow, laborious process. He also notes that when Seligman tried to undo the learning that had been engrained, it took between 30 to 50 times of physically moving the dogs across the barrier before they were able to do it independently (Jensen). Educators and parents can not expect students who display signs and symptoms of learned helplessness to undo everything they have learned overnight. Because of the effort required to undo learned helplessness, prevention is ideal and very much possible.

Prevention is enhanced by giving d/hh students ever increasing ownership of their education. Ask yourself this question: Which goals would you be likely to pursue with the most vigor-those that you have set for yourself or those that others have set for you? Students should play an active role in planning their educational program and services. As the principal stakeholder, the d/hh student should be seated at the head of the table at the IEP planning meeting. Even young students can be involved in the IEP meeting, perhaps to do nothing more than simply show three samples of their best work and to share what they like and do not like about school. For older students, their inclusion in the discussion would make them aware of the choices that are available to them. Parents and educational professionals certainly need to have a say in these choices, but as the student grows older, there should be more and more student input and choice when planning programming and services. Early involvement in educational planning, as well as providing choices in related services, fosters independence and promotes self-advocacy.

Educational Interpreter: Help or Crutch?

As a related service, educational interpreting or transliterating can create dynamics within the interpreter/student relationship that may lead to over-dependency or other areas of concern. Typically, students have had no training on how to work effectively with that interpreter. Schools are often guilty of assuming that if they place an interpreter with a student, that inclusion is "mission accomplished." It is assumed that d/hh students are just born knowing how to use an interpreter, yet there is so much involved in making it work successfully.

First, there needs to be a determination as to whether or not the student is able to benefit from the services of an interpreter. If a student does not have a strong sign language base, then he will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend instruction through an interpreter. When this is true, the student's eyes will be all over the room but rarely on the interpreter. Often students who do not attend well to their interpreter are wrongly labeled as being "unmotivated" or having an attention deficit disorder. The root cause of inattention needs to be examined. The student may not be ready to receive his instruction through an interpreter until his language skills are more developed.

When interpreting has been found to be appropriate, there are still many skills to learn to receive optimal benefit from the service. Students need to know how to give good feedback so the interpreter can gauge comprehension and make adjustments as necessary, in addition to being able to explain and clarify to what degree the service is needed. For example, a student using a cochlear implant (or one who has some residual hearing) may not hang on the interpreter's every sign, but will utilize the interpreter only as needed and at their discretion.

Students should also have an understanding of the interpreter's role in various settings, including during testing situations. In addition, students would benefit from a general understanding of the ethical guidelines that interpreters must follow. For example, a student should know that if they go to the school's guidance counselor to discuss a concern, that the interpreter must keep that information confidential. And interpreters should not be interjecting their personal opinions. Also, when a student is faced with a substitute interpreter, he needs to be able to explain his needs and preferences. Or suppose a student has some type of personal conflict with his interpreter or feels that the interpreter's skills are insufficient for his needs. Does he know that he is able to express his concerns without fear of reprimands? Does he know who to go to with his concerns? Meetings between the educational team, the student, and the parents need to evaluate the interpreting parameters regularly in order to build skills of independence and self-advocacy.

In an article on student perspectives of educational interpreting, one of the items on the students' "Wish List for Interpreters" was this: "Let me make my own decisions; do not make choices for me, coddle me, or discipline me" (Winston, 2002). Obviously, this applies not only to educational interpreters, but also to any adult who works regularly with the student. If we are going to prevent symptoms of learned helplessness, we must all be cognizant of the necessity to teach students to problem solve and make choices.

When d/hh children are faced with a problem, there is a tendency for the adults in their lives to want to solve it for them, or perhaps tell them exactly how they should solve it. But a more constructive approach would be to guide the child through a problem solving process. First, work with the student to brainstorm possible solutions. Talk about both short- and long-term effects each choice would have, and discuss how it affects others. Then allow the student to make the choice. Children need opportunities to solve problems and have control. We all know the great sense of satisfaction of solving a problem on our own rather than when someone has had to solve it for us. We may not always like the choice a student makes, but if it offers no real harm to them or others, it is often wise to let her make the choice and deal with the natural consequences that come with it. We have all "learned from our mistakes," and those are usually the lessons that we never forget.

Study Strategies

Developing effective study strategies is another means of promoting independence. One middle school student learned that using index cards with the question on one side and the answer on the other was an effective strategy for her when she was required to memorize facts for tests in science and social studies. Another student who had difficulty with spelling words during writing assignments found that he had success using an electronic spelling dictionary. Both of these are strategies that the student can do independently. An unhealthy alternative would be when a teacher or interpreter always quizzes the student in preparation for tests and the student always asks his teacher or interpreter when he does not know how to spell a word. Developing independent study strategies gives the student self-confidence to confront other academic or career challenges later in life.

Critical Skills for Success

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a coalition of leading corporations and organizations, such as Dell, Verizon, Ford Motor Company, Microsoft, The National Education Association, and Time Warner. This group has identified skills that they believe are critically important for all students to learn in order to be successful in careers in the 21st century. Collectively, they encourage schools to include in their curriculum such skills as critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration skills, as well as the "life skills" of leadership, ethics, accountability, adaptability, personal productivity, personal responsibility, people skills, self-direction, and social responsibility. Deaf and hard of hearing students need to develop these skills in conjunction with the skills to advocate for their own needs.

The development of these "life skills" requires parents and educators to have high expectations balanced with an understanding of the need to gradually transfer responsibility on to the d/hh student as he or she progresses through the school system. Collaboration is imperative given the fact that many general education teachers have had little to no contact with successful deaf or hard of hearing adults. This lack of understanding makes the average teacher unsure of what to expect of a d/hh student. It is important to find ways to make connections between the school community and the local deaf community. Consider inviting d/hh adults to the school to share about their life experiences, career, family, and hobbies; or consider attending deaf community events in your area. Deaf adult role models benefit not only the students, but also their teachers, interpreters, peers, and family members.


Triangles of Responsibility
(Clark and Scheele, 2005)

The original paradigm of the 'triangles of responsibility' (see chart above) is the concept of Dennis Davino, Esther Zawalkow, and Sadie DeFiorio and is a popular icon in the field of educational interpreting that focuses solely on the interpreter/student relationship. However, we felt that model to be inadequate in expressing the true nature of the collaborative effort required to shift responsibility as students grow. Our collaborative model suggests that interpreters and teachers share the greater amount of responsibility, as depicted by the greater base area of the triangle during the foundation years of education. As the student grows, the amount of responsibility is distributed, at times evenly, among the triumvirate until the student eventually bears the brunt of decision making, advocacy, and responsibility for him or herself. Whether or not a student uses an interpreter, learning to self-advocate and become independent is just as important for issues such as learning to take responsibility for hearing aids, getting assistance for captions, finding a good place to sit in the classrooms, or any other skill that requires practice. For students who do not use an interpreter, the model can still be applicable when a teacher for the deaf/hh or other educational team member provides the balancing support. A solid foundation is not complete however, without the underpinned support of other family members, educators, and community members.

As we have stated, the student plays an important role in collaboration with the educational team. Allowing students to be involved in the training of staff is a great way to build these self-advocacy skills. First the d/hh student needs to have a clear understanding of his strengths, needs, and preferences and be able to communicate this to others. The student may wish to discuss such things as the proper way to get attention, the importance of having visual access in the classroom, and why he sometimes misunderstands what is said. Students who use interpreters would also need to explain the role of the interpreter in the classroom. This may be done by means of a powerpoint presentation, or the student may be more comfortable with a one-on-one meeting with individual teachers. When students are not taught this in school, they are ill-prepared for the challenges of life outside of school. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses and government agencies to provide accommodations for communication access, including hiring qualified interpreters or real-time captioning, d/hh adults are quite often denied services until they advocate for their rights. Learning to do this with confidence and tact should be incorporated into the school experience.

To set the course for a fulfilling life in the 21st century, deaf educators, interpreters, and parents must work together to build bridges and remove barriers for d/hh students. We cannot allow ourselves or other good-intentioned adults to set up obstacles by attitudes or behaviors that lead to symptoms of learned helplessness. When building foundational skills for independence and self-advocacy is incorporated in the K-12 school experience, d/hh students will be able to pursue their goals and dreams with confidence. As the maxim goes, "The time is now!"

References and Citations

Clark, G. and Scheele, L. (2005) Indiana Deaf Educators and Educational Interpreters Conference Presentation Preventing Learned Helplessness: A Collaborative Approach to Promote Self-Advocacy and Independence

Gordon, Robert and Myrna Learned Helplessness and School Failure Part 1 and 2,

Indiana Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (2002) Indiana Educational Interpreter Guidelines

Jensen, Eric (1998) Teaching With the Brain in Mind, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Marks, S.B. (1998) Understanding and preventing learned helplessness in...Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness; Mar. Vol. 92 Issue 3, p200, 12p

Partnership for 21st Century Skills,

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco : Freeman.

Winston, Elizabeth, Editor (2002) Educational Interpreting: How it Can Succeed, Gallaudet University Press

RESOURCE YOU CAN USE!! The Informal Inventory of Independence and Self-Advocacy Skills for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Studentsis intended to aide collaboration among students, parents, and educational team members. This informal inventory of observable skills should serve as a catalyst to spark dialogue and provide common ground for discussing issues that impact the students' lives in profound ways. It is available online at

Copyright 2014 Hands & Voices   ::   Privacy Policy   ::   Credits