Helping Children Overcome Learned Helplessness

By: Kylie Miller

Imagine yourself filling a large 64 oz, glass mason jar with moss, leaves, dirt, and twigs. Now imagine catching a handful of grasshoppers to put inside of your perfectly curated grasshopper home. What you will find, is that despite your efforts to build a perfect tiny world, they will, without a doubt, jump out of the jar. So, what happens if you trap the grasshoppers by screwing the lid on (with holes for oxygen of course)? The grasshoppers will try to escape and after several days of jumping, to no avail, they will stop. The grasshoppers will learn that, despite their best efforts, they cannot escape from the jar.

Now imagine that after several days of this, you take the lid off the jar. Now what happens? Will the grasshoppers leap out of the jar and hop wearily into the sunset? Well, according to research, our grasshoppers will not try to escape from the mason jar and will insist on planting themselves firmly into their new home. In other words, the grasshoppers have learned that they cannot escape, and the consequence is helplessness.

The concept of learned helplessness was first introduced to us by the founder of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, and his colleague Dr. Steven F. Maier in 1967. The concept of learned helplessness stood the test of time and became entrenched in modern psychological thought including the fields of both developmental and educational psychology. However, both Seligman and Maier were not quite done with their research. The concept was revisited by both scholars again in 2016 and the original mechanism was quite literally, flipped on its head.

In this article, I will trace the concept back to its origins. This article will define the concept of learned helplessness, demonstrate how it presents in children, what impact it has on education, and finally how we can overcome or neutralize the impact of learned helplessness. Moreover, I will attempt to illuminate how in 2016, Seligman and Maier applied a positive psychology lens to the original concept of learned helplessness and what their new interpretation means for the future of psychology.

What is Learned Helplessness?

According to Seligman and Maier (1967) learned helplessness is, “…the failure to escape shock induced by uncontrollable aversive events…” i.e., the grasshoppers. Learned helplessness was researched and observed in both animals and humans. Seligman and Maier (1967) theorized that during their trials animals and humans learned that “…outcomes were independent of their responses – that nothing they did mattered – and that this learning undetermined trying to escape.” In other words, when bad things happen, there is nothing that can be done to escape the problem, even under painful conditions. The original theory argues that when humans and animals think they have no control over the outcome, they begin to act as if they are helpless.

Seligman and Maier continued their research with dogs, rodents, and eventually humans. During the human experiments, Seligman and Maier found an important link between learned helplessness and depression. In order to understand the link to depression, it is important to understand the two types of learned helplessness: universal helplessness and personal helplessness. Universal helplessness is when a person believes nothing can be done about the situation they are in and that there is no way to alleviate discomfort. Personal helplessness is when a person believes that they are incapable of discovering a solution to their discomfort.

Learned Helplessness Symptoms

So how does this impact children? Social cognitive theories in psychology suggest that if children learn to doubt their control, they give up easily in the face of challenges. Research tells us that beliefs of control reach maturity in middle childhood, however, some children show a helpless pattern of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors as early as preschool. Moreover, poverty stressors (i.e. chaotic living situations, deficit of basic needs) may train a pattern of helplessness that impacts children’s academic and social-emotional success.

I mentioned earlier that the concept of learned helplessness has had far-reaching implications, including in the field of education. School helplessness is defined as a psychological state in which the student perceives a lack of control over school-related outcomes (Raufelder, Sahabandu, Sánchez Martínez, & Escobar, 2015). In children learned helplessness symptoms can look like the following:

  • Avoidance of competition
  • Concerns about individual competence
  • Ineffective learning strategies
  • Poor effort and negative emotions

These characteristics create a cycle in which the student lacks the belief that they can be successful which leads to a lack of effort. A lack of effort leads to poor achievement and limited success. This cycle can repeat itself time and time again or even lead to more negative outcomes including less motivation to learn or a complete lack of competency in a certain subject.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

While parents, caregivers, and teachers are often to blame for learned helplessness, they also hold the key to unlocking change. The good news is, that there are ways to overcome learned helplessness that can break habits and prevent new ones from forming. Here are some ways you can help children overcome learned helplessness:

  • Children are allowed to fail! This enables children to be exposed to failure in a productive setting. Make sure you are nearby and available to provide support if they fail.
  • Students do not always need to know the right answer! It is important for students to have access to materials that allow them to engage in research. Teach children that when they do not know the answer, they can look it up!
  • Whatever you do, do not give students the answer! Like the last strategy, children do not need all the answers. Slow down and let them take the time they need to discover the answer on their own terms.
  • Provide praise to children for their efforts! Parents and teachers are both guilty of praising children when they get the correct answer or when they cross the finish line first. There is nothing wrong with this! However, we also want to praise children when they put forth effort. This helps children learn that their effort makes a difference!
  • Finally, set goals with children! Just like adults, children enjoy having something to work towards. Make sure the goals are reasonable and within their ability. This teaches children that outcomes are within their control and goals can be achieved.

In this article, we traced the concept of learned helplessness to its origins, defined it, and applied it to education. The exciting thing about this concept is that it is not over yet! This field of psychology continues to grow with regularly emerging research. For example, in 2016, the original forefather of learned helplessness, Seligman, also discovered that while people can learn feelings of helplessness, they can also learn optimism. This is an important reminder that research happening right now, as we speak (or read), can have larger implications for mental health disorders and education.


  • Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74.
  • Filippello, P., Larcan, R., Sorrenti, L., Buzzai, C., Orecchio, S., & Costa, S. (2017). The Mediating Role of Maladaptive Perfectionism in the Association between Psychological Control and Learned Helplessness. Improving Schools, 20, 113-126.
  • Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123, 349-367.
  • Raufelder, D., Regner, N., & Wood, M. A. (2018). Test anxiety and learned helplessness is moderated by student perceptions of teacher motivational support. Educational Psychology, 38, 54-74.
  • Raufelder, D., Sahabandu, D., Sánchez Martínez, G., & Escobar, V. (2015). The mediating role of social relationships in the association of adolescents’ individual school self-concept and their school engagement, belonging, and helplessness in school. Educational Psychology, 35, 137–157.

More Resources