Moving Past Learned Helplessness

This week I have been focusing my research around indicator A, of ISTE Coaching Standard 3:
“Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.”

With the end of summer and beginning of fall approaching I have been thinking about my role as a digital learning coach in this new school year. I know that I want to become a coach who is supportive and encouraging, while also having high expectations for those I work with. In one of our recommended readings for this module, I came across learned helplessness. When reading this I realized that I found that I sometimes tend to be the teacher who just gives my students the answer or showing them how to solve a problem when they are frustrated. When I put on my coach’s hat I want to guide the educators I work with in the right direction while also encouraging them to explore and solve things on their own. From this I decided to dig deeper into what learned helplessness is, and how I can combat it so that I can have coaching relationships that will encourage educators to try new things. I looked at it with the lens of a teacher because the practices that are good for the classroom can be used and modeled in coaching relationships.

What is learned helplessness?

I decided to first look at learned helplessness from a medical standpoint. As educators we know that we can see the behavior in the classroom when it relates to school work, but I wanted to know more about it in the broad sense. Medical News Today defines learned helplessness as “a state that occurs after a person has experiences a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try – even when opportunities for change become available.” What I took from this is that there is usually something going on in a persons life that they are unable to control, and overtime they soon give up trying to change the situation even if their circumstances change.

In the lens of the classroom, it could be that because of repeated failure a student starts to believe they will not be able to overcome their difficulties in school. In my own classroom, I have had students who have exhibited some behaviors of learned helplessness within their own learning. They would say things to me such as “I will always have bad grades,” “I can’t do math,” or even “I will never learn this”. What this tells me is that these students have struggled in their academic career, and feel as if they have little control to change the situation.  In an article from Number Works ’n Words they give some characteristics teachers can look for to see if students are possibly experiencing learned helplessness. Here are a few that stood out to me:

  • Low motivation to learn, and diminished aspirations to succeed in school
  • Low outcome expectations (the belief that no matter what the outcome will always be negative)
  • Lack of confidence in their skills and abilities
  • They underestimate their performance when they do well (attribute their success to luck or chance)
  • They focus on what they cannot do, rather on focusing on their strengths and skills

What I have shared so far has been pretty classroom specific, but in reflection I have found that many of this can be applied to adult learners as well. With my upcoming role of coaching educators in digital learning tools, I have been reflecting on some of the things I have been seeing and hearing from fellow educators during our time of remote learning. Here are some of the things I have come across educators sharing whether in person or on social media platforms:

  • I am not good at digital teaching
  • I am too old to learn these new tools
  • Should I just quit now?
  • I was lucky that I got the computers to work with my students
  • I can’t implement all of those digital resources into my classroom

As I pondered between characteristics of learned helplessness and the above responses from educators, I realized how similar they are. It will be important for me as a coach to pay attention to my educators as much as I would look for these behaviors in my students.

Strategies to Combat Learned Helplessness

Once I got a good grip on what learned helplessness is, I looked for strategies to help others overcome it. Again, I looked mostly through the lens of a teacher with the intent that I would be able to apply my learnings into my future coaching relationships. I found some great ideas on an article from Edutopia and during my BEST Mentor training sessions from this past week.

Curate and Create Learning Resources

If we want students to seek out information, then we must provide sources for them from places other than their teachers. One way to encourage this is to be okay not knowing the answer, and working with students to find it. Create a culture where you can look for answers everywhere. This can easily be applied to coaching relationships as well. Coaches do not always have the answer, nor do they need to, and it would be a powerful experience for a coach to learn alongside the educators

Using Questions to Drive Learning

One of the biggest takeaways that I had from the BEST Mentor Academy was the importance of asking questions that do not have a right or wrong answer. This applies to coaching and teaching relationships. Questions are such a powerful tool that can be used to probe thinking. This also means that we listen with intent to those that we are working with. One way to do that is to paraphrase what they have said back to them, and then ask questions that push them to think.

Ex: Instead of saying “What would you do differently next time?” you could say “How does your learning from this affect your thinking about tomorrow’s lesson?”

By changing your questions up a little bit, you open the door for thinking and put the heavy lifting of thinking on those you’re coaching to start to come up with answers for themselves.

Allow for Failure

This is probably the biggest item for me. I believe that failure is a powerful tool in learning, but I still struggle when I fail myself. It is important to create a culture where it is okay to fail because that failure can be used to move ourselves forward. Some simple things mentioned that educators could do for students is to allow multiple drafts and revisions when you can. This communicates to students that they have multiple tries to learn and it is okay if they didn’t get it the first round. Another idea that I liked was that maybe we don’t need to grade every single thing our students do. Unintentionally by grading every single thing we may be communicating to students that it is not okay to fail. This can tie into coaching because our educators are going to fail sometimes and that’s okay. We need to work with them and build that relationship that it is okay because now they know more than they did before.

If you have the time, this video is a powerful talk on failing forward. Retrieved from


There are many layers to learned helplessness that go far beyond the scope of the classroom. We may not be able to change life situations for our students and educators, but we can control the culture of our relationships with them. If we are able to foster relationships that are positive yet ask for high expectations, there’s no limit to what can be achieved. Do you have more tips on combating learned helplessness? Share below!


Bondy, Elizabeth and Ross, Derene D. (2008, September). The Teacher as Warm Demander. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from

Leonard, Jayne. (2019, May 31). Learned Helplessness: Examples, Symptoms, and Treatment. Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Miller, Andrew. (2015, May 11). Avoiding Learned Helplessness. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Number Works ‘N Words. (NA). When Children Fail in School: Understanding Learned Helplessness. Number Works ‘N Words. Retrieved from

Psychology Compass. (2018, March 28). 3 Methods to Overcome Learned Helplessness and Boost Optimism. Psychology Compass. Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “Moving Past Learned Helplessness”

  1. I am so glad I read your blog post – what a great reminder about what learned helplessness is and how we can combat it with both students and teachers alike. We can become discouraged so quickly when we make mistakes, but we really need to change the way we view failure. One way I did that with my students was to do mini-lessons on a growth mindset and share with them more about neuro-research about how the brain works. I loved your other ideas of curating learning resources for teachers, asking questions, and using mastery-grading to show the learning continuum. Great work!

  2. Thank you for sharing about learned helplessness but also how to overcome by rephrasing questions and listening to the student. This was insightful.

  3. Great post. I think as coaches we have seen and heard a lot of learned helplessness this past spring from teachers and many of the things we would do as teachers to help students can work with teachers as well. I love that you shared “Coaches do not always have the answer.” this is important to remember and to be okay with. I use to think that I needed to have all the answers but that just is not possible. So sometimes it’s okay to say I don’t know but let me find out and get back to you. Great ideas and resources, thanks for sharing!

  4. Nice job and great post! I’ve done a lot of work with learned helplessness over the years and you’ve provided me with some new resources to learn from and explore. We run into learned helplessness via technology and STEM teacher professional development fairly frequently so it helps to have as many tools as possible to address this and support/empower people. Thank you!

Leave a Reply to Kaelynn Mumley Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *