Learned Helplessness and a Growth Mindset


Anxiety and Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such an experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. - Wikipedia

How does this tie into anxiety? When an organism, a dog for example, is experiencing a shock, being chased, or an injury the dog is experiencing a series of biological changes as a result of anxiety. According to the Americal Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. It’s what the human body is doing as a result of anxiety that is inhibiting learning, thinking and processing. In the brain there is a whole cascade of neurochemical and hormonal events that happen. You can learn more about what happens in your brain when experiencing anxiety here.


Failure Plus Thoughts About My Failure

The big difference between learned helplessness in animal and human models is thought. Humans have thought. It’s not enough just to experience a stressor. There is the stressor and what you make of it. What if you think, “I can’t do that. Why bother? I’m not smart enough. What’s the use? I’ll just fail anyway. Nothing works for me.” Those types of thoughts are the intermediary and can be predictive of whether or not the child will weather this difficult stressor okay or not okay and develop a higher likelihood for depression or anxiety diagnoses.

It’s failure plus the thoughts about my failure in humans that determines whether learned helplessness can kick in. This thought process can be described as Explanatory Style. Explanatory Style can be loosely described as the way we explain why things happen. Why did this happen to me?


Optimistic Explanatory Style vs. Pessimistic Explanatory Style

When Faced with Bad Events

Optimistic Explanatory Style:
Bad events are temporary.
Bad events are specific.
Blame other people or circumstances.


Pessimistic Explanatory Style:

Bad events persist.
Bad events are universal.
Blaming themselves for the event.


When a child has an unsuccessful experience. For example: the child is asked to read aloud in front of the class and it did not go well. They stumbled over their words, other children were snickering at them, the teacher had to step in and help them, then after the second sentence the teacher asks the student to stop then moves on. Next time the student is asked to read aloud in class what do they expect? Failure, this is not going to go well. The teacher calls on the student and they experience greater hesitancy, self doubt and diminished perseverance and then creates a self fulfilling prophecy by repeating the same experience again.

The thoughts after a failure are what’s most important to address. We can’t prevent bad experiences from happening to our children.


Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

A mindset is a belief about yourself and others. Mindsets affect us and our students. What is your mindset? What are the mindsets of our students? It is important to think about the mindset of the child and adults. You can learn more about the impact of mindsets on Carol Dweck’s, Ph.D. website.

Fixed Mindsets

Abilities are fixed.
Effort = bad at
No effort = good at
Hide struggles and challenges


Growth Mindsets

Abilities are moldable
Effort + ability = success
We can develop our abilities
Challenges are opportunities to grow

Helpless Children

Attribute failure to lack of ability.
Employ ineffective strategies when working on problems.
Report feeling negatively while working.
Expect to do poorly.
Ruminate about irrelevant matters.
Fall apart when they encounter a failure.
Do not benefit from prior successes.

So, What Now?

Don’t panic. We can do things to shape and create a growth mindset environment.

We are all a mix of fixed and growth mindsets and probably always will be.

To ban fixed mindsets will likely create false growth mindsets.

Be aware of where you are fixed, and where you are growth and challenge your own areas of fixed nature - in yourself and your students.


Raise Awareness About Mindsets

Raise awareness in your family, classroom, school and among parents about mindsets. For example, new research is showing intellect, for example, is moldable. Many brain functions we thought were fixed are now seen more like a muscle; they can be strengthened with effort and hard work. Too often when we experience or see struggle, we want to move past this. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone struggle, and it’s uncomfortable to experience it yourself. But that’s the good stuff.

Recommended: Dweck’s Brainology Program for schools and home.

Instead of moving past the struggle, spend more time in it - seeking it, delighting in it, and celebrating it. As “teachers”, we should be looking for those moments where we get to see our children in their sweet spot, about to get there! Help children recognize the struggle and seize it as a learning opportunity. Don’t steal that weight and from them just as they are about to reach the top by scaffolding too heavily. Let students get there themselves as you spot them and cheer them on.


“We do kids a disservice when we step in so soon so they never experience making mistakes. In fact, children learn more when we allow them to make mistakes; it’s all in how we teach them to handle it.”

- from “Eight Ways to Help Your Students Build Resiliency”


Set a culture that values taking risks. Teach them to try something. Risk taking can only take place in a trusting environment. Learn How Parents Can Instill a Growth Mindset at Home


Harness the Power of Yet

“I’m not good at math YET!” Smart people work hard. Talented people work hard. “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking because its trust is not on the branch but on it’s own wings. Always trust in yourself.”

Ultimately we want a successful experience. Successful experiences can then set the expectation of success, welcome current challenges and create greater perseverance. This sets the stage for a cycle of successful experiences.


Learn more about learned helplessness from the videos below.

 Reference Videos About Learned Helplessness and A Growth Mindset