Preventing Learned Helpless and Developing Confidence
As a mom, I have often found myself 'hovering' around my child, ensuring both her safety and obedience. From the age of birth till 2, I become a 'snow plow' parent, plowing away the obstacles in my child's life to ensure a smooth and safe journey from each activity that she created. Finding myself on the jungle gym with my daughter, sitting in every room with her, monitoring her every move. Although I believed that I was helping and supporting her, I also needed to give her independence as she grew. It become obvious when I saw other children her age showing boldness and climbing up the stairs and going down the slide fearlessly. My daughter struggled to feel confident climbing the stairs. In this moment, I realized that it was time to give my daughter more power and rein allowing her to develop confidence. Developmentally, I believe that children do require a bit of 'snowplowing,' but being aware of their growth is crucial, as well as their temperament. My child does not posses a dare-devil approach to life, she assess and weighs options, even at a young age, teaching independence was a struggle more so than obedience due to her innate nature.
A continued snow-plow approach develops what is know as learned helplessness, the lack of motivation and confidence to solve problems due to their conditioned state of being helped. It is natural for parents and teachers to want to help our children and kids, most of the time it is necessary, however, it is not how much we help them, but in what way that causes issues. I know that had I continued to hover over my daughter and not allow her to fail and make mistakes, I too would have conditioned her to learn helplessness.
When we pull a part the word, learned helplessness, we see both learn and help, contradictory by nature. To learn is defined as to "gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught," (Oxford Dictionaries). The definition of help: "make it easier for (someone) to do something by offering one's services or resources" (Oxford Dictionaries). In essence we are teaching our child to "acquire skill by being taught" to constantly accept other's ability "to make it easier for" themselves. We are creating a culture that lacks motivation.
How can we create proactive students/children?
First, it is important to self assess our behavior as parents or teachers with students. It is especially easy to be quick to offer help to students that may have a learning difference, difficult situation, or even an injury. It is important to take a broader view on our roles as parents and look at how can I actually help teach my child the skill they are requiring help for. Most times children really do need help, but their motivation and drive to attempt to solve the problem has been downplayed so often that they lack the tools to feel confident and capable. We will need to take active steps to help our children learn how to solve a problem.
Back to my story about being on the jungle gym with my daughter, I still occasionally go on the jungle gym with her, especially if it is a new park, and help her observe safe spots and appropriate activities her. Here I am using what I know about my daughter's need to observe and assess situations and accompany her. Then I help her choose a slide or two to go down with me. She sits on my lap and we ride down. The next time we go up she sits between my legs so as feel the sensation of riding alone. Finally, she is required to tour the jungle gym on her own. When she is ready to attempt to slide down, I help pull her legs to the edge and help her down. Finally, she will need to do it herself.
I create steps that start with full dependence and slowing progress towards independence. This safely ensure that a child feel both safe and confident in any given situation. Hopefully, using this approach you will begin to see how important it is to give our children opportunities to attempt success. Supporting with words of encouragement is also a key component in helping students to not feel stuck in their failure, resorting back to that learned helplessness.