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Every teacher knows that one girl or boy in her classroom who just won't do "it," whatever "it" is: a math problem, essay writing, or jumping rope. A teacher's gentle encouragement of these students tends to fall on deaf ears because they have an unfortunate condition I like to call "learned helplessness."

 

Learned helplessness manifests as a refusal to perform a certain task, even before trying, based on a confidence in inevitable failure. This develops as a response to repetitive negative feedback in the process of initial learning. For example, a young child learning to walk and talk typically doesn't experience this response. Their every effort to master these skills is met with cheers and positive feedback. Once these important skills are set, however, parents tend to forget that every other human skill takes no less effort. The older our children become, the more we expect them to do things right the first time.

 

Parents often have more patience with their children learning physical, rather than intellectual, things. There is some logic to this: physical effort and improvement is clearly observable. You can see whether a child actually tried to run faster or jump higher. But you can't see what's happening in a child's brain as he or she struggles with a math problem.

 

Patience is key. There are other ways parents can help with homework that will preclude a child from that feeling of inevitable doom: ensuring clarity (making sure the child knows what's being asked of them), teaching them to use scratch paper for trials, to write out their solutions, and to evaluate their own work are important tools towards this goal. Do not leave the task of recognizing the signs of learned helplessness to your child's teachers. Always be vigilant.

 

Tags: being good at math, struggling in math, psychology of math

Julia Turchaninova

Written by Julia Turchaninova

Dr. Turchaninova has a B.S. and M.S. in Physics, and Ph.D. in education from Moscow State Pedagogical University. She brings with her 40 years of teaching and research experience at the high school, college and university levels.

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