Episode 15 Learned Helplessness on the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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Learned Helplessness

Child with learned helplessness is pushing help away




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Full Transcript for Episode 15

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.

Hey Darius, what are we going to talk about today?

Well, I kept mentioning this thing about learned helplessness.

And this is the podcast.

I think we should just talk about learned helplessness.

Yeah, let's dive in.

And in thinking about this podcast, I dug a little bit and found two definitions that I thought could start the conversation.

So, the first one was learned.

Helplessness happens when people or animals become conditioned to believe that a bad situation is unchangeable or inescapable, and then the second one is learned.

Helplessness occurs when an individual continually faces negative, uncontrollable situations and stops trying to change their circumstances even when they have the ability to do so.

Yeah, I think the term has a very specific meaning in psychological circles because of the research done in the seventies with dogs and so forth.

I'm not an expert in all of that, and so when I I'm using the term learned helplessness, I'm in many ways I'm often using it and as just what the words say on the tin.

You know that a child often in school learns helplessness.

If there’s an LD and they are not getting any help and they feel so helpless and if you think differently and you're not getting help with that.

You can find some learned helplessness there.

But what's interesting is that they're not so very different, is there?

I find it fascinating digging into this a little bit more that it's about this feeling of control.

You know, if they no longer feel they can actually control the outcome, they just let go, give up and let things roll.

Yeah, and I think there is a huge emotional component here that giving up is a place where they stopped trying and it's interesting.

So, I see it all the time when I know a child is capable, but they come to my office, and they have.

They've given up, they've kind of thrown in the towel and they're like, what I've tried.

I tried many times, and I was wrong, and I don't want to be wrong anymore.

I would rather not even try than to be wrong.

I think that's what's going on.

And to go back to that you brought up the whole psychological seventies.

Um, I'm not sure when the study was conducted, but I thought I'd give a little bit of background from what I can remember in my psychological studies, it was a study done with dogs, and what they did is they randomly shocked the dog when the dog was in a cage.

In other words, the dog never knew when they were going to get a shock.

And initially the dog tried to escape and did everything they could and panicked and brainstormed and tried to escape getting the shock.

But when they realized that they couldn't get away from the shock, they actually laid down in a very dejected way on the shocker, just waiting for the next shock.

And I think a lot of people have used that term to describe students because it's almost in itself a metaphor for what a lot of kids with learning disabilities or executive functioning problems go through because people just don't understand that something might be hard for them.

And so, they may be very judgmental and maybe very critical, and maybe even use negative labels.

And or even the individual may have an inner voice that's saying, Oh, I'm such a such an idiot and such a dummy.

Why can't I do this?

Everybody else can do this, and they eventually give up It reminds me of a book that a friend of mine wrote called Faking it where faking it is really almost a case of learned helplessness because you'd almost rather be the class clown than the class dumb. You know what I mean?

And so, there is that kind of sense of Okay, if I can't do this, then what can I do to distract people away?

But ultimately there is at the very heart of that is that sense of learned helplessness where they're just feeling like they just don't have the energy or the will to try anymore.

Yeah, I remember a moment where I was sitting with a young friend of mine.

He was seven years old, and he said, I'm dyslexic, I can't read.

And that's a sign of learned helplessness because I then wrote a little poem.

I suppose I was just a little script, which was something along the lines of You can't read yet.

And that word yet is very powerful and important in changing that mindset because there was a time where I couldn't tie my shoelaces.

But now I can.

There was a time when I couldn't tell the time, but now I can.

And every time I was in those situations and when I say I couldn't tie my shoelaces, I couldn't Thailand, my shoelaces.

When other people could my age, I couldn't tell the time when other people could tell the time.

But I couldn't tell it yet.

And that word yet is very powerful because if you don't have that yet, you just say I have no control over this.

I'm not going to learn to read or I'm not going to manage this, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's right.

And that's the scary part of learned helplessness is it really gets you to a point where you're unable to grow.

You become stagnant stale.

I suppose I'm kind of turning it to Children here because so much of my work involves Children and teenagers and the company.

That bullet map academy, like this whole area of learned helplessness is really a challenge in terms of accommodations.

Okay, and I just want to talk a little bit about that because this might be a little bit controversial.

Okay, I get to speak to a lot of people through the dyslexia explored podcast about dyslexia and experts and so on.

And I get to speak behind the scenes, etcetera and parents as well.

One of the biggest challenges.

They worry that if they give their child extra time or if they get this extra help with their work and so on, the child starts to think that they're cheating or they're getting an unfair advantage, and they want to be judged equally with the others.

They want to be actually credited for an achievement rather than it being dismissed that Oh, you had extra time.

Of course, you got a better mark or whatever.

And then there's other aspects where parents might say, well, I don't want my child to kind of learn to be helpless, like they're waiting for someone to put in a battery of accommodations before they can manage to do something you can go to the other extreme of No, you've just got to learn to cope and manage and so on.

And, you know, there's a whole spectrum of concerns all related to this.

One thing about how you become a confident learner and an independent citizen, an independent learner without becoming helpless and dependent on those around you to do it the way that you needed to be done.

Do you know what I mean?

And this is a big thing I do.

And I think there's also that comes up with technology a lot to, for example, if a child has this, should they be allowed to use a calculator for simple math?

I've had students that have come to me and said, oh, well, I don't have to do math I can use a calculator And I've actually told them how to do math because I didn't like that sense of dependency and helplessness.

And even the voice to text can argue that a lot of those types of accommodations prevents them from. For example, say a child wanted to learn how to type.

But instead of learning how to type, they learned voice to text, and they never learned how to type.

So, they didn't They never gave themselves the chance or the practice because they felt in that moment that they weren't capable.

And that's the other thing is when kids sometimes learn things, they're not developmentally ready, whereas maybe their other peers are.

So, there are times where I have kids that say, oh, you know I have dysgraphia and I can't write and I'll say, Well, you can now.

I mean, when you tried to learn how to write, you were really little, and you didn't have a lot of coordination.

But I can see now that you have a lot more coordination, and I bet you and it goes back to that yet again.

I use that all the time as well.

You can't write yet.

But you know what?

Let's give it a try, because I have a funny feeling that you will be able to do it and you're going to have beautiful handwriting and imagine how you're going to feel because you know, when you can't write neatly, you're always hiding.

You're always hiding your handwriting.

You're always trying to think of other ways, like if you can't spell, you have to think of other words that you do know how to spell, and that's a pain.

But I really am a firm believer that just about any kid can learn the basics.

Yes, and it's kind of like tied in with this analogy of the automatic thinker versus the manual thinker.

Automatic car versus the manual car.

There's a time where you can manually go through.

It might involve 18 gears like a truck to get up to 60 miles an hour, whereas someone else just goes into drive and they're up there in a matter of seconds.

But that truck, up at 70 miles an hour, is carrying a massive payload.

And just because it took that extra 18 gears to write that out by hand or whatever, it's still helpful and significant and useful skill.

So, yeah, that's the nub of it.

Is that let's take it back to their learned helplessness.

You know what they did with the dog experiment?

Was that so?

There are three groups of dogs, and one group of dogs could jump away from the shock.

And they did, and another group of dogs were harnessed to another dog and the other dogs.

Reaction affected them, and then they both learned to jump away from it.

And then the third group, they were harnessed to another dog.

But that other dog didn't experience the shock, but one dog did, and they couldn't sync with one another.

And so, they learned this helplessness and just gave up.

I have no control.

I'm just going to have to suffer this for the rest of my life sort of thing.

And then they did an extra step in the experiment.

In future years, they made a very small barrier and the same barrier, and what they did was they went to the dogs and kept giving them these electric shocks.

Terrible that they do this, the animals.

But you know, it's quite informative.

They actually lifted the dog's legs and place them over the barrier and physically showed them how to do it, and they had to do it two or three times.

But once they learned how to do that, they were like, oh, gosh, and they actually overcame the learned helplessness.

And so, in a way, it's interesting because that's kind of like an intervention.

When it comes to brain training, someone comes along and says, Let's train you how to do this and they say, I can't do that and you're like, Well, let's try it And just like you're doing with the handwriting, Yes, you can now, and they're like, Oh my goodness, I can And then they make the jump and it's quite surprising how they can make the jump if it's at the right time and the right stage.

And I found that really fascinating in a way that's what you've done and link that with the developmental stage.

And I thought, That's quite interesting.

Well, you know, it can be developmental, but it can also be a way of learning.

So maybe a teacher shows them away.

That doesn't work for them.

So, having my background, I love multi-sensory teaching where you can bring in more senses.

So, for example, when I teach multiplication, I have a menu.

The last place I ever go is rote memorization.

I use skip counting melodies.

I use body taps and actual movements and hand clapping games that bring in kind of your muscle memory and given patterns and sounds and touch sequences.

You know anything to give them a variety of choices, and then I let them choose.

And then I even have ones that have, like memory strategies that are visual memory strategies like seven.

I think I've said this one before on the podcast.

Seven times seven is 49 years.

But I have two pictures of two football players head-to-head, but you know, have given the variety.

I've never personally worked with a student that wasn't able to learn once I learned who they were, and I learned what their talents were, and I spoke their language, so to speak.

They were capable of moving through things that were quite profoundly difficult.

I had a student with visual spatial skills in the 1st and 2nd percentile, and after working with him for three months, we got them up to a perfect score.

It's just a matter of finding their way and starting out again, where they are developmentally ready and keeping them in that zone of proximal development so that they're always a little bit stretched.

It's not too easy it's not too hard and that over time it's amazing how you can overcome just about anything, including cognitive based weaknesses that you find on a neuro psych assessment.

You know, you really can strengthen those areas, so that doesn't trip them up anymore.

It's just it's just you have to focus on that one area and build it slowly.

I love it.

I think that's so helpful because I think sometimes a teacher or a school system might say, Right, we'll just give him extra time.

Sometimes it's kind of like giving a person in a wheelchair extra time to go up the steps, and you're like, Hold on a minute.

I don't even have the skills to go up the steps even if you gave me extra time.

And so, giving them the skill of doing the time Stables are the writing.

My personal experience is teaching Children to write a story or an essay with dyslexia not concentrating on the grammar and spelling, but on the organizing of the content with the map that is equipping them with the skill to actually go up the steps for a time.

They may need the extra time, and they may always need the extra time.

But they also need a way to control the situation and have agency to achieve the outcome that they're wanting.

So, it's all about this giving them agency?

Yep, yep.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about, Game discussion that came up while we were discussing this was, there are a number of words that adults and other peers can use that can lead to a learned helplessness, and I've seen it many, many times in my I hate the word careless.

It's a personal pet peeve of mine because I've never seen anything come out in a positive way.

When you call a child careless, it just it doesn't it?

It's shaming, it's demoralizing.

And just if you break the word apart, which is what kids do, care less, you don't care.

And I think it really is very.

We have to be very, very careful about using those types of labels.

Careless, unmotivated, lazy, dumb, stupid.

That was a stupid idea.

But we used those terms all the time, and we used them on ourselves as well.

I mean, sometimes I've had to work with kids remember paying one kid a penny every time he would say something negative, but then change it to something positive.

But he was beating himself up constantly, and it was really interesting because there was one time where he made a whole dollar in one hour session because he was beating himself up so much.

But just that shift of being able to him so dumb and then he would say like Oh, no, I'm not.

I can do this and then you get a penny.

But it was amazing how he shifted his negative in her voice really quite quickly just by doing something like that.

But we use these terms over and over again.

And I think I call them curse words because they are very cursing.

And we have to be very careful, so I don't even use No, I don't use wrong.

I don't even use incorrect.

I use almost doesn't trigger that sense of helplessness or shame almost suggests that you didn't get it.


But you're almost there.

You're nearly there, nearly there.

And it's encouraging, right?

So, we have to be really careful about the words we use because they can really trigger a sense of learned helplessness without us even realizing it.

It's very hard to do.

Isn't that interesting?

You know, we talked about using words in terms of a couple of podcasts to go with the book balance where they said, you must be really smart at this, or you must have worked really hard at this.

It was that difference between the choice of words, whether you're pointing to their intelligence, inherent intelligence or smarts or abilities, or you're pointing to their efforts.

And so, in a way, one is encouraging effort.

And one is encouraging, extolling your natural abilities coming out.

If your language is pushing away, rejecting the efforts that are being made, that child can start defaulting to Well, obviously, I must not have the natural skills because it's either skill or effort.

And I think we're coming back to that core mindset of a parent.

Does my child have?

The inherent skill for this or not?

Is not the right question to be asking.

It's Have we found the right way for my child to be able to do?

This is the right one with the assumption that actually Children really loved doing things well on the whole, if they feel they can do it, but the moment they feel they can't do it, they just give up.

Which was exactly what was in that research.

On bounce the two groups, they give that group of kids an impossible task.

But because they had been praising them on based on their skills, they gave up much earlier because they just thought, I must not be intelligent enough, the other group said.

I must not be working hard enough, and they worked harder, and they got better at it.

So, it's.

Isn't it fascinating that these things are connected?

Let's pull out what's most important from this discussion, which is we really need to be mindful of recognizing effort, yes, so we need to be mindful of recognizing effort.

We have to be mindful of not using these negative labels when we get frustrated with ourselves or with others.

And then we also have to be mindful of the fact that not everybody learns the same way.

Some kids are tactile learners.

Some kids are visual learners.

Some kids are auditory learners or sequential learners, or they need direct experience, hands on learning.

They need to move around when we can accommodate those different ways of learning that can be very helpful.

The other thing is kids need breaks.

The neurological research is suggesting that after about 45 minutes we should be taking a five-minute break, and that's for everybody, including kids.

And sometimes the kids aren't getting that.

Yes, we just We have to have that moment to reboot and it's really interesting with some of my little kids.

I have been experimenting that anytime I see them kind of losing it where their zoning out and they've just their brains, like saying, I can't do this, I'll stop and have a kinesthetic break with them and we'll both get up and do jumping jacks or dance or something like that.

And then we'll sit back down.

And sometimes it's only a minute long and they're always like, oh my gosh, I can think so much better That was so helpful.

Wow, that was amazing.

But we forget to do those things.

I was speaking with an adult client, and we're talking about doing an exam, actually a medical exam that was 7.5 hours long and what their strategy will be with dyslexia.

And their strategy is to do a 25-minute Pomodoro where it's 25 minutes with a timer, and then they stand up and we're developer routine, stand up stretch, juggle, have a sip of water, have a little nibble of something that is helpful.

And it's this pattern layered on pattern as well, is quite helpful.

If you've got a sequence, it doesn't just give you a break, actually starts to trigger your brain to get into a pattern of behavior.

Often, athletes do that where they play a piece of music, and they have a sequence of music every time they do it.

And they maybe have a little habit of tapping themselves or doing certain things.

And it's just all this is sort of a sequence that gets their brain focused and into the zone again.

We're developing that for this and trying to shorten it to a 22-minute break so that you've got medical exam.

That is really high pressure.

Very, very fast.

Hundreds of questions, rapid fire, multiple choice but stopping and saying we need to reset every 25 minutes.

Let me throw an idea in there in that routine, bring in some deep breaths.

Breathing is so important, and just those really, really deep breaths in and deep breaths out and even a sigh.

I mean, it's amazing how great that feels in the body.

So, you know, we want to really recognize our body because sometimes our bodies just become this vehicle for our brain and our head to travel upon, but there really is this really important interaction between our body and our mind.

And, you know, I was interestingly enough having a conversation with the student in mind, and I was saying, intellect is not just in the brain, it's also in the heart and the gut.

It's great because I think he's about 12 years old and he said, Show me the research.

I don't believe you.

So, it was really interesting to hear a little kids say that to me.

But I think that we forget that we have intelligence in our body, and we tend to not listen to our body.

I don't listen to my body enough.

Sometimes I'm sitting at my computer for so long and my eyes are hurting and even my teeth sometimes hurt.

My body hurts and I'm just not listening.

And it's not a good thing we need to take.

What difference would it make to take that little kinesthetic or breathing?

Or that I love the idea of having little routine breaks?

That that's lovely.

I did something when we got covid.

We bought one of these little oxygen meter things that you put on your finger to measure your 02 level, and it's just pretty instant, you know, like 90 6% or 93% or whatever.

And if it goes below 90 then you've got problem and you need to start being to the doctor.

And mine was like at 94.

And I said, I wonder if I did deep breathing how quickly that oxygen level could change.

And so, we just did it at the dinner table and we did quite a few deep, really deep breaths for about 5 to

15 seconds.

And it went from 94 to 98%.

And just in that short time, and it's just really quite helpful to actually see a feedback loop that is accurately telling you the consequences of your actions and that that really made me think about deeper breathing in a whole new way.

Yeah, so I love the idea of coming up with these kinds of little brakes that you can take.

You can set a timer.

I don't like to set a timer.

I like to break when I feel that I need to break, and I guess that's when we have to listen to.

Our bodies were kind of getting away from the learned helplessness.

However, it's interesting because if you think about it when you are in a state of learned helplessness, you're not breathing enough.

You know, you tend to be holding your breath.

If anything, and in some of these little routines, can help you move through that sense of learned helplessness so many different moments of learned helplessness.

For example, I could argue that a break within an alarm clock after an hour to remind you to take a break could actually be breaking you out of learned helplessness.

Because by that point, your body and your brain are starting to say, I'm not taking this in and so on, but you're not.

You're like I'm going to keep working.

I'm going to keep working.

This is still work, but in reality, it's becoming less and less effective.

What you're doing isn't working, and so a lot of Children.

What happens is let's say they're studying or whatever.

Two hours has gone by and they're working hard, hard, hard, hard.

But actually, you know that a lot of that information is definitely not going in.

They start realizing it's not going in and then they can start feeling, oh, it doesn't matter even if I spend hours on it, it doesn't help and it becomes helplessness.

But the brakes can really help interrupt and take agency and saying, I'm controlling and make sure my brain is topping back up to full alertness every 25 minutes to 45 minutes, while 25 minutes is the optimum time.

Yeah, that's a that's a really lovely way of putting it.

And yeah, and you know, it's funny.

One of my publications are mindful brain breaks, and they're anything from these movements.

But I like to bring in more than just breathing where they can move their arms with their breath.

Or they can do other types of things to make it a little bit more fun for them.

But I love the idea of kind of having these intervals, you know, whether you use the Pomodoro, there are lots of different spaced.

Repetition brings in some of those that idea as well, and I'm seeing more and more of that happening in the schools and the kids really love it, and I'm getting a lot of feedback I actually have a student that said to me, We had a substitute teacher today and she said none of us could concentrate and it was completely out of control and I said, Well, how is that different than your regular class?

And they said, well, my regular teacher gives us brain breaks and the brain breaks help to control the class and help us to learn better.

And this teacher wasn't doing it, and she said in the class was completely out of control.

So, it's interesting how important it is for us to give our poor little brains a little bit of a break right?

And I think some kids need more of that than others.

But also giving kids a variety of brain breaks because some kids need a kinesthetic body break, you know, whereas other kids can actually sit still and do some other kind of brain, break where they might just be looking around.

And instead of having a very focused gaze where they can just look around the room and interact with others and talk and stuff like that, that might be enough for them, whereas other kids really need that body movement.

I'll tell you a moment of learned helplessness that is a bit off the wall tangent.

So, I used to be a primary school teacher, and I also used to be a high school would teacher at the same time.

Woodwork teacher.

Okay, and talk about learned helplessness you can sometimes bring in as a teacher.

A whole class of rowdy teenagers pile into your class and they've got their jobs to do and their exercises to work on and chisel away and so forth.

And they just so unfocused and talking and distracted and they don't get down to the work.

And you, as a teacher can feel completely powerless.

How do I get these kids to fully engage and so you can go to the other side of learned helplessness and say, oh, sir, I can't help it.

I'm just like this and I talk all the time and I get distracted.

That's just the way I am.

That's it.

Well, one of the techniques I used to do was to say to the children: Look, you're going to be able to talk as much as you like in my woodwork class as much as you like, but all I ask for is one minute of complete silence.

The moment any one of you 15 Children interrupts that silence, I will reset the clock and we'll start one minute again.

And so, and they really can't concentrate, you know?

And they're just like, oh, yeah, and they try for, like, 10 seconds, and then one child blurt something out, and then all the others go, oh, come on, Johnny.

And then reset, reset, reset, reset.

And the first time it takes, like, eight minutes to finally get that one minute and then the second time in the third time until it becomes like a reverse brain break, as it were it Instead of a brain break, it becomes a brain focus, and that one minute of silence is just enough for them to look at the thing that they're working at.

Tap away at the chisel just momentarily just get absorbed for a moment, and then they're locked in, and they carry on working away and they chatter away.

But they're actually locked into the work first.

That's really interesting.

That's almost like an antidote to learn helplessness.

Yes, yes, it is and so there's all sorts of ways to help learned helplessness.

You know, it's kind of like this, taking the dog's legs and putting them over the barrier.

And then the dog realizes, Really, I can get out of this now and then doing again, and then the dog goes, Oh gosh!

And then it steps over and it's like, oh, my goodness, I can get away from this horribleness.

You know, what you're doing is you're explaining scaffolding.

So, when we work with Children, we offer a scaffolding, meaning that we helped them a lot and then we help them a little less and a little less and a little less and a little less until they're doing it on their own.

So, I do that all the time.

For kids to come in with learned helplessness with writing is they're having to multitask too many things that aren't automatic.

So, I'll be their secretary and or we'll write a story together and I'm the one that starts typing it, and I'm pretty much pulling stuff out of them, and slowly I pass more and more responsibility, and at the end of the story, they're writing the whole thing on their own.

So, I think we've gone over lots of really interesting strategies here.

And I hope that this was really helpful for the audience.

Yeah, I think we've covered, learned helplessness Well and truly Well, I mean, there's obviously more, but yeah, it's been a good chat, Erica.


So anyway, Darius, this was a lot of fun.

And I look forward to next time.

See you next time, Erica.


Thank you for joining our conversation here at the personal brain trainer podcast.

This is Dr Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran. Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast.

And please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.