Disability and Learned Helplessness

Children with disabilities often develop ‘learned helplessness’. This means that they learn that they do not have to do things for themselves. Other people will always help them or do the task for them. They do not do as much for themselves as they could. (Throughout this post ‘children’ can be replaced by’young people’ or’adults’ but it would have been too clumsy to write it this way)

This can be because:
• they are given too much help, especially if it takes them a long time to do something or because they do things awkwardly
• because they are asked to do things that are too difficult for them
• because other people think that the child is not able to learn
• because they always get their own way by crying or making a fuss and so have never had to do things for themselves

Over time, the child can begin to see herself as a passive participant who is not able to be actively involved in learning. This presents an additional challenge for a teacher or parent who is trying to ignite the child’s desire to learn. Think carefully about whether you are contributing to learned helplessness – it’s very easy to do.

The points below are intended to stimulate learning and avoid the feeling that learning is pointless, someone else will always do i for you anyway.

1: Motivation
Nobody does anything without a reason that makes sense to them at the time. Motivation for learning comes from within a person. Almost all human beings have inborn drives:
• to discover and understand the world around us:
• for independence and sense of self,
• to connect socially with others (people on the autistic spectrum may not have this)

However, motivation can be stifled habituation (boredom develops with too much repetition) or by a feeling that it is pointless to make the effort as someone else will do it for us anyway, or by the nature of the task If something is too easy, it does not stimulate our natural curiosity; too difficult, and we will not be motivated to even attempt the task.

Children with severe disabilities are often presented with tasks that are either too easy or too difficult physically or cognitively. Often participation is done in a hand over hand fashion with little effort from the child. This can lead to passivity. Use hand over hand sparingly and think about whether it is useful and whether the child is engaged or just being moved about like a puppet

The task of parents, educators and therapists is to provide opportunities where children can be challenged and succeed and to prevent them from learning passive dependency.

It may be helpful to:
• Provide a range of assistive devices so children can accomplish physical tasks with less assistance
• Set up activities for the child to use a combination of knowledge and trial and error to achieve success. – and let them struggle to achieve.
• Use theme based learning which provides multiple experiences with a concentrated set of vocabulary and concepts without being monotonous.
• Provide opportunities for real making choices – enable the child to feel “In Control” –but go along with the choices. Making choices helps to increase cognitive engagement and reduce passivity. Begin with objects and move to pictures with and without voice-output. Provide multiple opportunities for meaningful choices throughout the day. Try presenting choices of actions instead of objects for increased motivation and more natural repetition. Offer choices for frequent short activities, or choices within an activity instead of choosing a whole activity.
• Provide children active experiences with early computer play where the child can direct the actions of the computer through simple choices and then observe the results. Use of 2 switches with different functions connected to computer, battery toys and/or simple voice output devices. Use of eye-pointing and eye-gaze frame for children who face physical

Attention and connection with others are often powerful motivators as they communicate a feeling of value or worth as a human being.
• Give children tasks that are truly appreciated by, or important to, someone else, and motivation is likely to be increased.
• Provide frequent opportunities for social interaction and connection with other people, while acknowledging that this is not a universal motivator, especially for some on the autistic spectrum.

2: Active Participation
Active participation is a great motivator but can be difficult for children who face severe multiple difficulties. They cruise through the day as a passive passenger, never needing to pay attention to where they are going or why. They are cared for and entertained regardless of their participation level. This happens sometimes in inclusive settings where the main objective is social exposure and it can happen in a specialist setting, where the routine may be so structured and predictable that there is little room for change or surprise. But think of ways in which it can happen for each individual.

The problem is that learning is less likely to take place when the child is in a passive role. The research is clear that active learning is vastly more effective for all children. So we need to think outside the box and create participation opportunities within activities.

While children cannot often have control of the sequence of the daily routine, there can be opportunities within routines that affect them – if you create them.

3: Multiple Modalities
Children with disabilities often have weaknesses in one or more areas of sensory processing. As they are not being able to move their bodies into position to see, hear or feel what they would like, this problem is compounded. Processing information is often easier and more effective when presented through a variety of modalities such as sight, sound touch and movement.

When communication is difficult, it is especially important to enhance the auditory component of language with other modalities.
It is important for children to experience language receptively that utilizes multiple modalities. Using picture communication symbols, voice-output and sign language as input can provide multi-sensory information for cognitive processing.

4: Natural Contexts
Learning takes place most effectively within the context of a meaningful event and not in an isolated drill and practice session. Help children relate what they already know to the new information – thus increasing
motivation and retention. The natural context provides meaningful opportunities for practice with natural variability to maintain interest.
When learning is presented in an isolated situation, out of the natural context, there is less for the child to associate with and fewer opportunities for practice. Augmentative systems need to be seen by the child as a natural means for communication. This is another reason that the systems must be used by others, while communicating to the child.
A variety of communicative functions need to be modelled in appropriate pragmatic contexts. Children’s attempts to communicate also need to be responded to and expanded upon using the same systems that the child is using.
• Provide activity specific vocabulary on augmentative communication devices.
• Focus on function – not ability to use a particular device

A corollary of natural context is natural consequences. It is important for all children to learn the natural consequences of actions, but all too often the natural consequences of the actions or choices of disabled children are prevented from happening by those who care for them. If you eat your packed lunch at 10 in the morning, you won’t have it at lunchtime; if you refuse to put you coat on you will feel cold. Obviously natural consequences have to be carefully managed so that a child is not put at risk. However, overprotection from them creates total passivity and prevents the growth and development of the individual.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s