Battling Learned Helplessness in the Classroom

As middle school teachers, we find that many of our students exhibit characteristics of “learned helplessness.” Rather than working independently to solve a problem, they immediately expect the teacher to “come to the rescue.” We chalk this up to laziness, or our students just seeking “the easy way out.”
However, we as educators have contributed to this problem by creating a culture of helplessness and “spoon-feeding” in our classrooms.  When a student struggles, it is much easier and faster for teachers to simply give the answer, rather than allowing the student to seek a solution using strategies and resources we have provided.  For our Classroom Action Research Project, we are focusing on how to battle this concept of learned helplessness by teaching our students important strategies to develop their independent learning.

Potential research question with hypothesis:

  • What would happen if I empowered my students with the task of sharing the responsibility of learning by problem-solving with productive struggle?


We will begin with surveying our students to see what they already know about the brain and how learning occurs.

We will do mini-lessons on the brain, focusing on how the brain is a muscle that can become stronger as new neural connections are made.

We will create an environment focused on a Growth Mindset, rather than a Fixed Mindset.  We will praise students for their effort, not their natural ability.

We will encourage our students to work hard and achieve higher levels or thinking.

We will encourage our students to learn from, rather than avoid, failure.


  • Frequent, formative feedback
  • High levels of challenge for every student
  • Welcome mistakes
  • Encourage practice
  • Reward effort, not attainment
  • Praise process vs. praising person (don’t say “you are so smart!”)
  • Encourage student empowerment by sharing research behind the lessons



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