Learned Helplessness

As defined by Dweck and Goetz (1978), "learned helplessness . . . exists when an individual perceives the termination of failure to be independent of his responses" (p. 157). Learned helplessness has been related to individuals' attributions for success and failure: Helpless individuals are more likely to attribute their failures to uncontrollable factors, such as lack of ability, and their successes to unstable factors

(see Dweck & Goetz, 1978). Dweck and her colleagues have documented several interesting differences between helpless and more mastery oriented children's responses to failure: When confronted by difficulty (or failure), mastery oriented children persist, stay focused on the task, and sometimes even use more sophisticated strategies. In contrast, helpless children's performance deteriorates, they ruminate about their difficulties, and often begin to attribute their failures to lack of ability. Further, helpless children adopt the "entity" view that their intelligence is fixed, whereas mastery oriented children adopt the incremental view of intelligence. Everything we have discussed thus far suggests that the prevalence of learned helplessness should increase during the middle childhood years (see Dweck, 1999, Fincham & Cain, 1986, and Weisz, 1984 for similar arguments). The little available empirical research supports this prediction (e.g., Parsons & Ruble, 1972; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Rholes et al., 1980; Stipek et al., 1992). However, Burhans and Dweck (1995) found that even some quite young (5- and 6-year-old) children respond negatively to failure feedback, judging themselves to be bad people (see also Stipek et al., 1992). These rather troubling findings show that negative responses to failure can develop quite early on.

As noted earlier, Burhans and Dweck proposed that very young children's helplessness is based more on their judgments that their worth as persons is contingent on their performance than on having the kind of entity views of intelligence that emerge during the middle childhood and early adolescent years. So what produces learned helplessness in children, even at these early ages, and do the causes change as the children mature? It seems likely that the very early sources of performance anxiety lie either in the affective reactions of parents to their young children's mastery attempts and performance failures or in genetically-based individual differences in various temperamental traits related to timidity and anxiety. The subsequent increases in the prevalence of test anxiety are probably linked to changes in the children's cognitive understanding of the nature of ability, changes in the nature of performance feedback and other social messages about the meaning of failure, and the interaction of genetic dispositions with these environmental changes. For example, Dweck and Goetz (1978) proposed that individual differences in learned helplessness during middle childhood depend on whether children receive feedback from the teachers and parents that imply that their failures reflect the lack of entity-type abilities. In support of this suggestion, Hokoda and Fincham (1995) found that mothers of helpless third-grade children (in comparison to mothers of mastery-oriented children) gave fewer positive affective comments to their children, were more likely to respond to their children's lack of confidence in their ability by telling them to quit, were less responsive to their children's bids for help, and did not focus them on mastery goals.

Alleviating Learned Helplessness

There are numerous studies designed to alleviate learned helplessness by changing attributions for success and failure so that learned helpless children learn to attribute failure to lack of effort rather than lack of entity-type abilities (see review by Forsterling, 1985). Various training techniques (including operand conditioning and providing specific attributional feedback) have been used successfully in changing children's failure attributions from lack of ability to lack of effort, improving their task persistence, and performance (e.g., Dweck, 1975). Two problems with these approaches have been noted. First, what if the child is already trying very hard? Then the attribution retraining may be counter productive. Second, telling children to "try harder" without providing specific strategies that are designed to improve their performance is likely to back fire- children may put in massive amounts of effort and still not succeed if they don't know how to apply that effort. Therefore, some researchers (e.g., Borkowski et al., 1990) now advocate using strategy retraining in combination with attribution retraining so that the lower achieving and/or learned helpless children are provided with specific ways to remedy their achievement problems. Borkowski and his colleagues, for example, have shown that a combined program of strategy instruction and attribution retraining is more effective than strategy instruction alone in increasing reading motivation and performance in underachieving students (e.g., Borkowski & Muthukrisna, 1995; Paris & Byrnes, 1989; Pressley & El-Dinary, 1993).

Self-Efficacy Training

Self-efficacy training has also been used to alleviate learned helplessness. For example, Schunk and his colleagues have done several studies designed to improve elementary school-aged children's (often low-achieving children) math, reading and writing performance through (see Schunk, 1994; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). The training often includes skill training, enhancement of self-efficacy, attribution retraining, and training children how to set goals. Modeling often is an important aspect of this type of training. A number of findings have emerged from this work. First, the training increases both children's performance and their sense of self-efficacy. Second, attributing children's success to ability has a stronger impact on their self-efficacy than does either effort feedback, or ability and effort feedback (e.g., Schunk, 1983). Third, training children to set proximal, specific, and somewhat challenging goals enhances their self-efficacy and performance. Finally, like the work of Borkowski and his colleagues, Schunk and his colleagues have found that combining strategy training, goal emphases, and feedback to show children how their learning of strategies relate to their performance has some of the strongest effects on subsequent self-efficacy and skill development.

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