Learned Helplessness: Let’s Not Foster It in Children!

Here are some of the tasks teachers have told me today’s children are unable to do:

  • Poke straws into juice boxes
  • Zip up backpacks
  • Put a foot in a shoe
  • Open water bottles
  • Pull up their pants or skirts
  • Put on their own jackets

Granted, some of the difficulties with these tasks arise from the sad lack of fine motor development evident in children these days, which I’ve previously bemoaned in two earlier posts (here and here). But there’s more to the story. We also need to consider the fact that adults are now doing far too much for children, inadvertently fostering learned helplessness in them!

I understand that life is hectic. That parents in our current society are rushing hither and yon. That early childhood professionals often feel pressured to cram far too much into the daily schedule. In either case, taking the time to wait for children can be exasperating.

And, of course, there’s the truth that as parents, caregivers, and teachers, we have a natural tendency to be accommodating. We don’t want children to experience the frustration of being unable to do something, so we rush in to help.

But what are the consequences of all that help? See the bulleted list above!

Below are some of the descriptions of learned helplessness that I found online:

  • a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.
  • characterized by the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness
  • happens when people or animals become conditioned to believe that a situation is unchangeable or inescapable
  • the quitting or the give-up response that follows the conviction that whatever a person does doesn’t matter

If a child has trouble – or takes too long – tying a shoe or putting on a jacket and an adult rushes in to assist over and over again, what is that child to think? She’ll get the message, loud and clear, that the adult doesn’t trust her to handle the task herself. She’s not going to feel capable. She’s not going to believe she can do anything she wants when she grows up (despite what she may have been told repeatedly). She’s going to reach the conclusion that she’s at the mercy of adults. She’s going to feel powerless!

None of us wants a child to feel that way.

We’ve all heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” Perfection in anything may be a rarity, but we can agree that the ability to do something well takes considerable practice. That’s especially true in early childhood, where the value of repetition is understood. Those of us in the early childhood profession also know that practice for a great many tasks must begin in the child’s earliest years – and that the ability to do them will not suddenly occur simply because a child has grown larger! Nor do feelings of helplessness – of being incapable – go away simply because a person has gotten older. If you had a belief about yourself as a child that you continue to hang onto today (and most of us do!), you know that these feelings last well beyond childhood.

Below is one of my favorite videos. The mom may have been in it for the laugh, but I have to give her credit for not rushing in to help. When I watch it, I see a child learning persistence, and about patience, acceptance, and spatial relationships. What do you see? And what do you think this little guy would have learned had his mom had rushed in to “help?”

If you share my philosophy on the need for children to be children, check out my online course,
“Avoid Challenging Behavior in Your Early Childhood Setting!”

The learning modules include an explanation of why challenging behavior has become more prevalent, research in support of developmentally appropriate practice, and easy-to-implement sample activities and “Curriculum Connectors” that can help you understand and explain why the children aren’t “just playing.”


  • Paul says:

    Excellent…I am a prime example at 58 of having a poor self image and a poor self worth because of the impatience of my mother.
    She would do most things for me or become frustrated that I was not doing it right and push me aside.

    • Rae says:

      I’m really sorry to hear that, Paul. Thank you for sharing your story with us. It makes perfect sense that you would have a poor self-image if not allowed to handle things on your own. Where would your confidence have come from??

  • Emily says:

    the daycare my daughter went to taught the toddlers the “flip” to put on coats. Put the coat on floor with hood between legs, put arms in and “flip” over head. They loved it. Now granted they still needed some zipper help but it was so much fun for them

    • Rae says:

      Yes! That’s a commonly-known method, and the children do enjoy it. In fact, if the whole of the header photo could be shown, we’d see that’s what the little girl in the picture is doing.

  • Yesenia says:

    Much to learn

  • Carrie Ramirez says:

    Yay he made it look fun!! using muscles that he is getting familiar with.
    He is learning about his proprioceptiveness. Ha ha too cute!!!! and his vestibular awareness.

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