“I can’t do it,” Sara whines as she pulls at your shirt. Sara thrusts a magazine at you and commands, “Do it for me.” Sara has not yet attempted to cut the picture from the magazine, but she is
certain she cannot do it herself.
The other children are independently and actively engaged with peers and equipment, but Sara sticks close to you, demanding assistance with everything from painting a picture to zipping her pants. Why does Sara feel helpless? Is there anything a preschool teacher can do to help Sara become more independent?
Sara may be exhibiting helpless behavior and dependence on the teacher because she is not feeling well or because of some prior unsettling experience. We all feel a need for help from time to time. However, if Sara’s dependency is a behavior pattern which continues over time, she may have learned to be helpless and dependent.
Dweck (1978) used the term learned helplessness orientation to describe children who believe they lack ability and feel frustrated. Consequently, they stop attempting new tasks and act helpless. While most preschoolers are rosy optimists who believe they can succeed at any task just because they want to (Stipek, Roberts, & Sanborn, 1984; Stipek & MacIver, 1989), learned helplessness has been observed in children as young as four (Heyman, Dweck, & Cain, 1992; Smiley & Dweck, 1994). Some signs of learned helplessness have even been observed in infants (Watson & Ramey, 1972).
The manner in which adults react to a child’s successes and failures has been found to influence the child’s view of whether or not he or she is competent. How the child interprets successes and failures determines behavior. Therefore, adults need to be aware of the most appropriate ways to react to children who have learned to be helpless.
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