Learned Helplessness in Children: Definition

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  • 0:10 Introduction
  • 1:27 Principle of Learned…
  • 2:44 Types of Learned Helplessness
  • 5:29 Additional Examples
  • 6:05 Positive Attributions…
  • 8:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

Why do people just give up? Why are some situations deemed hopeless? This lesson will introduce you to the concept of learned helplessness in order to answer the above questions and provide recommendations on dealing with learned helplessness in the classroom.


Have you ever been in a situation where you felt helpless, like there was no reason to make the situation better or get out of the bad situation? This phenomenon doesn't just occur in humans. Animals display this behavior in some situations, too. In fact, the phenomenon, called learned helplessness, was first found in animals.

Psychologists discovered, through an experiment that would not be considered ethical today, that classically conditioned dogs that received electrical shocks again and again made no attempt to escape the situation. The dogs were placed in a box divided into two sections by a low barrier. Since one side of the box was electrified and the other was not, the dogs could have easily avoided electrical shocks by hopping to the other side. However, the dogs just stayed in the electrified side. Because the dogs were repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which they could not escape during the first part of the experiments, they stopped trying to avoid the pain and behaved as if it was utterly helpless to change the situation. This learned helplessness also applies to human beings, as well. People feel helpless when they feel powerless to change the situation.

Definition and Principles of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is defined as the general belief that one is incapable of accomplishing tasks and has little or no control of the environment. For example, a child who performs poorly on math tests and assignments will quickly begin to feel that nothing he or she does will have any effect on math performance. When later faced with any type of math-related task, the child may experience a sense of helplessness.

Learned helplessness occurs when people attribute negative results to their internal, stable and global factors, leading them to think they have no control over their situation. Internal attributions occur when the individual assigns causality to factors within themselves. Stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time, and global factor occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. Individuals low in self-concept who have experienced few successes are likely to (1) attribute failure to lack of ability and (2) see no relationships between their success and their own actions.

Types of Learned Helplessness

So, why do people who feel helpless become depressed while others don't? Psychologists have examined this aspect of learned helplessness and proposed a set of attributions that are responsible for the different ways people respond to certain situations.

The attribution categories identified are: global or specific, stable or unstable, and external or internal. Learned-helpless children attribute failure to stable factors, such as lack of ability. They also react to failure with solution-irrelevant statements and stereotypical responses that are often derogatory, such as 'I'm stupid,' 'I never did have a good memory' or 'I'll never be good at math.'

Table showing different types of learned helplessness
Learned Helplessness Table

Let's look at an example: Alex failed his math test. We're going to look at attributions globally and specifically, internal and external, and stable and unstable. If Alex held internal attributions, he would say that he has a problem with test anxiety, which is a stable attribution, as well. An unstable, internal attribution would be that he got into an argument with his parents the night before and that unnerved him, causing him to stress out and fail his test. External attributions would be that written tests are an unfair way to assess knowledge. He's attributing his failure to something outside of himself. This is also a stable attribution. An external, unstable attribution would be that no one does well on tests that are given the day after vacation - for example, if this test were given the day after spring break.

Now, let's look at these attributions of Alex failing his math test specifically. The internal attribution would be that he has no grasp of math. The internal, unstable attribution would be that he got upset. He froze. He couldn't answer a few of the questions. External attributions would be that everyone knows that the professor enjoys giving unfair tests. Again, he's attributing his failure to something outside of himself. External, unstable attributions would be that this professor didn't put much thought into the test because he finds the class boring to teach.

To sum up this example, Alex's failure could be attributed to global or specific attributions, internal or external attributions that are either stable or unstable. Remember, psychologists say that learned helplessness occurs when attributions are global, stable and internal.

Additional Examples of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness doesn't just occur in the classroom. Here are some real world examples to help you understand the concept.

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