By Bobbi Waters & Dr. J. Bruce Overmier, compiled by Heather Lyke
Teaching in a pandemic is far from simple. That’s unquestionable. Yet, there are aspects of this challenge that have benefits. For example, it has shed light on issues that previously were able to hide in shadows: one of which is how many of our students get stuck in a cycle of learned helplessness.
Recently, one of Dover-Eyota Public School’s teaching teams wanted to find a solution for helping students break the cycle. In search for an answer, they reached out to Dr. J. Bruce Overmier—a man with fifty years of experience in psychological research, with hundreds of publications to his name and who is also cited in thousands of others, and currently a professor at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Overmier’s research has often focused on the subject of learned helplessness, and he shared some advice for helping our students and teachers unlearn helplessness.
In many ways, Dover-Eyota, has already been trying to live by Overmier’s ideals, and as such, we share Dr. Overmier’s thoughts intertwined with Dover-Eyota examples.
The Importance of Celebrating Small Wins in Preventing Learned Helplessness
When Overmier replied to the teacher-group’s request, he began with, “How good of you to try to find ways to help your students and give them some resilience in these trying times...” He started with a “small win”—he began by celebrating our teachers’ finding time and momentum, despite a pandemic, to reach out to him in the first place. This aligns tightly with his first suggestion: a need to create success experiences.
Incorporate activities that immunize the students before helplessness inducing traumas.
Waters’ Dover-Eyota examples:
Celebrate the Word of the Week what students put it into action
Celebration of Little Wins & Scaffolding Help to Unlearn Helplessness
Martin E. P. Seligman, author Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, once noted that “learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” With that at the helm, it becomes clear that students need to draw connections between their actions to their outcomes and why it is those outcomes matter.
The best therapy for helplessness is exactly the same as prevention
Waters’ Dover-Eyota example:
Scaffold & celebrate through goal setting & student self-reflection
Embracing Complexities: Being Intentional
Bobbi Waters noted, “When we give our students purpose and help them see value in their voices, their ideas, their accomplishments, we instill a true compass. We teach them to be their own source of feedback, provide their own guidance by modeling how to do this at a young age.” This gets at the heart of the issue: there are layers, and those layers have to work together for learned helplessness to be prevented/unlearned.
While what I describe sounds simple, it is not.
Lyke’s Dover-Eyota example:
Layer in scaffolds and plan for routine feedback
Perhaps, as the world slowly emerges (fingers crossed) from this pandemic, we can apply Overmier’s ideas to the educational changes that will inevitably occur moving forward. One, we celebrate each win, small as they may be, as we find our footing once again. Two, we take small steps so as not to overwhelm, and draw connections between our actions, our outcomes, and our purpose. Finally, we ensure intentionality in our planning and we understand that successful change can take time.
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