Monday, June 21, 2021


Many of my students with disabilities feel helpless especially when they are overwhelmed. For so many years they have faced many failures and very few successes. They have been judged by others including family and friends as being lazy or stupid. Every time they try and make an effort, they feel like they are kicked down. They start believing that maybe they are lazy and stupid so why bother even trying. Life looks hopeless to them.

I believe this is a feeling is learned helplessness and I spend a lot of time fighting it. I want to try to break this cycle and turn their lives around.

My words won’t do it because they have had so many years of practice hearing the negative words. Why should they believe me who they have only known for a short time while all the others in their world tell them differently? I could talk until I’m blue in the face but they won’t believe me. I have to find a way to show them.

I start by doing a lot of pretesting so I can find out their instructional levels. This is important because I want to begin with something they know how to do that is right at the edge of what they don’t know how to do. I want to do a lot of activities during the first couple of weeks that I know they can be successful doing. I praise and encourage them a lot during this time including phone calls home letting their family know how well they are doing. My students aren’t fooled though and are a little suspicious but I keep plodding on.

After I feel they are comfortable with my process, I slip in a few harder tasks that I know they can do successfully with my help. Again, a lot of praise and encouragement goes a long way. Some of my students are surprised they are successful but they are afraid to hope. During this time, I have to be very patient and encouraging with my students because they are waiting for the shoe to fall and failure to occur again. Eventually, I will have them do the work while slowly taking away my help. It is like teaching a child to ride a bicycle and you hold the bike for a while until you have to let go so they can do it on their own. This may take another month or two but it is important to be patient.

I spend a lot of time the whole year talking to the students about taking a risk and trying harder things because I’m here to help them. I won’t let them fail. If I see them falling, I will be there to catch them. If they fall down, I will be there to help them get up. They are not alone.

I explain that everyone faces failures but what they do after them is what counts. President Lincoln ran for different political offices several times before he eventually became President. He didn’t give up and his failures made him more determined to succeed. Even Bill Gates had several failures before he found Microsoft. The ones that you never hear about are the ones that gave up after failing.

Before long, my students will start adding successes to their list of things they do and will have more courage to learn new things. My next step is to teach them what to do when I am not there and they leave my classroom. How do they go about finding help for what they want to learn? This is an important step to teaching independence.

Eventually, their helplessness begins to fade away, and hope for success takes its place.

How do you battle helplessness? Please share.

Photo by Roi Dimor on Unsplash

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