In leadership class I studied the Lone Ranger approach to problem-solving. When a problem arose in an organization the boss would ride in and solve the problem. Afterwards he or she would ride off and the employees would be no better prepared for the next crisis or problem. The point of the analogy is empowerment – get the individuals to take responsibility for problem-solving.

The same holds true for the relationship between educators and students. All too often educators jump in to solve problems for the students without training students on responsibility. The students are not empowered or held responsible. This problem is magnified for students with special needs.

The most common example occurs during meetings with parents. When a student struggles the first suggestion is often asking teachers if there is additional time available to tutor or help the student individually (parents are not the only ones asking this). The original problem of poor self-help skills is not addressed and the adults shoulder more of the responsibility. As a consequence, the students’ belief that external forces will or are necessary to fix their problems is reinforced.

My suggestion is to look at how the student can be supported as he or she is trained to be more effective in employing self-help skills. Is he taking notes? Is she doing all of her homework? Do the students follow examples in the book or use other resources?

The following are anecdotes of how learned helplessness is developed.

A student was having problems with a math problem. The para asked if he needed a calculator and walked over to get one for the student.

A student had notebook organization as the focus of an IEP objective. Each week his PARA was organizing his notebooks for him.

A special ed teacher started to copy a homework assignment for a student because he didn’t have a pencil.

Many math teachers, when asked for help, will show students how to do a problem instead of pressing the student to find and follow an example.

The evidence is clear. Students learn to say “I don’t know” and the adults show them what to do as the students passively observe.

Below is an example of a puzzle I use to train students to make an effort and to think about problems. I have found that many students not only have a learned helplessness when it comes to math but they have been trained to follow steps mindlessly. Following a task analysis approach the first step is for students to find an entry point to a problem. They also need to feel comfortable taking risks. Slowly moving the students towards solving more complicated problems is called shaping.

Below you can see that the student made a more simplistic attempt. Given that this was done the first day of school I was very pleased with the effort.