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Students Too Dependent on You? Here’s Help

Posted by on in What If?
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Do your students want to be spoon-fed? Are they constantly demanding your help, calling out your name over and over again? If so, is it possible that you’ve unwittingly contributed to their sense of helplessness? Can learned helplessness be unlearned?

Those are among the questions I asked of Starr Sackstein and David Ginsburg on an episode of Studentcentricity. They had a lot of wonderful advice and followed it up with the takeaways below.

Starr added:

Ultimately we need to empower students so they know how to advocate for themselves. We do this by offering them opportunities to be in charge of their learning while giving them room to ask for help where needed. Explicitly teaching reflection and modeling the behavior, is a positive way to ensure that all students do learn to ask for help when they need it, but to try on their own first. After working alone, they should reach out to peers and then beyond that the teacher is available for help and always will be. Usually if students experience success on their own, they feel more confident. We need to make sure they have these successful moments.

For more of Starr’s thoughts on the topic, check out her article, “We MUST Help Students Learn to Self-Advocate.”

David contributed some thoughts gleaned from two of his pieces. From When Helping Students Hurts Students:

We as educators must direct our genuine desire to help children toward providing them resources and skills that enable them to help themselves. We must also then only help students when they've used those resources and skills, and have proven--to themselves as much as to us--that they really need our help. To do otherwise is to hurt students rather than help them.

And from Ginsburg's Hierarchy of Help:

Many students ask teachers for help without even attempting a task on their own. But the real problem isn't students' knee-jerk requests for help, but rather teachers obliging them. Hence the term, learned helplessness. A key, then, to students unlearning helplessness is teachers relearning helpfulness.

This starts with a shift from teacher as fountain of information to teacher as facilitator of learning. Provide students access to the resources they need to be successful, and empower them with the skills they need to use those resources. In short, support self-directed learning.

Today’s kids may be more helpless than at any time in history. They’re being sheltered from hurt, shielded from risk, and are expected to do less on their own, lest they face the horror of failure. And it’s not serving them well, as evidenced by reports of how badly they fare once in college and/or employed.

You may not be able to do much to change their situation at home, but you’re in a great position to make a difference in the one place where they spend the majority of their waking hours: in school. And if you implement Starr’s and David’s strategies, you’ll soon see their benefit to you as well!

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Sunday, 14 February 2016

    This is such an important piece. There was a time when I saw this in my daughter, but I think she has become more self reliant. But my four year old? This skill is crucial for kids and adults to be able to survive in the "real world." Great piece and the folks you interviewed definitely know what they are talking about.

  • Rae Pica | @raepica1
    Rae Pica | @raepica1 Monday, 15 February 2016

    Thanks for commenting, Jon. It is critical that we help kids -- starting as young as possible -- to be self-reliant! When I hear stories about, or see, four- and -five-year-old children being pushed in strollers, or watch parents doing for their children what their children should be doing for themselves, I just don't get it. These parents have no idea of the disservice they're doing their kids.

    And, yes, panelists Starr, David, and Jason absolutely know what they're talking about! I thought it was a great discussion. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to talk with such committed individuals and to be able to spread their message.

  • Guest
    Stefanie Friday, 18 March 2016

    Thank you for writing this, Rae. I agree wholeheartedly that it is a great disservice to children to have a bar set so low about their ability to handle discomfort. There is a great need to reframe our concept of 'discomfort': we associate struggle as something negative, and yet it is the ingredient our mind is looking for in order for us to know what we are made of and to form new connections for learning a 'new way'. Take that away, and the child never builds a track record of knowing what he or she is capable of handling - it sends children a strong signal that we don't think they have what it takes to survive failure and challenges. I see this so often in parent-child and teacher-child interactions. An important topic.

  • Rae Pica | @raepica1
    Rae Pica | @raepica1 Monday, 21 March 2016

    Thanks for weighing in, Stefanie! I truly worry about children who are being bubble-wrapped these days!

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