Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Learned Helplessness

This is a technical term for a very simple condition. If your child can do something perfectly well but is quite happy to allow any unsuspecting adult to do it for them, this is learned helplessness.

When my daughter was in secondary school - she was capable enough to attend mainstream secondary school - I discovered after almost a year that her poor LSA (learning support assistant) was accompanying my daughter to the toilet, helping her on and off the loo, and making sure she was properly dressed afterwards. I felt so bad shooting her down in flames by telling her she'd been conned into being a personal servant all this time! My daughter had been able to go to the toilet on her own for years.

Children with Down's Syndrome become quite the little experts at learned helplessness from a very early age and it is extremely hard as a parent to know when you are being 'played'. It's not a deliberate or malicious thing, but if you had someone willing to attend to your every need without complaining, you'd let them too!

So the thing is to learn what your child is capable of and make them do it, increasing the targets as they get older. I've seen parents hanging up their child's coat and school bag, putting their lunch box away and making sure they are sitting in class with the others. All fine and good in Reception year, but by the time the child has reached Year 1, they should be able to do all these tasks by themselves. Not only is this important in the learning of how to be self-sufficient, it also boosts the child's self-esteem no end to be able to do these jobs for themselves. I have found that in order to teach little tasks like this, start by having your hand over theirs while they hang their coat etc., just to guide them, and praise them for being a big boy/girl, doing it on their own. It won't be long before they get the idea. Resist the temptation to step in and do it for them if you see them struggling - a little help yes, but don't take over completely. If the coat (or whatever) is hanging but from one sleeve and dragging on the floor and it drives you crazy, resist the temptation to take it off and hang it properly while the child is watching - that totally demeans the effort they have put in to the job and reinforces the attitude of learned helplessness.

This applies in all tasks, not just self-help. In my job I have had a child who resolutely 'forgot' how to write the number '2' when she felt she had had enough of maths. The little boy I teach now 'forgets' how to count past 2 (he can count to 10 with no problem) or the difference between 'a' and 'e' if he feels he has had enough work. The trick is to keep on going until you get at least one letter/number written properly - sometimes I feel like a right witch, keeping the child there and going over the task again and again until it's done correctly, but it pays in the long run because once these tricks have been seen to work and the adult has either given up or done it for them, the child then knows how to get out of the job very nicely.

I know this all sounds very manipulative on the part of the child - I don't think it is done with any bad intentions, just laziness.

Another thing to watch out for is a retinue of other children willing to do all your child's jobs for them. Small children are always willing to aid those less able as it makes them feel good to be grown up and help. You have to explain to them in the nicest possible way that while they are being very kind and you appreciate it, the child with Down's has to learn to do these things by themselves and they won't if people always step in. I also have a similar problem when teaching a group of mixed ability children - if the child with special needs has been asked a question and needs a bit of extra time to think of their response and form their words, I have to restrain the 'eager beaver' in the group from blurting out the answer and thereby not only spoiling the opportunity for the child to join in with the group, but also knocking their self-esteem.

Obviously there will be occasions where you just cannot enforce the above. For instance, if you are late for school and work because you are waiting for your child to dress themselves, then you have to sacrifice your principles and step in - or get up earlier! Just a note from the school's side on this one - you are doing your child no favours at all by turning up late. It is hard enough for a child with Down's to learn class routines, but turning up after everyone else has settled down and not knowing what is going on just makes it even more difficult for them.

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