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Success Academy Plight Is Preventable

The students placed at Success Academy are doubly tragic because their plight is preventable. Failure starts in the primary grades. By the time failing children are in middle school, they have a real awareness of their failure status. This is demoralizing to them, incredibly stressful, and it sets the stage for development of a host of negative behaviors: giving up, acting out, truancy, even depression. These students feel incompetent and helpless. The condition has a name: learned helplessness. It is a debilitating condition and difficult to remediate. Weak curricula and weak teaching are at the core of learned helplessness.

The effects of environmental stress depend on whether the individual feels he has control over the outcome. There is much research on the topic. In 1948, researchers Mowrer and Viek worked with hungry rats who could control the amount of shock they received. By jumping before the anticipated shock, their food eating was not disrupted. Rats unable to by-pass the shock had their eating patterns severely disrupted. They had no control over the shock as did the other rats. These rats showed “fear of fear,” said the researchers.

Another researcher, Seligman (1970s), studied fear conditioning in dogs. Dogs were subjected to shocks that were unavoidable. Following a number of these unavoidable shocks, each dog then was placed into a shuttle-box in which the dog easily could escape the shock by jumping over a barrier from one side of the box to the other.

Astoundingly, when a dog received a shock that it could escape, it first ran frantically around the box. Then it stopped moving, lay down, and began to whine, while continuing to be shocked. The dog failed to cross the barrier in order to escape its pain. On subsequent trials, the dog exhibited the same behavior. Even with many other trials, the dog gave up, passively accepted the shock, and failed to escape. Though the dog could have controlled receiving shock and pain, it didn’t.

The resultant behavior became known as learned helplessness. An individual with learned helplessness, similar to the dogs, feels a lack of control over what is happening to him or her. Critically, even when exposed to a situation that is within control of the individual, previous experience renders the person unable to respond positively and to adapt.

To cure his dogs of their learned helplessness, Seligman dragged the dogs across the barrier from the shock compartment to the non-shocked one. He did this to teach the dogs that they could escape the shock and reduce their fear. The bad news is that it took from 25 to 200 draggings to get the dogs to lose their fear.

What do Seligman’s dogs have to do with students who attend Success Academy? Learned helplessness occurs when a student feels incapable of controlling what happens to him or her. We see this with poor readers, students who are fearful and avoidant of math, students who continually are failing and put forth limited or no effort. Basic skills were not mastered by these students. The lesson the student has learned is: I’m incompetent. I’m helpless. Stress builds and school becomes hateful. To protect their egos, they flee the place and situation that gives them so much stress.

The human toll of learned helplessness can be high: failing grades, truancy, failure to graduate from high school, lack of job opportunities, depression, strong possibility of alcohol and drug abuse, among others. As with Seligman’s dogs, the cure takes much longer, it is more difficult to implement than the original learning, and a positive outcome is not always guaranteed.

The treatment for learned helplessness is academic: direct teaching plus mastery of basic skills. Teaching starts at the level where students currently are functioning. First experiences must be successful. Frustration tolerance also must be built into lessons. Students are taught effective ways to talk to themselves, emphasizing effort, persistence, and good strategies for learning and problem solving. Students begin to learn that they are competent and capable of learning.

A district must prioritize where to place its precious resources. Is reopening a closed school with its concomitant high maintenance the best solution? Or can a classroom in students’ home schools – a more normal atmosphere for them – be dedicated for these students? There is an additional money problem to be considered: the resources needed for reducing district-wide high failure rates in regular education. A focus on mastery of basic skills and prevention of learning problems is imperative for regular education students, the majority of students in the district!

Seligman’s dogs are a reminder that the cost for treatment is very high when prevention is ignored.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.

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