Your study level

We've preselected "All levels" for you, but you can change your study level at any time by choosing one of the options on this menu. Changing your study level will return you to the beginning of the module.

An inconvenient truth

For those with learning difficulties, making choices is a complex issue (Harris, 2006). It's also important to recognise that the choices children make are sometimes inconvenient for those giving the choices.

Unfortunately, practitioners must accept that this can have (sometimes extreme) deleterious effects on the individual exercising their right to say no, for example, to healthy foods (Smyth and Bell, 2006). There's no doubt that such situations will test the educator to the full, especially when the issue of understanding consequences is
so problematic.

This does not, however, alter the basic premise of teaching negation. Having done this and ensured that the child has understood the power of their own negation, we can then move on to one of the real arts of teaching, that of encouraging the child to experiment and explore the world around them.

This takes time, patience, knowledge of the child and a considerable degree of skill, but it can
be done.

Learned helplessness in practice (1)

Watch this video clip in which Alice protests over going into a swimming pool, but staff are willing to push her beyond her comfort zone because they know she likes both water and song.

  • Poster
Learned helplessness in practice (2)

We can reduce learned helplessness by adopting a number of clear and unambiguous strategies that are regularly discussed and agreed by whole class and school teams. These are:

  • Building healthy attachments which allows for independent development;
  • Having high expectations;
  • Recognising the desirability of failure;
  • Providing predictable environments;
  • Rewarding independent behaviour;
  • Communicating with learners at their level;
  • Recognising, responding to and reinforcing the child's initiations;

  • Reducing prompting;
  • Providing real choices;
  • Identifying what the child is interested in and using that as a basis for working with them;
  • Taking risks;
  • Giving the learner time to succeed.

Learned helplessness in practice (3)
In practical terms, staff, parents and carers need to consider:
  • How often and how easily we do things for our learners;
  • How often and how easily we give them cues;
  • How much they expect us to help them;
  • Whether this constitutes a 'healthy attachment'.

Think about how a child with PMLD might be taught to try a previously rejected experience.

Describe what you would do and, equally importantly, what you would
not do.

Find out more (1)

Bunning, K. (1996), Development of an 'Individualised Sensory Environment' for Adults with Learning Disabilities and an Evaluation of its Effects on their Interactive Behaviours. (unpublished thesis), London: City University

Bunning, K. (1998), To engage or not to engage? Affecting the interactions of Learning Disabled adults. International Language and Communication Disorders. Vol 33; pp 386-391.

Carpenter, B., Cockbill, B., Egerton, J. and English, J. (2010) Children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities: developing meaningful pathways to personalised learning, The SLD Experience.

Harris, J. (2006), Time to make up your mind: why choosing is difficult, British Journal of Learning Disabilities.

Find out more (2)

Seligman, M. (1975), Learned Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death, San Francisco CA: W.H. Freeman.

Smyth, C.M. and Bell, D. (2006), From Biscuits to Boyfriends: the Ramifications of Choice for People with Learning Disabilities, British Journal of Learning Disabilities.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978), Mind in Society: the Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M Cole et al. (ed), MA Harvard University Press.

Ware, J. (2003), Creating a Responsive Environment for People with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties,
London: David Fulton.