Lagging Skill or Learned Helplessness: How to Tell
*Originally posted October 11, 2018
In my work with parents raising children with special needs, the most common question I get is this: “How do I know how much to push? How do I know what is his disability and what is “laziness.” I always stop parents right there. When children (and people) appear “lazy,” they are usually fatigued, unmotivated, disinterested, or the task is too hard. So, let’s look beyond “lazy” and uncover what is really going on. The truth is, when parenting children with special needs, there is no specific timeline of milestones handed to you by your pediatrician. Our differently-wired children are on their own path and it’s our job to help them meet their full potential.
That said, I work with many families in survival mode. My own family has been through seasons of survival mode. We can’t teach new skills when we are in this survival place because we’re trying to get our child to stop hitting, or to start eating, or to sleep enough, or to get out of the car and into the school building. These are big, necessary goals in the life of a child and goals of daily independence tend to go by the wayside until these essential goals of survival improve.
But once the dust settles, and it will settle, parents often struggle to set expectations for their differently-wired child. The reason why is two-fold. First, parents have seen their child struggle repeatedly with developmental skills, so they ask, “Why would I CAUSE them to struggle more by not helping with their shoes on the way out the door?” Second, if your child with special needs is highly emotional and quick to have intense outbursts, likely due to going into fight or flight at the sight of a challenge, you may have been conditioned to quickly lower the expectations to calm the outburst. At times, parents will do anything to avoid another outburst because it’s so emotionally difficult for everyone involved. This makes setting limits later on difficult because we have inconsistently followed through based on a variety of factors that make no sense to our child. For example, even when a child is capable of independence, her initial protest may trigger something in her parents that reminds them of intense meltdowns of years past. They want to avoid the emotional backslide, so they give in.
Is it a Lagging Skills or Learned Helplessness?
At times, we do need to pick our battles, but consistently giving in can lead to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness evolves when we have conditioned our children to expect us to do something for them and, therefore, they don’t even try doing it themselves.
I fell into this trap, yes me, when we were always in a rush out the door in the morning and I was helping my 4 year old with his shoes so we could get going. One morning, he was lying in the floor whining, “But I just can’t do it without you!” It was his intense dramatization of the moment that got my attention and I thought, “Of course you can, but I haven’t taught you how!” So, now we build in extra time and he puts on his shoes while I stand nearby, coaching him and encouraging him, validating his frustrated feelings along the way. And he feels proud instead of helpless. And, yes, we are late some days because of this.
Learned helplessness can also look like a middle school child not bringing home an assignment because they know you will get it from a friend’s mom later that evening. Or, not confronting that teacher about a test grade in high school, because they know you will email the teacher and handle the situation. You know your child best. If you step back and think, “My child COULD learn how to do this if I coached them,” then it’s likely learned helplessness. Start teaching.
But when is it a lagging skill connected to neurodevelopmental delays? Your best answer for this is to follow the profile determined in a developmental evaluation. This is one of the reasons evaluations are so important. Once you understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you will know where you can push for independence and where they need support. If you push too hard on a lagging skill, a child will likely become defeated and give up, leading to emotional stress and negative self-talk. If you hear negative self-talk, it’s likely a lagging skill. And, just to add to the confusion, it may not be the lagging skill you think. For instance, if a child is whining about doing homework but YOU KNOW they understand the academic work, the lagging skill might actually be focusing at that time of day, completing work that is not of interest to them, or they may understand the concepts but struggle with fine motor weakness to write their responses.
Range of Independence
Every child has their own range of independence. I agree with Jessica Lahey in her video above when she recommends to figure out what your child CAN do and help them put their toe slightly over that line into the next, more-challenging skill. I often break this down into three categories:
INDEPENDENCE What your child can do without support. These are set as expectations within the family (and the classroom) because they are mastered skills.
LEARNING What your child is learning and needs coaching on and strategies to complete. Children receive external rewards while they are learning these skills.
LAGGING SKILL What your child is not yet capable of doing developmentally. These are tasks you are not even asking your child to do yet because they are lagging skills that have not yet developed.
Expect your child to independently do what they are already capable of without support. So, hold a family meeting and make these expectations clear. Your child will likely need coaching and external rewards (at first) when learning and practicing new skills. When you see a LAGGING SKILL emerging, move it to the LEARNING list. Same goes for LEARNING skills. When your child masters that skill, they no longer need to be externally rewarded for it so move it to the INDEPENDENCE list. They will be intrinsically rewarded by feeling proud of themselves and this is much more powerful in the long term than any points, dollars, or prizes you can provide.
Rewards vs. Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is always preferred because it gives our children a sense of autonomy and pride that is naturally rewarding. If they feel it as a child, they will seek it out as a teen and adult. We feel good when we are contributing to a team, family, or our community. However, when children are learning and practicing skills, or forgetting to do something because of weak executive functioning skills, they will benefit from external rewards to jump-start their success. And yes, it’s ok to reward children with executive functioning weaknesses for remembering things. You won’t reward them forever, but you help them feel successful at first, feel proud for learning, and that pride will create a new positive behavior pattern that they will want to repeat.
Protecting the Self-Efficacy of our Children with Special Needs
Now, back to that negative self-talk. When we hear that, our kids are defeated. They are working on something that is too hard, or they have worked on it too long and they don’t see a way to solve it. One mom I talked to handles this by emphasizing the value of mistakes (i.e., growth mindset), the power of “yet,” and the importance of practice. But the truth is, sometimes this feels like it isn’t enough. Kids are still defeated. Our kids with special needs are faced with more challenges than their neurotypical peers. For some, this will build character and grit, while others could become the helpless rat in the video above.
If you feel like your child is defeated and might be giving up, emphasize the positive. Make a list of all the things your child has not been able to do and then mastered. Start with early developmental milestones like crawling, walking, talking, and toilet training. Once upon a time, their brains were not capable of these things, but they practiced, persevered, and got it!
As they grow up, they follow this same pattern of learning, but this time they are looking around at all the other kids potentially learning faster than they are able to. Make sure they understand the things they CAN do that their neurotypical peers cannot, like a special interest or ability. Yes, learning some things will be hard, but they can mastered this process. Success is not only in the mastery of the skill, it’s in the coming back and trying again and again until they are beaming with pride when they accomplish their goal.
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