Learned Helplessness

Maybe it’s the fact that, just last week, I delivered a keynote presentation in Florida about child abuse.  Maybe it’s that, just yesterday, a safety officer for a state association told me of his worry that too much attention is on the threat of the “active shooter” in our schools to the exclusion of the continuing threat to students from sexual violence and domestic abuse.  Either way, as I read an article in my local newspaper this morning about the firing of Rutgers College basketball coach Mike Rice, I was frightened by the potential parallels to adults who work with students with special needs – including school bus drivers.

Rice was fired for his mistreatment of players after his outbursts went viral on a video that sparked national outrage.  Sam McDowell, reporter for the Kansas City Star, noted that “what may seem more stunning is that those familiar with the sport say it’s not surprising that Rice wasn’t challenged by his players.”  McDowell noted that players are “at the total discretion of the coach” for playing time.  Here’s what caught my eye:  “The players become acclimated to the coach’s role, for better or for worse.”  Mitch Abrams, a NJ sports psychologist noted “players can begin to accept inappropriate behavior as appropriate.” And, “as is the case with instances of domestic violence, those kids develop a learned helplessness.  They’re stuck and they accept it.”


Picture: Heavy.com

As I retold stories of child abuse by school bus drivers and monitors directed mostly at students with special needs, I highlighted that, often, such students have cognitive impairments that don’t enable them to understand the true nature of conduct directed toward them.  They may be “trapped” in safety vests or wheelchairs.  They are at the mercy of other students and, even more sadly, the adults on the vehicle.

I also know stories of students who wanted to advocate for the victims of bullying but were afraid to speak up.  They had learned helplessness.  We may be teaching passivity when we want to teach confrontation skills.

The story is, for me, a reminder of the power we and our staff members can too easily abuse.  Be sure you’re taking adequate steps so that our youth, and those who support them, don’t learn to be helpless

Posted on April 5, 2013, in Core Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Well said, I am scared that the tactics we all saw in the video last week are more common than not. Some folks like that dirtbag coach get all pumped up on their “authority trip” and soon can’t see that what they’re doing is wrong.

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