Imagine you are shopping for groceries, safely crossing a street, playing with your child at the park, utilizing an elevator, or completing a routine job task. You’re accomplishing what you have successfully accomplished for so many days and years. Your arm is clutched by a well-meaning individual wanting to “rescue” you, or you hear, “I’ve got it” as someone attempts to assist you. Imagine, too, this is a regular occurrence. One of two things is likely to occur: 1) You may be frustrated! This is a pretty typical response for confident adults. 2) You may begin to think you aren’t capable of performing the task without help, and you would come to expect or rely on assistance. This is a pretty typical response for children, one we call learned-helplessness.
So, what measures can be taken to help prevent learned helplessness?
Set high expectations. As Emily Colemen discusses in her blog post, Looking Ahead, she had to intentionally consider goals for Eddie at home, otherwise, she shares, she would get used to the status quo and resolve Eddie’s anticipated needs. Emily states, “I expect things from Eddie that I know he can do, but I forget about the things I want him to learn. Some behaviors, and poorly learned habits, are overlooked because it has become what others have called our “new normal.”
To set realistic, achievable goals, both Emily and I suggest working on one goal at a time with your child. In other words, expect your child to accomplish what they can already execute independently, and always be working on the next goal. To learn more about teaching your child the “next skill”, read Self-Care Skills for Blind Children.
Give your child the opportunity to help others. Because all children, and especially children with disabilities, will need help or assistance regularly (until they have mastered daily living skills, orientation and mobility skills, etc.), it is important that they have regular opportunities to assist others. They will learn that relationships are reciprocal and that they are capable of helping others.
Teach your child to steward the earth well, volunteer with your child, and allow them to help with the running of the household by taking responsibility for age/developmentally appropriate chores.
Ensure your child’s home and learning environments are accessible. If you and your child work together to organize the environment, as well as label that which is difficult to identify or discriminate, your child will be set up to independently access what is needed for daily living and learning. To learn more about the process, read Organization of Your Visually Impaired Child’s Living and Learning Spaces.
Teach your child to decline help when they don’t need it. Some children seem to be born saying, “No! Me do it!”, while others are content to be taken care of perpetually. Either way, you can teach your child to respectfully decline assistance. The key is helping a more passive child gain confidence by giving them a phrase to say, such as “No, thank you. I can do it.”, and reminding them when they can use it. You can teach a more “aggressive” communicator to replace an existing phrase with the more polite “No, thank you. I can do it.” To learn more, read Assertive Language for Visually Impaired Preschoolers.
Set high expectations. Give your child the opportunity to help others. Ensure your child’s home and learning environments are accessible. Teach your child to decline help when they don’t need it. With effort and intentionality on your and your child’s part, your son or daughter can gain control, competence, autonomy, and the awareness that they are capable. Your child is not helpless!