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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive.

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How to Help Your Students (and Yourself) Regain a Sense of Control

By Angela Duckworth — May 06, 2020 1 min read

It’s hard to have so many things out of our control right now. What can we do to adjust?

Not having control over what is going on in your life is what psychologist Marty Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” More than 50 years ago, Seligman discovered that dogs who were subjected to painful electric shocks they could not control became despondent, listless, and unmotivated to escape the shocks when they were given an opportunity to do so. Quite literally, the dogs learned that they were helpless.

But Seligman also observed that some dogs—about a third—did not respond this way. Some dogs never learned the lesson that there was nothing they could do to alter their fate. They were resilient.

Seligman later discovered that the same psychological processes explained helplessness and resilience in human beings. You can interpret adversity in your life as permanent and pervasive, or you can instead assume that adversity is temporary and situation-specific.

For instance, you can either think: “Schools will never go back to normal. Nothing I enjoyed before will ever be the same.” Or, more optimistically, you could say to yourself, “Schools are temporarily closed because of the pandemic. But a lot of the things I enjoy, like dinner with my family and texting with my friends, haven’t changed.”

How do you turn up the volume on optimistic self-talk? Marty recommends paying attention to your self-talk. When you catch yourself catastrophizing, stop and ask, “Is it really true that this situation is never going to get better? And is it really true that everything I care about is ruined?”

With practice, you can shift your spontaneous reactions to adversity from helplessness to resilience. And in so doing, you’ll be kick-starting a virtuous cycle, where attention to the things you can change motivates you to invest effort, which is rewarded, and so on.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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