Pulling Out of Helplessness

I cannot help myself.  I want Robert to answer correctly whatever is there to answer.  So I give him signals. I don’t know what those signals are. But Robert deciphers them anyway. I catch my fingers  moving themselves toward a word that completes the sentence, or toward the  correct estimate of a number on a number line.  I put the hands under the table so they stop interfering.  But inside my mouth the air position itself in anticipation of the word that is an answer to the question I have just asked my son. My lips don’t say the word yet, but are shaped already for the first sound.  Robert knows what I want him to say because I am already saying it, even if I don’t hear myself.  I catch my tongue conspiring with  my lungs and my mouth to help Robert demonstrate to me that he knows the proper response. To prevent my mouth from meddling in Robert’s learning I leave Robert at the table and go to the kitchen.  Before I go I tell Robert  to read carefully each phrase printed on  one of 12 strips of paper, decide if it relates to the sun, the earth, or the moon, and place the strip with the sentence in a proper space.  From the kitchen I look  back and see that Robert doesn’t touch the strips of paper.   He waits for me to return.  “Use your own mind.  You know it.  You know that all”  I repeat from time to time as I watch Robert’s hands. I see pieces of paper slowly filling empty spaces below “sun, earth, and moon”.  Very slowly.

I ask, “Are you ready or not yet? ”

“Not yet”.

A few more minutes and a few more encouragements from the other room I ask again, “Are you ready or not yet?”


I return to the table and we are checking together if the phrases properly relate to the objects.  Seven correct answers, five wrong. Enough to assume that Robert hasn’t assigned those strips of papers completely randomly.  This is a success.  Because the goal for Robert is not to be correct yet, but to TRY to be correct without help.

In the past when Robert knew something well, like  multiplying two digit numbers by one digit, he could work alone on the whole page of problems.  He automatically followed a simple algorithm.  When, however, Robert was not completely sure how to respond, he would wait and wait and wait for me to come.  He wouldn’t touch the problem without me being present and giving him those unnoticeable  to me  cues.  The fact that today Robert worked independently, not afraid to make mistakes was a step out of learned helplessness.  The fact that in, at least,  a few instances he used HIS knowledge was a small  step but the step into independence.

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