Carol S. Dweck

The Big Idea

“I’m quitting,” says one youth sport participant. “I give up,“ says another. What youth sport coach hasn’t faced the frustration of dealing with a child who has difficulty facing failure? Over time, a child who fails either in sports or in other life pursuits can become so affected they suffer from what is called “learned helplessness.”

This study confronts this problem, one that can have untold negative impacts on an entire childhood. One approach to dealing with this kind of continuous failure is to prop the child up by providing ever-continuous success skills, challenges, or tests. The thinking is to help the child experience successes thinking that the positive reinforcement will increase a child’s motivation to try harder.

Implicit in this paper is a belief that what such a child needs is not easy successes, but opportunities to fail; but fail with the added condition that the child should take responsibility for that failure, and that its cause was not trying hard enough. If they can learn to un-blame their failure on perceived lack of ability or on interferences external to themselves, they soon can uncover respect for themselves and for the possibilities of self-development.

This doesn’t mean we would should create artificial failures. Only that when mistakes are made or responsibilities fumbled, that these moments are teaching opportunities to capitalise on helping the youngster learn how to handle failure. If they can’t learn what they are doing wrong, they will never learn to do it right. After all, many successful athletes and coaches have said over the years that they learn far more from their failures than their successes. The earlier this lesson is learned, the better.


  • Children who have failed in tests or problem solving or skill performance can come to believe there is no point in continuing to try if they believe they are incapable of succeeding; or if they believe there are external reasons they continuously fail.
  • These children are referred to as “helpless children.” They perceive themselves as hopeless with regard to any test or challenge.
  • In the history of teaching and learning, there have been a parade of programs claiming that to help these children succeed, they should be given a curriculum with continuous successes, or if failure crops up to minimize it or forget it entirely.
  • This study demonstrated that helpless children who are challenged by learning to accept responsibility for failure and to attribute that failure to lack of effort or motivation can learn how to succeed and to achieve a goal.
  • Simply giving helpless children continuous successes in fact reinforces the child’s fear of failure and can extinguish any effort to try.
  • Youth coaches, for example, who turn away from a child who simply gives up in practice are missing an opportunity to energize that child through training sessions where responsibilities are defined and failure is attributed to lack of motivation or effort.

The Research

Why even try? This question can become a mantra for children who accept a fate of what is called learned helplessness. In this state of being, there are children who, when fail in a task or solving a problem, will accept future failure almost as a default mode of behaviour. Even when they want to succeed and are capable of doing so, they do not bother to try.

Learned helplessness was so labeled in 1965 by the psychologist Martin Seligman. In Dweck’s dissertation study of 1975, she designed an experiment looking at the role of expectations (high or low, for example) and attributions (what or who can be blamed for an outcome, for example) to help reduce learned helplessness in children. She knew that for many learning or behaviour modification programs continuous successes become the curriculum. Her speculation was that it might be better for helpless children to take responsibility for failure and attribute it to lack of effort. It was known already that the performance of the helpless child tends to deteriorate even further in the face of failure. Why not then try to change the child’s perception of the relationship between their behaviour and the occurrence of failure? Maybe by altering the attribution for failure would change their attitude toward failure in the future.

So she identified 12 extremely helpless children ages 8 through 13. After baseline measures were established for all 12 students on math performance, the children were divided into two groups. One group of six was given a 25 session long Success Only treatment on math problems the children could successfully complete within the required session time limit; failure was minimised or glossed over entirely. The other group of six in what was called the Attribution Retraining treatment were also given the 25 sessions of math problem solving. But failure was programmed into the treatment and as well the attribution of failure. In this treatment the required number of math problems was increased by 20% and the instructor attributed the failure to lack of effort.

In the end, there were differences on all the comparisons between the helpless subjects and the persistent subjects.

  • The helpless children took less personal responsibility for the outcomes of their performance.
  • The helpless children tended to place less emphasis on the role of effort in determining success and failure than did the persistent children.
  • The helpless group proved to be more anxious than the persistent group.
  • The helpless subjects clearly tended toward avoiding failure, while the persistent children tended to strive for success.

In her discussion, Dweck reviewed the basic assumptions of the study: 1) that if a child believes failure to be because of lack of ability or because of external factors beyond the child’s control, persistence usually terminates; 2) that on the other hand, if a child believes his or her failure is a result of lack of motivation, persistence escalates to obtain the goal.

The study demonstrated that it was possible to influence a helpless child’s response to failure from surrender to persistence. There was marked improvement in the persistence of helpless children who were taught during training to accept responsibility for the failure and that it was due to lack of effort, not ability or external factors to blame. These improvements were produced by the training sessions reinforcing responsibility and effort. The Success Only groups not only did not show any consistent improvement in their response to failure; they actually continued to display marked performance impairment.

Popular searches: defending, finishing, 1v1, playing out from the back, working with parents