4 Steps to Influence the Underperformer – and start the move past learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a very real issue that occurs subconsciously with many of the struggling students, long-term English learners, and students of poverty that struggle year after year. Learned helplessness occurs when students have been conditioned to believe that no matter how hard they work, they cannot move forward.  Once they believe that no amount of effort will move them forward, they stop putting forth effort, which ultimately leads to “the shut down”.  This is such a recurring problem with so many students in so many classrooms…

I’m currently reading High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard.  If you have had a conversation with me in the past month, I probably mentioned this book to you, because it’s been that impactful on me.

Anyways, as I was driving out of town for work this past weekend, I was listening to his podcast #thebrendonshow, and this episode almost jumped out of the speakers at me.  Although the book and the podcast are primarily based on business, leadership and personal growth,  I couldn’t help but make the connection to how we can move the underperformers in our classes to academic success.

One of Brendon’s statements that resonated with me was this:

“As a leader, it’s your job to let people know when they are not showing up as their best selves.  Leaders are forgetting to challenge people to reach their highest level of potential.  When leaders coddle, people could underperform their whole lives.”

Substitute the word teachers for leaders, because teachers are the ultimate leaders, and students for people and this statement makes a whole lot of sense.

As a teacher, it’s your job to let students know when they are not showing up as their best selves.  Teachers are forgetting to challenge students to reach their highest level of potential.  When teachers coddle, students could underperform their whole lives.”

This really reached out to me because I know I made this mistake with my students.  With only pure motives, I coddled, helped, and spoon-fed my kids so many times so they could feel “successful”- but really I was just deepening the dependent mentality.  I still lose sleep over this sometimes.

This blog is basically my thoughts based on ideas that the awesome podcast put out there.  Let’s look at 4 steps to moving the students’ mindsets from underperforming to achievement – or from dependent learners to independent learners!

  1. Approach students with honor, respect and appreciation.
  2. Learn their situation.
  3. Challenge how they think.
  4. Challenge how they show up
  • Approach students with honor, respect, and appreciation – Many of these students feel very little value, and no self-efficacy. Starting a conversation with, “hey, you’re important to me, so I want to have this conversation with you” will go a lot further than, “Why haven’t you turned your work in?  You’re going to fail the class if you don’t start working.”
  • Have an openness to learning – All behavior stems from a reason. Finding out the reason can often help us change the behavior.  Asking questions like “How are you feeling?” and “What are your goals?” and “Do you think you are reaching them?” and then listening to the answer can give us some real insight as to what’s going on.  Teachers can’t assume why the student is underperforming.

Burchard states, “Never underestimate the potential of God’s childen. It’s the job of the [leader] teacher to stay open to the future potential of their [people] students.” Wow. It’s not for us to judge whether they’ve got it in them or not – it’s just our job to be open to what they could have.

  • Challenge how they think – “Prompt the students to think differently.” Guide students to think about themselves and their contributions differently. Questions like “Have you thought about it this way?” or  “How would your best self handle this situation?” or “What do you think needs to happen in order to take one step forward?” are questions that can challenge the mindset, instead of just focusing on what they haven’t done (“Why haven’t you turned in that assignment?”).
  • Challenge how they show up – “I know you’ve got what you need to be successful in this class-can you commit to bring it everyday?” “I’ll commit to bringing my best self for you, can you commit to bringing your best self every day to 2nd period?”

I think these steps are great ideas, but I also believe that none of these ideas will work with students unless the teacher has built an authentic relationship and alliance with the student, with the student fully understanding that the teacher cares for the student, and that they are on the journey to achievement together.  Aren’t we held accountable for our students’ achievement?  Don’t we hold ourselves accountable for our students’ success?  So, in truth aren’t we all trying to reach the same goals?

To keep chatting about this or for more information, please REACH OUT!

Burchard, Brendon. High Performance Habits. New York: Hay House Inc, 2017.

Burchard, B. “Best Of: How to Influence an Underperformer”. Podcast: The Brendon Show. 6 May, 2019.

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