Columns, Training

Learned Helplessness: Combatting an Unhealthy Brain

Issue 2 and Volume 39.

How many educators have had students say, “I’m not a good test taker,” “I can’t do this,” or another negative phrase they’ve told themselves—and their brain—to limit their success? Maybe it’s not something they say but something they don’t do: participate.

These are classic signs of a condition called “learned helplessness,” which causes the brain to make unhealthy choices. It’s our job as educators to take an unhealthy brain and nurture it back to health.

In Brain Based Learning , author Eric Jensen states, “There are varying levels of learned helplessness … about two-thirds of students are likely candidates.”1

Symptoms of learned helplessness include not caring, giving up, depression, anxiety, hostile humor, cognitive impairment and passivity instead of activity.Learned helplessness physically changes the brain by decreasing the amounts of norepinephrine (arousal system), lowering amounts of GABA (common neurotransmitter), decreasing serotonin and dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitters), increasing activation of amygdala (intense emotion), and stimulating hormone cortisol (stress). These biological markers are not causing learned helplessness—learned helplessness is causing abnormal levels. Educators can return these levels to normal and create a healthy brain.

Stimulate the brain to prevent negative attitudes about learning.

Stimulate the brain to prevent negative attitudes about learning. Photo Chris Nollette


Transforming an unhealthy brain will test the instructor’s patience. The first step is to make these students stakeholders in the learning process and not tourists in the classroom. Students given a team role gain more confidence that allows them greater control.Teamwork takes the student from passivity to activity in the classroom and begins to rewire the brain with a more can-do attitude.

Classroom Application: The instructor’s passion creates an increased awareness and piques the interest of students with learned helplessness. Only teach if you love your profession.


Learned optimism starts with an enthusiastic approach to learning—if the instructor is excited, the students can’t help but be intrigued; this may be more than a boring lecture.It’s important that as we maintain a positive and supportive environment, we don’t give false praise. Instructors who fake praise or give too many external rewards can make a learned-helplessness brain become negatively dependent.Remember all things in moderation; even too much oxygen can cause a patient to go blind.

Classroom Application: Start the day with praise reports. Squad leaders should have members stand while they are recognized for doing well. Read narrative reports from their clinical/field assignments or from inside the classroom, then let them know they matter by clapping.


Have students take an active role in and outside the classroom. Nothing can refocus a brain better than socializing. Students can participate in decision making, participate in projects for local EMS departments, attend local state meetings or complete research-related projects. Involvement in any area of their profession can lead to retooling a brain that hasn’t been engaged or focused on meaningful experiences.

Classroom Application: Organize community service events, take on projects that improve the profession or the classroom, or get students involved in presenting their program and profession at community events. Ownership fosters pride but also activates the brain in a positive way. Even wearing a uniform and belonging to a squad can create relevance and a feeling of belonging for the student.


The brain is a challenging frontier. Each day we learn more about it and how educators can be more effective. It’s important students make decisions in the classroom—indecision is a decision to be indecisive.

We now know we use our whole brain, and this has led to a new phrase called “relative laterization”—using both sides of the brain.If we use the whole brain, we must teach to the whole brain, and by doing so we can combat the destructive effects of a disengaged one. It takes a little effort, a lot of patience, and a commitment to creating an active and engaging classroom to get brains out of intensive care and rehab them back into the wondrous world of learning.


1. Jensen E: Brain based learning. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2008.

2. Glasser W: Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. Harper-Collins: New York, 1999.

3. Seglimen MEP: Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Pocket Books: New York, 1998.

4. Kohn A. Why incentive plans cannot work. Harvard Business Review. 1993;71(5):54–63.

5. Proverbio AM, Brignome V, Matarazzo S, et al. Gender differences in hemispheric asymmetry for face processing. BMC Neurosci. 2006;8(7):44.

Learn more from Chris Nollette at the EMS Today Conference & Expo, Feb. 5–8 in Washington, D.C.,