The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

Dealing with Difficulty

"I'm not doing it for you". I was walking around Lake Claremont a while ago and I came across a dad waiting patiently for his son to retrieve his shoes. The shoes were on the other side of the fence – the boy had obviously been in the lake and had taken his shoes off but forgotten to pick them up when he climbed back over the fence. The boy had a stick and was trying to fish the shoes back. As I walked past the father I smiled and he said, with a slight look of chagrin, "Life lessons, eh?" Indeed.   

One of the key goals for all of us is to enable our boys to develop into individuals who are self-reliant to some degree. If we don't want to be doing stuff for our kids for the rest of our lives (and we shouldn't), then we  have to  start teaching them the skills of independence from an early age. Yes, it is a delicate balance between doing too much for them and not doing enough – obviously we don't want them to be placed in dangerous situations. But too often it is easier for us to do it for them, rather than letting them take longer and perhaps produce a few tears and even a tantrum or two (and I'm not just talking about little ones here) but getting there under their own steam, so to speak. 

'Learned helplessness' is one of the saddest things we see as teachers: children who have had so much done for them and given to them (by teachers and parents) that they are incapable of acting on their own to solve a problem. They have come to believe that if they sit passively and do nothing, eventually, someone (an adult) will come along and do it for them. A fear of failure in the student (particularly academic failure) and a misguided desire to help (in the adult) by doing, rather than demonstrating and encouraging, combine to limit the capacity of that student to think creatively, to show ingenuity and initiative, and to demonstrate perseverance when things don't go right. When we encounter an event with may be beyond our experience, we can deal best with that situation if we have a bank of memories to draw upon which relate to different occasions where we have used different coping skills and which we can apply to the new situation. Fostering tenacity in a child is essential if they are to deal with difficult moments and experiences in their lives. We cannot be there to shield them from every negative event, and neither should we. Difficulties and challenges are what help us to develop character. It is far better that we teach children to accept that such things will happen; to understand that they can get through them if they persist; and to  realise  that they can be a better person for having had that experience. Not everything is fun, but we can still enjoy the challenge of doing our best in a  particular set  of circumstances.   

"I'm not doing it for you", followed by "You can do it", can be a very powerful combination of words for our boys to hear. 


It is not uncommon for us to be faced with the challenge of students who constantly set themselves incredibly high standards and who come to think less of themselves when they are unable to always maintain those standards. These standards may apply to everything a person does, or only to one field of  endeavour . Often, these types of students are high achievers who are striving to do even better. Sometimes, these students are doing poorly at school because they set such high standards in their own minds that they don't think it is worth them even trying to reach those levels because they do not believe they can attain those levels. By not trying, they have a ready-made excuse for performing poorly. 

For such students, we  have to work with them to change their thinking, so that they aim for excellence, rather than perfection. We have been offered the opportunity to partner with Curtin University to help evaluate the effectiveness of a free online programme which aims to assist students who may have perfectionist tendencies. Students who join up will complete one module per week for eight weeks, with each module taking 30-60 minutes to complete. These modules would be done outside of school time. 

If you think that your son would benefit from being involved in this program, more information can be found at this link or this flyer. You can contact Emily Jones, who is the PhD student who is helping to monitor the programme (and is working under the supervision of Dr Trevor Mazzucchelli) at