A Guide for Supporting Perfectionist Students
Just as adults do, many students pressure themselves to achieve perfection. While wanting to do well is a great quality, not being able to live up to high expectations can cause negative feelings such as anxiety, sadness, and unworthiness—and can be incredibly frustrating.
This pressure and desire for perfection is known as perfectionism. Even though perfectionist students are often gifted or advanced learners, perfectionism can affect students of all levels. Perfectionism may be a characteristic that your child will always have, but there are many ways that you can help him or her turn it into a positive, rewarding, and beneficial trait! Check out the guide below to get started.
Before you can help your student cope with his or her perfectionistic tendencies, it's important to understand what it really means to be a perfectionist. Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as "the disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable." Thus, perfectionism is essentially the pursuit of an impossible idea, as nothing can ever truly be "perfect."
So how do people become perfectionists? Perfectionism usually stems from a fear of failure and an addiction to praise. Since perfectionists are constantly trying to attain excellence and succeed, they quickly start to associate "being perfect" with their identity. For instance, a perfectionist becomes consumed with thoughts like, What will they think of me?; What if they find out I'm not as great as they think I am?; What people like about me is that I'm talented/smart; and I should know how to do this. The fear of failure then feeds into the need for praise.
If you're not sure if your child falls under the perfectionist category, consider these examples of things a perfectionist student may do:
- Refuse to submit schoolwork until it's absolutely "perfect"
- Revise a paper or project endlessly
- Get easily discouraged after making a minor mistake
- Put themselves down for earning a low grade
- Obsess about a specific project or test
Take a moment to think about why your child learns. Perfectionism is particularly discouraging for students when their desire to learn is driven by objectives such as getting into a specific college, not getting in trouble, or receiving an award or gift. These are great goals to strive for, but students who focus on such things alone are missing a crucial component of the learning process: joy. Research shows that if joy is missing from learning, the student doesn't actually learn much at all.
Reframing things within a growth mind-set is a great way to bring joy into learning and manage perfectionism. A growth mind-set is the belief that:
- Intelligence can grow.
- Challenge and struggle are the ways one grows one’s intelligence.
- Failure is a necessary part of success.
Once students develop a growth mind-set, they will no longer try to create a perfect product. Instead, they will try to put themselves in a position where they are being challenged and developing at a suitable rate, because that's the "new perfection." In other words, imperfection becomes the new objective. This high level of challenge is often what makes perfectionist students the happiest.
A student who has a growth mind-set is much more likely to experience "flow," which is an optimal state of mind for learning. When students are in a state of flow, they are completely absorbed in the work at hand. They are doing something that is meaningful, so they are energized, excited, and calm.
If the challenge matches the student’s ability, he or she will find that state of flow. When the abilities of students are greater than the challenge, however, they never get to experience flow, and may often feel bored. A perfectionist student sometimes tries to get back into a state of flow by increasing the challenge—but if the challenge is something extreme or unachievable, such as increasing a grade percentage from 95% to 100%, the student could become extremely overwhelmed.
Take a look at some of the ways that your student can achieve an ideal flow:
- Work on challenging yet realistic tasks that match his or her ability (consider having a conversation with your student about the challenge level)
- Develop skills in order to attain an appropriate challenge
- Increase the challenge at a proper level when work is too easy (if a student is only working to perfect something, he or she is not getting the most out of that particular assignment, paper, or project)
The Big Picture
Now that you know more about the factors that affect perfectionism, here are some important things to keep in mind:
Fear of Failure
- Failure is part of the learning process.
- Failure is simply a sign that one needs to make a change and get back to the point of flow.
- Getting top grades in every course is not the only thing that matters. To reach the best point of learning, there needs to be more of a challenge.
Addiction to Praise
- Praise effort—not just any effort, but meaningful effort.
- Notice joy.
- Recognize flow.
- Change the language around learning. Focus more on the learning experience and less on the grade or test score.
- Identify student role models. A student role model has most likely experienced failure, so use this figure to explain the importance of working through failure in order to achieve success.
- Communicate with teachers when your student is only focused on improving his or her course percentage.
Helping your student cope with perfectionism is a daily process that requires time, patience, and determination—but you'll know your efforts were worth it when you notice that your child is less stressed and is enjoying learning more!