Overcoming Perfectionism: Tips for Working with Perfectionist Students

Perfectionist Students: "Nobody's Perfect" note pinned to a cork board.

Perfection is, by definition, perfect. But it is also unachievable. For gifted students who have grown up being the “best” in the classroom, this presents a challenge: they must learn to accept the chance of failure in the interests of growth.

When asked, most gifted students will recognize that perfection is unachievable. Yet when doing their work, they often behave as if it is, revising and editing and re-creating to the point of frustration. Tears over a B+, a wastebasket full of papers, or a Word document that contains only one sentence after three hours of work are sure signs that perfectionism has gone too far.

In order for students to grow, it is important for them to understand that school is a place to take risks and to, on occasion, fail. Often, especially when it comes to artistic and creative endeavors, mistakes are incredibly valuable and reveal a truth that would otherwise remain obscured by the tried-and-true. Ask yourself and your student(s) which person you would expect to be the smartest in ten years: the student who only works only on addition and gets a hundred A’s or the one who tries multiplication, gets everything wrong, earns an F, finds a tutor, retakes the test, earns an A, and moves on to division?

An Alternative to Perfectionism: The Growth Mind-Set

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, outlines an alternative to perfectionism: the growth mind-set. The growth mind-set depends on an individual’s recognizing that intelligence is only partly genetic and that most talents are learned and developed, often accompanied by a good deal of failure. Malcolm Gladwell supports this idea in his book Outliers, claiming that most experts have put in an inordinate amount of time, over ten thousand hours, into mastering their specific talents. In other words, if you stop playing the moment you strike a wrong chord, then you will never learn to actually play.

Tips for Working with Perfectionists
  1. Encourage Mistakes. Perfectionists often feel deeply embarrassed about the mistakes they make. This is compounded by the fact that, often, mistakes are the only things brought to the student’s attention. A red X is much more visible than an unmarked question. It is important to remember to praise the student’s efforts and courageous risks rather than the product. A poor writer who decides to try his or her hand at writing short stories is as worthy as a student who completes a dozen mathematical proofs correctly.
  2. Allow Students to Set Their Own Goals. As teachers and parents, we often want to assume direct control over the direction and future of our students. But this type of behavior may hamper the perfectionist’s growth. If the student is constantly looking to the teacher or parent for guidance, what happens when he or she has an original thought? A student who is conditioned to ask, “But what would they think?” may trade in his or her original idea for something that seems safer. Instead, work with students to create their own goals—and help them realize that achieving a goal may require intermediate failure.
  3. Provide New Perspectives on Old Role Models. Every issue of Superman would be boring if he easily succeeded at everything he did. But thankfully for comic fans everywhere, Superman is weak when near Kryptonite and occasionally falls for the traps set by the elusive villains he pursues. He learns, adapts, and overcomes. But what if you were asked to draw Superman? Chances are that you would draw him standing tall and proud or soaring through the sky. But this isn’t who Superman truly is. It is important for students to understand that failure is a part of this image, that Superman would not be Superman if he didn’t fail once in awhile and learn from his mistakes. History is jam-packed with famous people who failed many times before they succeeded. Be sure that your student(s) learn(s) not only of these individuals’ successes, but also of their failures.
For the Home Classroom

Something to try in the home classroom: Ask students to identify one failure that they experienced this week and then to discover the lesson to be learned (or the lesson to be sought) from it. (Hint: It is usually not that the student should have worked harder!) If a student cannot identify a failure, then ask him or her to reflect on what new thing he or she wishes to try next week that may result in failure and, ultimately, growth.

Even better, set a positive example by finding something that you have not yet tried—and grow along with your student. Sometimes the lessons learned from taking chances, experimenting, and trying new things are the ones that mean the most to children and adults alike!

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