Helping the Perfectionistic Child
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
The perfectionistic student is not satisfied with simply doing well. He will redo assignments countless times in an effort to produce the perfect paper. Even then he may feel that his final product is not good enough. To say that he is tough on himself is putting it mildly. He considers anything less than perfection a failure. According to the perfectionist’s code, failure is simply not an option. Perfectionistic students set impossibly high standards for themselves and become frustrated when they fail to meet them. Even when they succeed, however, they find reason to be dissatisfied. The perfectionistic student who wins a spelling bee may get down on himself because he got one word wrong. The perfectionistic athlete who takes first place in a race may fret about not breaking a record. The drive to excel can be a double-edged sword if the student becomes consumed with being the best at everything he does. Unable to live up to his often unreachable standards, he may experience intense disappointment and feelings of worthlessness. The challenge in teaching a perfectionistic student is to maintain a delicate balance between promoting his pursuit of excellence while avoiding the perils of perfectionism. What You Can Do 1. Provide a nurturing climate. Adopt a sympathetic, patient approach with your students so they feel safe taking risks and are not fearful of your reactions if they make a mistake. Let them know that your goal for them is to improve rather than to perform perfectly. In reacting to their performance, accentuate their successes and downplay their failures. When a child does make a mistake, put a positive spin on it (for example, “You’re very close”). 2. Let the student know that mistakes are expected. Give him license to make mistakes by explaining that they are a normal part of learning. Show him that even accomplished people are far from perfect by pointing out that Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times and that Thomas Edison had over 1,500 failures before finding a filament that would work in a light bulb. Have your students share amusing mistakes they have made, making sure to chime in with your own. Also consider posting sayings in your class such as “We all make mistakes; that’s why they put erasers on pencils.” 3. Help the student set realistic goals. Suggest that he develop concrete goals that represent realistic progress from his present level. You can demonstrate to him the progress he has already made by saving his earlier work and comparing it to his present work or by using tapes or charts to show improvement. 4. Challenge the student’s flawed beliefs. For some students, their need to be perfect is driven by the way they think. They may believe that others will see them as weak if their performance is anything less than perfect. Or they may think that when someone offers a suggestion that it means they have performed poorly. As the student talks about himself, listen for faulty beliefs that need to be corrected. For example, if he fears making a mistake, ask him what he thinks will happen if he does. 5. Lay out your expectations to the students. When giving an assignment, describe precisely what you expect in terms of content, format and length. In this way the perfectionistic student is less likely to set unrealistic standards for himself. Also spell out the primary purpose of the assignment so they do not get hung up on other concerns. For example, in asking students to submit notecards with research information for a report, you might tell them that your chief concern with the notecards is content rather than grammar and spelling. 6. Use a divide and conquer strategy with long assignments. The perfectionistic student can feel overwhelmed by long or complicated assignments. Help ease his anxiety and get him started by breaking the task into manageable steps. As an example, if your students are doing a report, divide the assignment into the following parts: taking notes on notecards, making an outline, developing a rough draft, and writing the final draft. Establish a deadline for each step.