One of the many interesting things about teaching is the wide spectrum of students in our classroom. They are so uniquely themselves in so many areas. Take work habits for example, we might have students who rush to get things done, others get distracted by their peers, and others who consistently go above and beyond expectations. And in every class that we have ever had, we always have at least one student who is hindered to complete their projects or work by their own perfectionism.
These students have such an extremely high expectation on themselves across everything that they do. They struggle when they cannot spell a word correctly, the picture is not drawn as if an artist who has drawn for years has drawn it, the lines are not perfectly straight, or their penmanship is not perfectly neat. They often erase obsessively, fall behind others as they attempt to have precise work, crumple their papers, and start projects over and over again. While we have to push others to be more diligent and put more effort into their work, with these students we have to encourage them to move forward and to not be so hard on themselves.
In addition because of their perfectionist, these students are less likely to try something that they might not be good at. They don’t like the feeling of failure, thus they stick to the things that they know they are good at. When they struggle with something challenging they often become anxious, frustrated, and give up. They are unwilling to take a risk.
If you have a child that tends to be more of a perfectionist, below are 6 ways that you can help them . . .
1. Make mistakes. Children learn from observing the adults in their life. Model mistakes for them. We will make mistakes on worksheets, directions, or lesson slides. When they catch them, and they always do, we simply respond with, “Oops! I tried my best, but I am not perfect. No one is perfect.” Throughout the year we model our imperfections and the kids catch on that our class is a place where mistakes are ok.
2. Focus on the process not the end result. When they bring back work or projects, ask them about the process. How did they feel about it? Did they have fun making it? Try not to point out their mistakes or praise the final product. Avoid words and phrases such as “genius” or “you’re so smart.” This can make children believe that they have to be those things. When you focus on how hard a child worked vs. how smart they are, you are helping them develop a growth mindset. They start to realize they can accomplish hard things by persevering. It can open up a whole new world for children.
3. Distinguish between things that are ok being messy and things that should be neater or requires more effort. Sometimes kids cannot distinguish between the two, and with us pointing it out, they can begin to see when they need to put more time into a project and when they don’t. Not every single assignment or project requires students to go above and beyond.
4. Read biographies of people who made mistakes or failed multiple times, and who still made a difference in our world. The Who Was Series is a great biographical series for kids to help them see that people that we really look up to made mistakes in order to accomplish great things.
5. Give them chances to fail. Let your child experience failure. Enroll them in a new sport, instrument, or STEM class. Play games with them where they lose and fail. More experience with the feelings of failure will be helpful to them.
6. Tell them how much you love them and care for them even when they make mistakes. You might think they know this, but sometimes they don’t. We are not our work and It’s important that children understand their work doesn’t make them more or less valued. Their capabilities don’t make them more or less valued.
When you notice that a student or child is showing signs of perfectionism, it is important to give them strategies to deal with it. Perfectionism in childhood can lead to more severe things later in life like social anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.