A Distressing Perfect: How to Identify and Help with Student Perfectionism

Whether from parental pressure or self-induced expectations, many students of all ages struggle with perfectionism. It is especially prevalent in high-achieving and gifted students, but can also appear in those with learning challenges. In fact, a common misperception about perfectionism is that only students with high grades struggle with the need to be perfect. The truth is that any student can suffer from perfectionism at any time.

And while it’s true that the pursuit of being perfect can help a person achieve great things in life, more often than not, it is a cause of turmoil and distress. When children and teens exhibit signs of perfectionism, they’re also showing self-destructive behavior that negatively affects their sense of self-worth. 

Here’s how teachers can identify different types of perfectionism, and how to support students struggling with it.

What is Perfectionism?

The first step in helping students who struggle with perfectionism is learning how to identify it. Perfectionism occurs when a person is so set on avoiding failure and achieving success that they may endure toxic behaviors to reach their goals. Perfectionists also tend to seek the love and approval of others in exchange for their behavior. 

And while perfectionists do strive towards being the best and creating success, they’re often more focused on avoiding failure, explains clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. “Contrary to the name, most perfectionists aren’t driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure. Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about never being good enough,” she explains.

Hendriksen points out that one of the most common signs of perfectionism is procrastination. While teachers may see this as a sign of laziness and distractibility, it could be that a student doesn’t want to start something because they’re afraid they can’t live up to their own expectations.

Other signs of perfectionism include misconceptions about what is expected of them and thinking that teachers, parents and coaches want them to be perfect. Perfectionist students may also experience worry and anxiety and a sense of pressure from peers, says teacher Christine Weis

She points out that teachers should look out for students who measure their self-worth in terms of accomplishments and successes, and who have all-or-nothing attitudes — thinking they’re worthless if they don’t exhibit perfect behavior. Perfectionist students may also struggle to take pride in their own work, believing that they failed if they didn’t meet an unrealistically high standard.

Help with Student Perfectionism

What Perfectionism Look Like

Perfectionism can manifest in a variety of ways. Educator Leah Davies points out that perfectionist children tend to fall into two main camps: those who take pleasure from doing difficult tasks, and those who are unable to glean satisfaction from their tasks. The first group of kids set high standards for themselves and put forth the energy required for high achievement. 

The second group struggles with self-doubt and an ongoing sense of failure. “Since mistakes are unacceptable to them, perfectionism provides these students with little pleasure and much self-reproach,” Davies explains.

Students who hold unrealistically high expectations of themselves — whether or not they meet them — are deemed self-oriented perfectionists, according to psychologists. Children can also be other-oriented perfectionists, where they hold high expectations for those around them, says psychotherapist Amy Morin. The third type is socially prescribed perfectionism, when the student believes others have unrealistic expectations of them, such as parents or coaches.

While these types of perfectionism look different, they all are harmful. Clinical psychologist Azmaira H. Maker writes that perfectionism is closely tied to anxiety, depression, self-harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder and general distress. The need to be perfect can also make a student struggle with fatigue, insomnia and chronic headaches, all of which can negatively impact a child’s ability to learn. 

Since perfectionism stems from mental health issues and causes both mental and physical side effects, it’s important that teachers learn to see it not as a positive trait, but as a damaging one with lasting issues. 

Help with Student Perfectionism

How to Help Student Perfectionists

Now that you understand what perfectionism is, it’s important to understand how it can arise — and how to intervene. One of the main reasons students develop perfectionist habits is because of the competitive nature of most schools.

“When students are told that the only measure of their success or learning is grades, they can start to develop unrealistically high expectations for themselves that don’t necessarily help them learn,” says Andilynn Feddeler at educational material publisher Prufrock Press. 

She notes that it’s important to remind students that they are worth much more than their grades. Rather than punishing failure, make a point to emphasize the value of things like learning and participation instead of test scores.

Perfectionism can also cause students to feel like they have to deliberately fail or quit when outside of their comfort zone. This is demonstrated in an example from Integrated Learning Strategies. When students recognize that they’re at a different learning level than their peers, they may decide to quit so that they don’t have to deal with the stress of competing. This occurs both in students who are gifted and among those who have learning challenges.

Alison Smith at Teach Starter points out that teachers can help students who fear failure by celebrating it, rather than shaming it. She suggests reframing the narrative around failure by creating a bounce back box, where students recognize times that they’ve failed, yet bounced back. This activity gives students a chance to reflect on their failures and see them as learning opportunities. It’s also important for reinforcing the fact that a person’s failure isn’t the end of the world, and that it also doesn’t determine someone’s self worth. 

Educators can also take a new approach to failure by making both success and failure less important than the act of learning itself. Perfectionist students should be taught to focus on the process of the activity, writes educational consultant Colleen Kessler. They will of course have an exact idea of what the outcome of a task should be, and may get upset when their result doesn’t align with that expectation. Kessler suggests focusing on the process by asking questions and offering compliments so that they can recognize instances of learning and success along the way.

Another way to help is to break down tasks into baby steps. According to Thomas Curran, Ph.D. and Andrew P. Hill, Ph.D., getting started is often the hardest part for people who fear the outcome of a task. Encourage students to avoid overthinking and to simply take small, deliberate actions toward their goal. Remember not to be impatient or critical, even when they’re reluctant to start.

Teachers can also make a point to cultivate a supportive classroom environment where students help one another through critique, praise and positive feedback. “This approach is useful when teaching perfectionists, as the fear of failure will decrease when they begin to trust their fellow students and feel safe inside a classroom free of judgement,” says Dorothy Crouch at STEM jobs.

Images by: rido/©123RF.com, Vadim Guzhva/©123RF.com, Irina Schmidt/©123RF.com

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