Perfectionism in Children: How Parents Can Help Bright, Complex Kids

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., coauthor of Bright, Complex Kids: Supporting Their Social and Emotional Development

Perfectionism in Children: How Parents Can Help Bright, Complex KidsI used to say, smiling, when discussing perfectionism that I wanted my surgeon, dentist, mechanic, electrician, and plumber to be perfectionists—but not my friends, spouse, or colleagues. But perfectionism, of course, isn’t so clear cut.

In my view, striving for excellence, with reasonable personal standards and no apparent negative effect on well-being, is not perfectionism. For example, if students’ competitive activities and academic life involve joyous immersion, moments of exhilaration, comfortable connection with fellow participants, and positive emotions, then parents and educators can simply smile and be inspired.

Striving for excellence is often viewed as good, and unforgiving perfectionism as “bad.” Parents, grandparents, and guardians may wring their hands over the latter. They may observe in kids high stress, preoccupation with mistakes, tantrums, unreasonable self-expectations, chronic self-criticism and dissatisfaction, unwillingness to take even small social and academic risks, constant comparison with peers, assumptions that others are observing critically, and inability to enjoy any activity, for example.

When Perfectionism Is a Problem

My focus here is on perfectionism that affects students and families negatively and may affect students’ learning, ease at school, and current and future relationships. It is important to acknowledge that, especially if parents tend to see any passionate investment as “too much stress” based on their own experiences, they may mistakenly view striving for excellence as a problem. Constant parental anxiety can add a layer of stress.

If a student’s perfectionistic tendencies negatively affect health, well-being, relationships, or schoolwork, they might warrant formal intervention, including medication for anxiety. However, I caution against making pathology the default perception of social and emotional challenges. The following admonitions offer alternatives.

Admonitions for Parents and Other Invested Adults

Avoid repeatedly calling attention to perfectionism, since that’s unlikely to be helpful. Kids with perfectionistic behaviors and emotional reactions probably recognize them as problems, but compulsivity is difficult to corral.

Remember that kids who struggle with perfectionism are much more than perfectionists. They are, foremost, children or teens who are developing an identity and are deserving of respect and support. Introducing a struggling child to adult friends with, “This is our perfectionist,” may have long-lasting effects on the child’s self-concept and family relationships.

Focus on staying poised—not responding dramatically to a child’s or teen’s emotional outbursts. Demonstrating love and concern does not require matching the intensity of extreme emotions. Tell yourself, “This isn’t a catastrophe.”

If you stay poised, with a compassionate expression, even when a perfectionistic child or teen has a meltdown, you model emotional differentiation—the ability to be in the presence of others’ strong emotions but not be swallowed up by them.

Don’t feel obliged to fix or resolve difficult situations. In fact, “rescuing” does not empower kids. Instead of viewing struggle as “bad,” try to see it as building resilience.

Avoid focusing on the grade or other evaluation. Future well-being does not depend on it, really.

Don’t assume your child or teen has wants and needs similar to yours at that age. Assuming similarity, and overreacting, may exacerbate the problem, making it feel catastrophic—beyond appropriate frustration or disappointment. If you sense you are overreacting, step back, breathe, and consider the potential impact of what you say and do.

View perfectionism, and other emotional struggles, through a developmental lens—consider what tasks the child may be struggling with: determining who they are, what they expect of themselves and what others expect of them, how to be more independent, how to handle relationships, how to make sense of gender and sexuality.

Remember that developmental transitions may be difficult because a life stage is being left behind. Kids might be feeling a vague sense of loss. Because of intensity and sensitivities associated with high ability, bright kids may especially struggle with a new school level, puberty, or leaving for college. Perfectionism may be an attempt at control.

Be alert for depression. Anxiety about others’ expectations is common with perfectionism. But consequent changes in appetite, sleep, relationships, and health might reflect depression. Asking, “Should I worry about you?” may start an important conversation about self-harm.

Avoid the impulse to “fix” perfectionistic behaviors. Any tantrum, meltdown, or panic from “felt pressure of expectations” doesn’t have to be stopped—unless something or someone is being harmed. We don’t want our kids to “feel bad,” but learning to deal with bad feelings can give them an advantage in life. Learning to tolerate bad feelings can help parents too. Growing up is a challenging process. It is important to acknowledge this to validate kids’ complicated feelings.

Create a small, safe area at home for outbursts (including soft toys, pillows to rest on or pound, dim lighting, or music) or for calming when a meltdown seems imminent. This strategy acknowledges the intensity of kids’ feelings, but encourages self-awareness and calming strategies, which, if practiced, can result in fewer times when kids feel out of control.

Perfectionistic kids and adults often cannot enjoy the trip (and the scenery) because they are preoccupied with the destination—evaluation, judgment, praise. Help them enjoy the trip: “How does that feel (to be so absorbed in writing/building and being so creative)?”

Let your words and actions communicate unconditional love and support, which are not dependent on “perfect” products: “I’m so glad you are who you are.” “I’m so glad you’re my kid.”

Avoid constantly reassuring kids, since over-reassuring might convey that there is something to worry about.

Invite a perfectionistic child to create a mantra as a reminder that mistakes are okay: “Everyone makes mistakes.” “I’m human.”

Include noncompetitive, ungraded activities at home, in school, and in the community. Taking off the pressure of “evaluation” can help kids find enjoyment in the things they do.

When they come home from school, ask an open-ended question. Try “How are you feeling about your day?” instead of, “How did you do on the test?”

Err on the side of nonjudgment. Try, “That’s an interesting view.” “How do you feel about what they said?” or “How did you feel while you were working on it?”

Generate Discussion

Talking about perfectionism can be helpful. To provoke self-reflection in children and teens, ask these questions:

  • Where, in your life, do you like things to be “perfect”? Where not?
  • Some people think perfectionism is mostly about control. What do you think? What is going on in your life when you are most perfectionistic?
  • If 10 is “extremely tense when you do something that will be graded,” and 1 is “very relaxed,” what number usually applies to you when you’re working on something?
  • If you heard someone say that perfectionism always means being “afraid of failure,” how would you respond?
  • If someone said to you, “Bright kids are perfectionists because they are able to make things perfect,” how would you respond?


Caring adults can lessen the burdens of perfectionism for kids if they can stay poised and nonjudgmental, even in intense situations. Not seeing strong frustrations as catastrophic, being a good listener when perfectionists need to talk, and remembering that all kids are dealing with developmental challenges can also be helpful.

jean petersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books (including Get Gifted Students TalkingHow (and Why) to Get Students Talking, and Bright, Complex Kids), journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

Free Spirit books by Jean Sunde Peterson:

Get Gifted Students TalkingBright, Complex Kidshow and why to get students talking

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3 Ways Educators Can Work Through Their Pandemic Trauma

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

3 Ways Educators Can Work Through Their Pandemic TraumaThe division I live and work in doesn’t start receiving students until mid-September. However, staff are already back in the building and have been busy preparing our rooms and tidying the hallways. We are all fluttering around, planning and having meetings. The words we use with each other are careful and we are cheerful. So very cheerful.

But let’s face it, we are all pretending—pretending that everything is great! So great! Even as we wear a forced look of cheer on our faces, what we really are is a bit scared. Or scarred? Scared and scarred. Last year’s in-service week was the weirdest experience of most of our careers. We attended our meetings via video conference and felt deflated once the first-day excitement fell into a pattern of flat, quiet, and odd days. Here is the kicker though: as strange as last year was, the year before was normal.

When our emotions are tied up in the school closures and COVID chaos, we can find it difficult to remember that it is actually the year before COVID—when everything was normal—that is bringing us the most heartache. We’re not really reliving last year’s disappointments; we’re replaying the time just before the pandemic, when we thought everything was perfectly fine. Should we have been better prepared? Were there signs we missed? How can we know if something like this is coming again?

As anyone who has experienced abrupt trauma or loss knows, these questions are perfectly normal. They are agonizing, but they are part of processing the experience. You’ll never find true answers to them, but you’ll eventually realize that there is no truth to the hypothetical answers either. What you can do instead is refocus on the things that can help you cope with the present, stop living in the past, and feel safe about the future.

Here are three ways educators can work through their trauma about the pandemic.

1. Be Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Spend some time reconnecting with yourself—it is important. This restoration is not just about finding the right gym, however. It is about remembering who you are and allowing yourself to be the true you—the you that you are when you are cozy, or maybe creative, or just content to be resting in your head. Finding moments to reconnect with yourself, even if only for a couple minutes, helps you bring this person, this you, with you to work. Finding space for your true self at work might also be comforting, especially when what-if thoughts creep in.

Sometimes it feels as if we have to keep our true selves hidden to be seen by students as authority figures, mentors, or “serious” educators. Luckily for us, though, what students actually express is that they engage more when teachers show their true personalities, flaws and all. What this means, then, is that you are actually doing more as an educator if you allow yourself space to be the quirky, funny, and slightly strange authentic you!

2. Enjoy Your Work

I know we like to say, “Remember why you started” in education. But that advice isn’t always what we need. Our lives are fluid, and, if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that we have less control over them than we’d like. Maybe your “why” has changed. Or maybe you have seen new sides of students and peers. Maybe your role took on a different form, or maybe you’re finding that different things bring you joy during the day.

Though sometimes this change is scary, and though sometimes trauma can bring about feelings of doubt in ourselves and our abilities, start to conceptualize yourself as a piece of your job instead of the whole. What if one day you decided to simply come to work, do your job, and not let the details weigh you down? I mean, now that we know we can do everything right and still have the year fall apart, what is holding you back? Try to enjoy the fun parts of teaching!

3. Let It Go

This point takes a little clarification: we cannot and likely will not “let go” of the emotions we are feeling from the pandemic, the social changes, and the school closures of the last couple years. What we can do is let go of trying to recuperate the missed time, energy, and norms. You are not individually responsible for correcting it all for everyone. Let. The. Pressure. Go.

I know that educators are feeling anxiety and pressure to establish a new “normal” for their students: normal daily routines, normal planning patterns, normal (and rigorous) learning environments. You probably feel as if you have no time. And yet, I challenge you to take all the time you need to do what you need to do to feel secure again. I believe that this sense of time running out is where much of our inner tension is coming from. We feel the pressure to ensure that our students catch up before they hit adulthood, but they are in the same boat as all students around the world. So what are we “catching up” to?

How can we measure if we have done enough? The middle child in me happily and loudly says that when there is no measure . . . we get to create it! You cannot go wrong if you remain updated on information about student learning, keep your educational practice student-centered, and remain compassionate. If we then treat ourselves as kindly as we do others, we are in for a great—albeit wild—year!

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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12 Boredom-Busting Ways to Motivate and Challenge Students

By Shannon Anderson, author of  Coasting Casey

It’s back-to-school time, and teachers everywhere are striving to motivate and challenge their students. Whether it is finding a way to stretch your gifted students or just keeping things new and exciting, here are some tried-and-true strategies to keep boredom at bay as you kick off the new year.

12 Boredom-Busting Ways to Motivate and Challenge Students

1. Interest Inventories

The best way to find out what kids are passionate about is to ask them! You can create a survey to ask kids about favorite hobbies, subjects, books, sports, and other categories. Armed with this knowledge, you can tailor reading, writing, and research choices to match up with their interests.

2. Grouping Options

Giving students opportunities to work in partners or small groups can add some fun to the day and reinforce cooperative learning and social skills. Think outside the box on this one. Partners and groups don’t always have to be from the same class. You could include kids from another classroom or even another grade level. You could even partner online with someone in another school or country!

3. Try Technology

The sky is the limit for the various options available to incorporate technology into learning. From researching information to practicing skills to presenting what they learn, students can use many apps and devices to enhance their learning experiences. Can they turn your lesson into a cartoon video, or make a commercial for a book they just read? How about playing or creating a game to go along with a new skill?

4. Prior Knowledge

Nothing brings about boredom quicker than requiring students to practice something that they have already mastered. Using simple preassessments or K-W-L charts, you can determine what kids already know at the start of a new unit. Encourage kids who already know the information to set new learning goals for independent projects or explore different angles to dive deeper into the topic. You could even have students create learning opportunities for the kids who are still developing in certain skill areas.

5. Offer Creative Options

Something as simple as allowing kids to write with glitter pens or scented pencils can add a whole new element of fun to a pencil-and-paper activity. How about having kids tape their papers to the underside of their desks and writing while lying on the floor? Could you give options for typing in fun fonts or colors instead of writing on paper? What other ways can you add variety instead of just using the familiar lined paper for written work?

6. Goal Setting

Have students set all kinds of goals at the beginning of the year. These can be academic goals, like mastering multiplication facts or reading a certain number of books each month. Or kids can set social and emotional learning goals to become a better leader or improve how they deal with disappointment. They can also set personal goals that may be hobby or future-career related. When kids have lots of goals, they can devise ways to work on them when they finish something early or have “tested out” of something you are teaching in class.

7. Acceleration Options

You’ll always have students who work at different paces. Are there ways you can compact their learning or cluster students with more difficult texts or research questions? Can you give them learning contracts with checkpoints to allow more flexibility with their completion of assignments?

8. Output Choices

For students who crave variety, allow them to choose how they will demonstrate their learning. It could be a keynote presentation, a dramatic role play, a poem, a podcast, or some other creative work. Allow students to present their work to select students, to you, to the whole class, or even to other classrooms. You could create a choice board of options for sharing their new learning.

9. Change Up Your Space

What can you change in the classroom to create a new experience? Whether it is a new seating arrangement, a room transformation to go along with a theme, or new physical chair or table options, a new atmosphere is always refreshing. Hang kids’ work in the room, and change up what is on your walls often. New stimuli are great for the brain!

10. Change Up Your Teaching

If your schedule allows, teach subjects in a different order or switch up something that may be part of the regular routine. If you normally have students do self-selected reading time at their seats, take them outside or let them bring a towel or blanket to spread out on the floor instead. Dress up as a character or record yourself teaching in a funny costume. Let kids lead some of the lessons or swap teaching a lesson with a nearby teacher.

11. Service Learning

Is there something students can do with the new skills they are learning to serve other students in your school or community? How can you take students’ learning to the application level, while also giving them a way to add purpose to their learning?

12. Boredom Buster Jar

At the start of the year, have kids brainstorm options for taking learning to the next level and add them to slips of paper in a jar. Kids can choose from the jar when they are seeking a new challenge or when they complete something early. Ideas could include finding a mentor for a particular thing they want to learn, finding tutorial videos on a subject, gathering extra materials from the library, inviting a guest expert to the classroom, or writing a letter or an email to someone about questions on a topic, among many others. Any ways that kids can expand their learning, conduct further research, or benefit from the learning of others are always great options for meaningful challenges.

There are many ways to be creative with students’ input and output choices, who they work with, how you teach, the tools they use, and the space where they work. Try whatever fits your needs and teaching style. The more choices and changes you offer, the more eager and engaged your students will be! Have a fantastic school year!

Shannon AndersonShannon Anderson has taught for 25 years, from first grade through college level. Her career highlight was being named one of the Top 10 Teachers who inspired the Today Show. Shannon is also the author of many children’s books and a national speaker. She was named the JC Runyon Person of the Year for her work helping kids with social and emotional issues through her writing and speaking. To find out more, you can visit:

Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:

Mindset PowerY is for YetPenelope PerfectCoasting Casey

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Enter for a Chance to Win English-Spanish Bilingual Books from the Learning About Me & You Series!

Enter to Win English-Spanish Bilingual Books from the Learning About Me & You Series

This month we are giving away the first four English-Spanish bilingual books from the Learning About Me & You series. These charming board books guide toddlers and preschoolers in developing early social skills. One lucky reader will win:

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you would use these books.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry. Entries must be received by midnight, September 24, 2021.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around September 27, 2021, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim their prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be US resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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The Importance of Intersectionality in Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students: We Are More Than You Think We Are

By Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D., coeditor of Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students

The Importance of Intersectionality in Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students: We Are More Than You Think We AreAs educators working with gifted students, we have to be as cognizant of our students’ affective needs as we are of their intellectual and academic needs. We realize that our students are generally more sensitive, more intense, more empathetic than others. Our interactions with our gifted students broaden our understanding of their diverse social backgrounds, interests, and needs.

Gifted students, like all students, have multiple and overlapping identities that result from the varied social constructs that affect their lives: cultural or ethnic group, family and community, how society perceives them, gender, income level, academic strengths, interests, language, and more. This concept is called intersectionality. Intersectionality, as a term, was coined by law student Kimberlé Crenshaw as she examined the impact of the intersection between race, gender, politics, and the law.

Navigating Multiple Worlds

As we aim to improve how we address the needs of underrepresented students in gifted education, it is becoming more apparent that viewing the many worlds our students navigate daily is critical in establishing positive, affirming, and empowering relationships with them. Underrepresented gifted students are at a disadvantage in our school environments because they are typically not identified early, do not have a voice in creating programs to meet their varied needs, and do not have equitable access to gifted education and advanced learner programs when compared to their majority culture, more affluent peers. One of the reasons for this lack of identification and understanding is that educators who work with them are unfamiliar with the concerns and issues of their families and communities; how society views them; their ethnic and cultural differences, norms, and traditions; their gender concerns; their language differences; and other social constructs with which they identify that shape their identities. The graphic suggests some of the multiple social identities that intersect to form the individual identity of underrepresented gifted students.

intersectionality graphic

Suggested Strategies for Educators and Schools

Educators must become more familiar with the concept of intersectionality, how it impacts the daily lives of their underrepresented gifted learners, and how those students navigate their multiple worlds. To do this, I recommend a few strategies:

  • Increase opportunities for students to honestly share their life stories in safe spaces and with culturally sensitive adults.
  • Allow gifted students choices for selection of course, completion of classwork, or end-of-year projects.
  • Make space for underrepresented gifted students on advisory councils, school boards, and other policy-making committees.
  • Give students agency and voice in the creation of instructional designs that meet their interests, strengths, and needs.
  • Encourage students to share their views regarding the challenges and benefits of gifted education services.
  • Encourage teachers, counselors, and other adults to share their cultural stories with colleagues and students.
  • Host gifted programming and information sessions in the communities where your students reside.
  • Ensure that gifted education training sessions are provided in the first languages of your underrepresented gifted communities.
  • Solicit mentors from targeted underrepresented committees to assist with student support.

These suggestions are only few of the many that may assist with improving educator and student relationships and that use intersectionality as a lens through which to create more accessible and equitable gifted education services. More specific recommendations can be found in the upcoming book Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students. When educators view their underrepresented gifted students as complex and multilayered social beings, they increase their potential for improving their students’ social, intellectual, academic, and psychosocial outcomes.

Crenshaw, K. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics.” University Chicago Legal Forum (1989) vol. 1: 139–167.

Davis, J.L. & Douglas, D., eds. Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students: Perspectives from the Field. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2021.

 Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D.Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D., is a career educator with over 40 years of experience as a practitioner, scholar, author, and consultant with an expertise in equity in gifted education and cultural competency education. Dr. Davis has served in local, regional, and state leadership positions in gifted education. She also served as an at-large member of the National Association for Gifted Children Board of Directors. A graduate of the College of William & Mary, Dr. Davis holds both master’s and doctorate degrees in gifted education and has led professional learning workshops, appeared on podcasts, and been a long-term program consultant, and served as a keynote speaker and distinguished guest lecturer across the nation, in South Africa, Dubai, Turkey, and the Caribbean. Dr. Davis has published numerous articles, technical reports, and book chapters related to achieving equity in gifted education. She is also author of two books: the award-winning Bright, Talented & Black: A Guide for Families of African American Gifted Learners and Gifted Children of Color Around the World: Diverse Needs, Exemplary Practices and Directions for the Future, co-edited with Dr. James Moore III. Dr. Davis is currently the Special Populations columnist for Teaching for High Potential and serves on the Gifted Child Today advisory board. Dr. Davis is co-founder with other equity colleagues of the Jenkins Scholars program, a national program developed to recognize highly gifted Black students. She lives near Richmond, VA.

Empowering Underrepresented Gifted StudentsJoy Lawson Davis, Ed.D., is the coeditor Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students

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