It is a lofty goal to do something perfectly, but not a realistic one. In teaching—and learning—the goal is not perfection. They are something you do, not something that you get right.
A teacher I know named Madeline recently recalled an experience she had with her class of second graders. The students were going to share stories about their favorite animals, whether they were pets, zoo residents, or wild creatures. After some library time, they would each write a paragraph about their selected animal and share it the next day. As other kids started working on their new writing assignment, one girl sank down in her chair as if she wanted to disappear. Later, in the library, she settled at a table away from the others, and looked ready to burst into tears. Madeline sat with her to find out what she was thinking.
“I can’t do this! I don’t understand the assignment. I don’t have a favorite animal. I don’t know how to do it right!” A litany of “I can’t” thoughts poured from this usually quiet girl, and they talked about ways to get started. “This is a way to tell others about an animal you find interesting,” Madeline said. “It’s okay if it is hard to choose one, and I know it can be hard to get started. Doing things that are hard makes our brains grow. That makes handling challenges easier in the future.”
Together they broke down the assignment into segments, starting with picking any animal, then finding a book about it. “After you do that, I think you will find it easier to write down a few thoughts,” Madeline said, adding, “There is no right way, just your way to write this.”
Before the class shared their animal info the next day, Madeline asked her students what was fun about the assignment—and what was hard. There was a wide range of answers, from “I love reading about cats” to “I had trouble picking just one animal.” A few kids found that it was harder to write about it than just talk about it. “I like the hard things,” Madeline said, “because they make my brain grow. But sometimes I need help getting started.” From ants to hummingbirds, they enjoyed hearing about all the selected animals. Afterward, the student who had been so paralyzed that she had trouble starting the project commented, “My brain must have grown a lot today, ’cause that was hard!”
Those “I can’t” messages, the paralysis, and the emotional angst are among the traits that perfectionism can bring to the table. It can also bring procrastination or extreme punctuality, overachieving or underachieving, striving to control situations or become invisible and blend in. When Madeline saw her student trying to disappear, she tried to let her know that the only expectations were to try and to participate. Helping to shift thinking away from needing to have the perfect outcome toward getting the most out of the experience can help kids, and adults, deal with tendencies toward perfectionism. “Making your brain grow” was a simple image that helped make learning the outcome, not a perfect presentation.
How do you work with students who think they have to do everything “right”? What influence does peer or parental pressure have on students?
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