By Shannon Anderson, author of Penelope Perfect
Kids dealing with perfectionism may experience some anxiety as the new school year begins. After spending the last year trying to get everything just right, it can be daunting trying to show a new teacher what you can do—and wondering the whole time if you do have what it takes.
I know how draining the pressure to succeed can be. I start each school year with similar thoughts swirling in my head as a teacher. I knew that my former students and parents trusted me at the wheel, but now I have a whole new set of students and parents to build that trust with.
One of the biggest fears of a perfectionist is disappointment. This could mean feeling that you’re not living up to your own standards or feeling like you are not meeting the expectations of others. Fear of disappointment is very real, when your sense of worth is on the line. Students with perfectionism worry they will not be seen as a good student, athlete, or friend and can have a hard time adjusting to new situations and with new people.
As a teacher of the gifted and talented, I often have a handful of students who struggle with perfectionism. Something new I’m trying in my classroom this year is having students set weekly personal learning goals. These goals will be for learning strategies and making progress toward certain skills.
We will also share and reflect on what I’m calling “Growth Spurts”—events formerly perceived as setbacks or mistakes. We will share these events to reinforce that we all take a curving path to our goals. Sometimes, we nail things on the first try. But more often, many trials are necessary before we feel comfortable with or are consistently proficient at a skill.
Are you a perfectionist? (Or is your child?)
- Do you often feel stressed when trying to meet your own expectations?
- Do your expectations get in the way of trusting others to finish or help with a task or project?
- Do you avoid spontaneity because you already have a plan in mind?
- Do you think in black and white, where anything less than perfect is flawed or a sign of weakness?
- Do things take you longer than necessary to complete because you are overly cautious with details?
- Do you find yourself constantly redoing things to the point of exhaustion?
If you answered yes to several of the above questions, you may be dealing with some perfectionism issues. Below are a few tips that have helped me along the way. Try them out yourself, or suggest them to a student or child who is dealing with perfectionism.
- When you feel like you can’t succeed at something, think of how others may view the situation. What would they do? Think of how you might help a friend in your situation if he or she asked your advice.
- Think about the worst thing that could happen if your project or plan doesn’t turn out perfectly. Will it still matter tomorrow? Next week?
- Set goals for steps in the process, rather than just an end result. That way, you have more chances to celebrate accomplishments along your path as you learn.
- Rate your circumstances on a scale of 1–10 regarding how much control you have over them. If you don’t have much control—say a 1, 2, or 3 on the scale—then don’t beat yourself up over them. Instead, find ways to overcome the situation calmly and creatively. If the situation is something you do have control over, it can become a Growth Spurt and help you become stronger or better at what you were doing by learning from it.
- Try not to compare yourself to people who are professionals or experts and who have had a lot more time and experience with whatever you are attempting to do. Realize that they started where you are.
- Since perfectionism can be a fear of failure, treat it like a phobia and gradually do some things to reduce your fear. For example, try to show up for something late on purpose, wear something with a stain on it, leave something out of place, or try something new without obsessively researching it first. Students can try checking their math problems only once instead of over and over. When you realize that you lived through the experience, reflect on how you dealt with the consequences of your actions. When you have “failed” on purpose, it may help you see that the results aren’t as traumatic as you anticipated.
At the beginning of the school year, it’s important for parents and kids to set goals and decide on priorities. But, it’s also important to help kids see the learning process as a series of trials that shape and teach us as we make decisions. When we learn from our trials, we need to celebrate the successes and reward ourselves for having the courage to try new things. The bottom line is, we all want to be our best, but we have to be patient with ourselves as we grow and learn.
Bonus! There is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s called the pursuit of excellence. Click here to download a free PDF from When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers that helps you see the difference.
Shannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is a literacy coach, high ability coordinator, adjunct professor, and former first-grade teacher. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.
Shannon is the author of Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone Wild.
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