Five Ways to Help the Perfectionistic Student

A frustrated Mum sad in my office this week,  describing her 10 year old daughter: “Jess has always been very capable at school but she is constantly anxious about getting things wrong.  If she can’t do it perfectly, she won’t do it at all.  She digs in her heels and it doesn’t seem to matter what I say to her.  Getting homework done in a reasonable time is a daily battle.”

I very often see students who struggle with perfectionism.  Here are some typical behaviours of perfectionistic young people:

  • Unwilling to put up their hand to answer questions in case they get them get wrong
  • Reluctant to start tasks until they are 110% sure they know what to do
  • Unwilling to start homework tasks because they feel they are not going to do it “right”
  • Being dissatisfied with a standard of work which others see as acceptable
  • Get very upset if they get work wrong/receive low grades/make mistakes
  • Work very slowly in order to be excessively neat or to not make mistakes
  • Starting over repeatedly in order to make work perfect

Perfectionism in students is a problem in several ways.  First, It slows students down which is not only frustrating for them (and others) but it also means their rate of learning is slower and they miss vital learning time. 

Secondly, perfectionistic children who refuse to guesses or try activities have less opportunity to problem solve which in turn slows their learning. 

Thirdly, behaving in perfectionistic ways increases the chance the student will be even more perfectionistic in the future.  Working slowly makes students work even more slowly over time.  Being unwilling to try new work makes students less likely to try new work in the future.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Evidence backs up these dangers.  One research study found that young children who answered more questions in the classroom at the beginning of the year were more likely to improve by the end of the year than the children who didn’t answer questions – even if the question answerers got the answer wrong.   

The most important thing to understand about perfectionism: It is anxiety. 

Perfectionistic kids and teens are worried kids and teens.  It might look like they are being stubborn, lazy, irritated and refusing to accept help – but really, at the heart of it all – they are anxious.  Often they are a squirming mass of nerves, trying desperately to avoid failing, making mistakes and feeling bad about themselves.

Once we understand that perfectionism is anxiety, we can more effectively help students.  As with all anxiety problems, we need to start by being empathic and caring toward the child.  Then we must  not allow anxiety to dictate what the child does.  Instead, we need to focus on teaching and coaching children to build skills in brave and confident behaviour.

Here are five specific ways to do this.

1. Help children be calmer about getting things wrong, mistakes and lower grades

    Children have heard a lot from adults about the importance of accuracy, neatness and doing well.  From an early age we say “great” when they get things right, and “no” when they get things wrong. For some children we now need to spend just as much time teaching them the value of making mistakes and not always getting things perfect.  Here are some ways to do this.

    (a) Ask your child or teen to help you make a list titled: Why It is Okay to Make Mistakes. 

    Together with your child/teen, write out as many ideas as you can and then put the list on the fridge, get them to take a photo of it to keep on their phone/device, or get them to put it where they do homework.  Ask the student for ideas and then add your own.  In case you need some prompting, here are some things to start with:

    Why it is Okay to Make Mistakes/Get a Lower Grades

    • Mistakes make us think harder and try harder
    • Everyone makes mistakes, including very smart people, parents and teachers
    • Getting things wrong gives us another opportunity to do it again, which helps us be better
    • Getting things wrong develops patience and persistence – two skills that are more important than getting things perfect
    • If you are making mistakes it might mean you are working at a good speed (not too slowly)
    • Lower grades/mistakes mean other people can help us which is good for relationships

     (b) When you make a mistake, bring it to your child’s attention 

    When you make a mistake, say something like, “hmm, I stuffed that up.  Oh well I guess everyone makes mistakes”.  or  “Bother, I didn’t do that very well.  That’s a bit disappointing.  Well I guess this has taught me to……..” or “I clearly got that wrong.  Still, at least I get to try it again and get a bit more practice”.  And so on. 

    (c) Reward and encourage children for using calm coping statements when they get things wrong. 

     Three key calm coping statements essential for children to learn and practise saying are, “I’m okay”, “This is not terrible” and “Never mind, I can cope”.  Have these three coping statements stuck on your family noticeboard and tell kids you are going to try to listen out for these statements, and give high praise each time you hear them being said.  Younger children might like stickers on the poster for every time you hear them say it.

    2.  Help children and teens practice non-perfectionistic behaviour

      As well as helping children and teens feel calmer about mistakes, lower grades and getting things wrong, we want to help students actually act out non perfectionistic behaviour.   More specifically we need to help children practice:  getting things wrong or doing things at a lower standard, doing things quickly and taking guesses/trying work.  The more practice they get in doing these things -  and subsequently seeing that these things didn’t kill them -  the more likely it is their anxiety will decrease.

      Here are some ways to do this.

      (a)  Create games and activities around brave behaviour

      Be creative at home and come up with activities and games which require your child to work quickly, taking guesses and making mistakes.  For example, play a game in which you need to get 5 out of 10 questions/spelling words/maths questions wrong in order to win a prize.  The prize gets doubled if the child hands the work in at school as it is (prepare the teacher in advance).  Make a game of doing “fast work” instead of “right work” on one evening.  Use a timer and see if the child can beat their best time for finishing a list of words or other homework task.   You can join in the competition yourself – you can time almost any task, how many words read (incorrectly is fine) in a minute, how many spelling words written in 2 minutes, try to beat our record for how fast you can copy a drawing.  If the child gets too anxious in doing this for homework tasks initially, get them practising speed and mistakes in other areas, and then gradually introduce it within homework sessions.

      You might set your child challenges to do this – for example, ask your child to set themselves a goal of answering one question at school that day even if she doesn’t know the answer.  (Again, discuss this with the teacher in advance so they can make sure they pick her).  Practice doing this at home first.  (“okay dude, I’m Ms Smith – I’m going to ask a question here we go 6987 multiplied by 45?  Ready, quick put up your hand, make it up – go on say any number.  Brilliant.  Okay, lets do it again)

      (b) Reward and praise non perfectionistic behaviour

      Stop praising perfectionistic children for correct and careful work for now.  Instead praise and reward the child for taking a guess, finishing work quickly and resisting their impulses to start again.  Either praise and reward spontaneously (“I noticed you tried that question, even though you weren’t sure – and you ended up getting finished really quickly.  Well done!) or have a structured system.  For example, you might have a reward/sticker chart for specific brave behaviours.  One child might have a reward star every time they talk calmly about a mistake, everytime they have a guess and every time they start work without asking a question about it. 

      (c ) Don’t “cater” to the perfectionistic student’s impulses

      The more we allow perfectionistic students to be perfectionistic, the more likely this behaviour will continue and escalate.  Parents have some control over this.  For example, some families I’ve worked with have sensibly implemented a “homework is over” deadline each night, regardless of how much homework has been done.   Some families have a rule that students can’t restart their work more than one time.  Some parents wisely insist that their children take a guess at something before getting help from them.  For older students, this also means making sure perfectionistic students hand in whatever work is completed and received a grade for that work rather than avoid the issue by just not submitting the work at all.  This kind of avoidance makes the problem bigger. 

      3. When they are in high anxiety/refusal mode

        Here are a few tips for some ideas about what to do right at the moment of panic, when a child is at home completing a task and has high anxiety about what to do.

        a)  First, Empathise

        Remember the student is genuinely anxious.  This is not their fault.  So care for them.  Tell them:  I’m really sorry your brain is making you so worried right now.  It must feel awful. 

        b)  Second, see if you can help them calm themselves down by breathing slowly

        If a student can breathe slowly and deeply for a minute, it will help lower their adrenalin levels and reduce their physiological fear responses.  Say to the student:  “I know this is stressful.  We will solve this problem together.  But before we do that, I’d like you to take five big, slow breaths with me.”

        c)  Distract/Short Break

        If the student still seems panicked after that, take 30 seconds out to think about something else.  Say something like “Okay, you are feeling stressed and so your brain is probably not working that well right now.  Let’s think about something else for one minute:  tell me about wht you would like to do for your birthday this year/if you had a $100 right now what would you spend it on/what is your favourite level on your xbox game right now?”

        d) Back to homework – small steps, with rewards and praise

        Then go back to the assignment but try to help the child think of the very next step.  Coach the child through the problem.   If the child is refusing to write anything, say something like “Okay, You need to try to write one sentence/word/sum, and we can change it later, but you need to write one sentence/word/sum.  After that sentence I’m going to help you”.  Praise and reward for taking a small step.  Then help them think about the very next step.

        e) Time’s up

        After an agreed upon amount of time, homework time needs to be over.  Say something like, “So homework time is over, I know you didn’t get it finished but we need to stop now”.  Don’t allow the student to work endlessly on homework.

        4. Value effort and behaviour more than outcome

          As parents and teachers we want to make sure our focus is on what children and teens DO in their academic journey, not the grades they get.  Ultimately, we want to look at whether they worked hard, whether they concentrated, sought help, were creative, tried hard, learnt to be efficient as they worked and so on.

          These kinds of skills are more important than the grades they get at school.

          Unfortunately this is not the message students hear.  They hear us talk enthusiastically about awards, certificates and grades.  Sometimes we look at and comment on their grades more than their effort in reports.  We don’t note or discuss their creativity, their persistence, their risk taking or their efficiency.

          Once we start to notice more of these things – and to discuss it and praise children for it, then it often increases. Here are some statements that would be great to hear in every household:

          • “Hey I noticed you just took a guess there even though you weren’t really sure what to do”
          • “Fantastic on persisting and keeping on working on those hard sums”
          • “I see that you concentrated really hard during that homework session”.
          • “Wow, you asked me that question in a really calm voice. You are getting fantastic at keeping calm even while you have difficult work to do”
          • “I loved your enthusiasm for working through that difficult work”

          And so on. 

          (NB: Remember, sometimes we need to give this kind of praise and recognition to students when they show just a smidgeon of this behaviour, rather than wait until they are accomplished at it.)

          5. Be patient

            It is really tough as parent/carer/teacher to be patient with perfectionistic students.  Often it feels like the child is being stubborn, or that they are capable and just choose to be difficult.  However remember again that the child does NOT choose to be gripped by fear and anxiety. They were born with a brain which works this way.  Just like teaching a child with learning difficulties requires lots of patience and ongoing tutoring, the child with perfectionistic anxiety difficulties also needs lots of patience and ongoing tutoring from us in how to act calmly, take guesses and work quickly.   If we persist with the strategies listed above, they can improve, but it will take some time and effort.

            If you are wanting more help with a perfectionistic student, you might like to go here for information on our counselling services.