Do you have a child who struggles with perfectionism? Sometimes it can be a joy to watch a child striving to do their best, and other times it can be difficult to see them get frustrated or spend too much time trying to get it “just right.”
I’ve worked with many children seeking perfection during my years as a third grade teacher at Columbia Independent School, and I have perfectionist tendencies myself. In this post, I am sharing some strategies I’ve found helpful in the classroom. You can use these same strategies to help your child find a healthy balance between performing well and pursuing a “perfect” result that can lead to stress and anxiety.
Provide predictability and routines. It’s common knowledge that children need structure, but a perfectionist often craves predictability in their daily lives, and knowing what to expect can help them feel at peace. Places like school and home should have predictable routines most of the time. When I anticipate something will be unstructured, such as a special assembly or class party, I make sure to start talking about it days in advance. I help my students visualize the activity and we brainstorm expectations together. This allows them to ask questions and have some “control” of the unknown.
Model making mistakes. This took years for me to figure out. I thought I needed to have it all together, all the time. Realizing that we are all imperfect and finding ways to embrace that together can make a huge difference for children who are terrified of making a mistake. I recently read a tiny tip in Parents magazine that has been a game-changer for my classroom culture. When I make a mistake, whether in the middle of teaching a lesson or working one on one, I simply say “my bad” without giving a lengthy excuse. I misspelled a word on the board? My bad. I’ll correct it. I forgot to make copies of a worksheet you needed? My bad. I’ll take care of it on my next plan period. It’s a quick, painless way to take ownership of a mistake, and perfectionists can easily adopt this language themselves.
Offer strategies for being a good teammate. Perfectionists need lots of practice being on a team. Learning to share control can be hard for a perfectionist. Supporting students through the ups and downs of working with a team will prepare them for life-long learning. At the beginning of the year, I teach the four Cs of Teamwork: compromise, communication, collaboration, and courage. One of the teamwork strategies I use is to give a ball of yarn to a student whose turn it is to speak. After they are finished, they pass the yarn to the next speaker. This gives students a visualization of passing control to others, as well as being a good listener.
Offer choices and accommodations. People often think of perfectionists as high achieving students, but perfectionism can be found in a wide spectrum of abilities. It can even prevent a high achieving student from success. Learning shouldn’t be “one way or the highway.” Presenting students with options for completing assignments can help a perfectionist demonstrate his or her best work. Have a child who is struggling to write a story because they erase “imperfect” handwriting? Offer to write a few sentences for them while they tell you the story from their mind. Does your child refuse to try a new math strategy because they are afraid to make a mistake? Allow them to choose a previously learned math strategy to demonstrate understanding until they have had adequate exposure to the new one. Learning new strategies can be scary for a perfectionist, who is often set in their ways.
Put less emphasis on academics and achievements. Perfectionists often feel the need to “bring home the gold” in order to feel a sense of accomplishment. Try reassuring your child that hard work and grit are the desired behaviors, not “winning” or getting a perfect score. This focus on grit and growth is one of the reasons CIS moved to standards-based grading in the Lower School. We are able to demonstrate students’ growth in a variety of assessment areas over the course of the school year without labeling it with a letter grade.
Whether your perfectionist is a result of nature, nurture, or some combination, the reality is that he or she is not going to change overnight. But by helping them let go of the idea that everything has to be perfect, students can unleash their creativity and potential for growth.
For more information on perfectionism in children, I recommend this article from the National Association for Gifted Children.
Karri Mallette teaches third grade at Columbia Independent School. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Westminster College and a Master of Arts in Education with an emphasis in Gifted Education from Lindenwood University.