Extreme perfectionism is often driven by the fear of failure, which typically results in high levels of emotional distress and feelings of vulnerability.
Children in this category may approach schoolwork by spending hours on a simple task until it is perfect, or they may procrastinate about beginning the work or avoid the work altogether.
Many perfectionist children procrastinate or avoid work as the fear of failing or submitting something they consider sub-standard is highly distressing. Some children unconsciously avoid taking risks and may put minimal effort into their work. Others may unconsciously believe they cannot be judged on or fail work that lacked effort or is incomplete. These children are sometimes considered by their teachers to be ‘bright underachievers’.
Children who are perfectionists may exhibit some or all of the following behaviours:
- set very high expectations for themselves
- display low self-esteem and a lack of confidence
- downplay their success and exaggerating their failure
- become anxious in test situations
- avoid taking risks or trying new things
- revise and correct their work excessively, and thus proceed at a slow pace
- have difficulty making decisions
- are easily discouraged by failure
- are vulnerable to perceived expectations of others
- avoid working in groups
- are highly critical of others who do not meet their high expectations
- struggle with social relationships
- suffer from psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches.
These children hold an underlying and often unconscious belief that parents, teachers, peers and significant others will view them as flawed or weak, and will ultimately reject them if their performance is anything but perfect.
Initially, you might believe that it is the parents who are pushing the perfectionist child. This is generally not the case with these children but they can be vulnerable to constant comments by others, such as ‘you will win this award’, ‘you will get all the notes perfect on your music piece’ or ‘ you will do really well on this test.’ Discussion with previous teachers and/or the child’s parents will often confirm that the perfectionist child is the one who is responsible for self-loading and setting of unreasonably high standards, but teachers should monitor the well-meaning comments of others.
Avoid confusing perfectionist children with highly motivated children who have the desire to do well and succeed. Children in this latter category are hard-working, tend to set achievable goals and suffer little emotional distress. They differ from perfectionist children, as they are not motivated by the fear of failure and are willing to try new things and take risks. Perfectionist children are not. Perfectionist children like to do very well, but the fear of not achieving a perfect outcome affects their performance.
When to seek further assistance
There are many classroom strategies that will help a child become more confident and reduce the need to be driven by the fear of failure and the anxiety related to perfectionism.
When perfectionism is impacting adversely on a child’s social interactions, emotional development or schoolwork, professional help from a psychologist might be required. If a satisfactory solution cannot be found with the child, the teacher should discuss these concerns with a senior person in the school such as the principal, and talk with the parents with the view to recommending the child be referred to a psychologist or counsellor. Without effective intervention, ongoing perfectionism can become or may already be an anxiety condition.
Strategies to support the child who displays perfectionist behaviour
- Talk with the child about how:
- Most things are imperfect. People are typically imperfect and very few things are ever done exactly the same way twice. Singing a song, playing a piece of music, publishing a book—will all have elements that are not quite perfect. Perfection is an abstract goal that is often not attainable. Brainstorm other things that are not perfect and the disadvantages of striving for perfection.
- There is not always a perfect relationship between the time and effort expended and a learning outcome. People learn by taking risks and ‘having a go’ and sometimes learn accidentally when they least expect it, through mistakes or trial and error, as discussed below.
- A balance between work and play is important. Listen to the child talk about their attitudes and beliefs about achievement and success. Reassure the child that having some ‘fun’ and ‘hanging out with friends’ is an important part of a balanced approach to learning and enjoying school. People are not robots and need some down time to relax and reflect on learning.
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011
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