I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of perfectionism lately. I’m seeing younger and younger students afraid to make mistakes and shy away from a challenge for fear of failure. It makes me sad that we live in a society where we put so much pressure on ourselves to be “perfect”. Why are we seeing grade one students completely fall apart when they encounter a challenging task or perceive the task to be difficult, and more importantly what can we do about it?
It’s good and healthy for students to hold high expectations of themselves. But if they expect everything to be perfect, they’ll never be satisfied with their performance. We need to find the right balance between having high standards and feeling completely dejected when things don’t go as planned. Perfectionists tend to establish unrealistic goals for themselves and then they place enormous pressure on themselves to try and reach their goals. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Whether it’s a 99 on a math test or 9 out of 10 foul shots made, perfectionists declare their performance a dismal failure when they fall short of their goals. Conversely, when they do succeed, they struggle to enjoy their accomplishments and they often assume the success was a result of good luck and worry they won’t be able to replicate the results or maintain their level of success. So what can we do as educators to try and ease this tension?
How can we help students (and teachers) become more resilient and be less afraid to make a mistake? When I taught in a classroom I always had a giant eraser at the front of my room that said FOR BIG MISTAKES. It was a visual reminder that it was okay to make mistakes. It became our class motto, so to speak, where we started to celebrate the mistakes we made. I remember stopping my class, pointing out and celebrating “big juicy mistakes”, whether they were mine or someone else’s. Students love to point out the mistakes of their teacher and so I would often make mistakes on purpose so that my students would find them and then I would use that as an opportunity to model how to respond when someone points out an error. The first thing I did was thank the student who found the error.
Even with these systems in place, it is evident that some students crumble the second they encounter something difficult. We’ve talked about resiliency before and it seems to be a buzzword, especially this year, as we all try and stay resilient in the face of a global pandemic. But it’s true, how come some students are resilient and some find it so challenging to rise above a difficult situation.
I love this article from CNBC.com published on March 17, 2021, entitled “A psychotherapist says the most mentally strong kids always do these 7 things—and how parents can teach them.” I would argue that it’s not only parents but also teachers who can play a role in implementing these into the classroom. Read more here.
To recap, here are the 7 things people do to remain resilient:
- They empower themselves
- They adapt to change
- They know when to say no
- They own their mistakes
- They celebrate other people’s successes
- They fail…and try again
- They persist
I personally love the suggestion to have students write a letter to themselves. It’s a concrete tool they can reference when they are having a difficult time believing in themselves or feel stuck in a hard situation.
One of the things we can do as parents and educators is to focus on the positives, the learning journey and the lessons learned along the way rather than on the end result. When giving feedback, it’s just as important to highlight all the things the person did well as it is to highlight the ways to improve. We need to praise effort over results. As my own children were growing up, I remember telling them that I will always be more impressed if they work hard and try their best and receive a mediocre grade, over a high grade that came from very little effort on their part. It was always far more important for me to look at their mistakes, try and understand them and learn from them. It’s why it makes me feel upset when teachers do not return tests and assignments. How can we learn from where we went wrong if we don’t ever get to see the mistakes? I love the book called My Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. Find that book here. This book can be a signal that an “oops” can be something wonderful and those mess-ups can present opportunities. The use of the word “beautiful” connected with “mistake” shifts our mindset and helps us overcome perfectionism: seeing mistakes as opportunities. As we shift our own mindset, choose our words carefully, and look for opportunities in our students’ mistakes and our own, we will create cultures in our classrooms that remove the pressures of perfectionism and lead to genuine individual growth. Let’s be the parent and teacher who models that we aren’t afraid to make mistakes!
Feel free to share your ideas and suggestions on how you help your children or students overcome the need to be perfect.