Every teacher has experienced it at one point in time or another: the intense plea for those last couple of points on an assignment. The student making the plea is passionate, driven, determined . . . and oftentimes, doing very well in the class. Is the quest for those couple of points one of learning, or one of perfection? And is it healthy? And most importantly, what can we do about it?
One of the big challenges I’ve faced in gifted education for nearly 20 years has been perfectionism. Perfectionism is defined as the drive to do everything extremely well. There can be a healthy level of perfectionism, one that pushes an individual to do his or her best and while keeping a good perspective. But then there can be an unhealthy level of perfectionism, one that attaches all of an individual’s self-worth to every task, action, activity being done perfectly. While it doesn’t exist solely in gifted children, there is a strong prevalence of perfectionism in the population of gifted students. I get a pretty quick picture of who among my students is dealing with perfectionism in two ways:
1. Observing which of my students focuses on every point earned or lost on an assignment, and obsesses over those lost points; and
2. Observing who routinely doesn’t start a task right away, but instead waits until the last minute, and turns it in reluctantly, saying something like, “I ran out of time.”
The first is certainly easy to spot. I often think these students might be future attorneys; I’ve had some come to me with several different lines of reasoning, all aimed at gaining back points. In some cases, they want to persist in arguing over a point or two, even when the assignment is worth just a few formative points and has had no negative impact on the quarter’s grade. Having anything less than an A for any assignment is terrifying and shameful.
The second group can be trickier, especially early in the school year. Some students who wait until the last minute do this because it’s always worked for them. (This will likely cause them a problem at some point in the future, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Then there are kids who are paralyzed at the beginning of the task. They have a mental dialogue going on that tells them they cannot possibly do well, yet they know they need to start. It becomes a paralysis of fear that “I might not get an A on this.” Ultimately that paralysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So how do we address this?
There is no simple, easy answer. One increasingly popular approach to learning could also be helpful for these perfectionists: the development of a growth mindset.
We need to stress that the whole reason for being in school is to learn. Learning can be messy, noisy, and difficult. Learning the best, strongest lessons often requires struggle and even a strong risk of failure. No one likes that idea, but it’s a truly terrifying thought to perfectionists. Our kids need to solve problems. They need to use reasoning, collaboration, and critical thinking. Those skills aren’t always neat, orderly, straightforward processes. The engineers at NASA didn’t use worksheets to figure out how to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts back to work safely. It took lots of brainstorming, trying, testing, failing, and trying again.
Something I’ve grown into is being very direct with my students about this growth mindset. With my seventh grade class, we started the year with an article in National Geographic entitled “Failure is an Option: Where Would We Be Without It?” (Hannah Bloch, Brett Line, and Linda Poon. National Geographic Magazine, September 2013, Vol. 224, Issue 3, p.124+). We spent the first week of school dissecting it, defining vocabulary in context, and sharing our own thoughts and responses as we analyzed the author’s purpose. While part of me worried that I was sending a negative message to my students, our class discussions were so powerful that those worries quickly subsided. As we moved into other studies, the kids kept referring back to the concept that through failure, we learn. As our year has continued, I have more and more students willing to take risks and learn from their struggles and successes alike. I’ve also changed how I handle grading, so that my practices are much more supportive of a growth mindset. Now, when a student struggles with a task and the end result isn’t matching expectations, I don’t give it a grade. Instead, I work with the student to help him or her reframe the task and try again. Yes, there are times in life that second chances just don’t happen. But when we’re learning new skills in middle school, second chances (and third . . . and fourth) are not only appropriate, they’re necessary.
It’s all about growth. It needs to be all about growth. When we can get our high-pressure, intensely-perfectionistic students to see that, or at least begin to see that, the stress and anxiety they feel lessens, and that leaves more room for the TRUE learning–the problem-solving, the critical thinking, the idea generation–to occur. And then those students can experience the joy of learning and growing.
Resources offering information about perfectionism:
SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted)– Organization devoted to supporting gifted children and providing resources for parents, teachers, and gifted children. This article is among the many resources available on the web site.
Perfectionism and the Gifted Adolescent–Research article highlighting the positive and negative impacts of perfectionism. This provides several practical suggestions for parents and teachers.
National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)–This organization provides a variety of resources for everyone involved in gifted children’s lives.