Over the last thirteen years of working in education, now more than ever, students are defining their self-worth and identities by the grades they receive and how great they look on paper. The success students are demonstrating in school is having a direct impact on their self-worth and self-esteem. Success and quality of life are seemingly directly measured through grades, class percentile rank, the number of advanced placement and honors courses the student can juggle all while cementing community service and extracurricular activities onto their resume.
However, in reality, many of these children are struggling, struggling to navigate the pressure that comes along with being a competitive student. Students are struggling to navigate social pressure, pressure from their parents and teachers all while managing the competition between friends and the pressure that they intrinsically place on themselves. More often than not these pressures start to manifest themselves into overwhelming anxiety and perfectionism.
Every parent wants their child to do well in school, take classes that are going to put them a step ahead on their college transcripts and have that extra something that will make them stand out among the rest of the student body. However, with college acceptance becoming much more competitive in the last ten years, many students have started doubling down on the pressure that they put on themselves, creating unrealistic expectations, and this is where perfectionism starts to slowly creep in and take control.
I want to be explicitly clear about the notions of perfectionism. A child that does well in school and earns good grades versus a child struggling with perfectionism are two vastly different concepts.
Perfectionism is almost always accompanied by feared outcomes, high levels of anxiety, worry, high levels of stress, a not just right feeling, fear of judgment and a myriad of unhelpful thinking styles and/or behaviors. Perfectionism also tends to jeopardize other areas of daily functioning as well. When a child is struggling with perfectionism, perfectionism is what is driving their ship, perfectionism is their boss, and perfectionism is the decision-maker in every capacity.
Anxious and unhelpful thoughts can manifest in a number of different ways. Some reoccurring patterns of behaviors for perfectionists are struggling with the idea of “What happens if I make a mistake?” Perfectionists will go to great lengths to avoid making even the slightest mistake. A common pattern of behavior of a student struggling with perfectionism is consistently asking to have a deadline extended or due dates forgiven.
The motivation for the extension is driven by their perfectionism. The student might be getting stuck, not knowing where to begin or they may be having a not just right feeling upon completion resulting in deleting and rewriting. Many perfectionists will avoid asking for help or admit that they are struggling for fear of judgment, and they will go to great lengths to avoid situations that make them anxious.
Deadline extensions are probably one of the worst accommodations educators can make for a student struggling with perfectionism. What the educator is really doing when allowing the student to extend their deadline is accommodating the perfectionism. One of the greatest gifts that parents and educators can give their students that is struggling with perfectionism is granting them with concrete expectations and firm deadlines.
This may seem counterintuitive for educators and parents because we want to do everything in our power to ensure our students are set up for success, but in the case of perfectionism, you are accommodating the problem because any amount of deadline extension is simply going to feed the cycle of perfectionism. Accommodations need to be extremely purposeful to ensure that parents and educators are not accommodating the symptoms of perfectionism.
Throughout my years of classroom teaching, providing mental health education to schools, consulting and advocating for students with mental health needs, my pieces of advice are twofold. Parents, teachers, and schools as a whole need to strike a delicate balance between supporting and pressuring students.
Schools need to emphasize more social-emotional learning and equip their students with more coping skills to increase resiliency. As one of the many responsible adults in our students’ lives, it is important not to ignore unhealthy patterns of perfectionistic behavior, but utilize community resources, spend time talking with your student(s) and speaking up if you have concerns. The sooner, and more early intervention you can provide, the less likely the symptoms will interfere and compromise daily functioning.
This content was originally posted on Nicki’s “All Things Education” Blog here.