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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Helping The Perfectionist


To say that the perfectionist is tough on himself is putting it mildly. He considers anything less than perfection a failure.

The student perfectionist is not satisfied with simply doing well; he will redo assignments countless times in an effort to produce the perfect paper. Even then, he may feel that his final product is not good enough.

According to the perfectionist's code, failure is simply not an option. Students who are perfectionists set impossibly high standards for themselves and become frustrated when they fail to meet them. Even when they seem to succeed, they find a reason to be dissatisfied. The perfectionist who wins a spelling bee, for example, might get down on himself because he hesitated over a particularly tricky word. The perfectionist athlete who takes first place in a race may fret about not breaking the record.

The drive to excel can be a double-edged sword if a student becomes consumed with being the best at everything. Unable to live up to his often-unreachable standards, he may experience intense disappointment and feelings of worthlessness. The challenge in teaching a perfectionist is to maintain a delicate balance between promoting his pursuit of excellence, while avoiding reinforcing his perfectionism.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Provide a nurturing environment. Adopt a sympathetic, patient approach with all your students, so they feel safe taking risks, and are not fearful of your reaction if they make a mistake. Let them know that your goal is that they improve, not that they perform perfectly. In reacting to students' performance, accentuate the successes and downplay the failures. When a student does make a mistake, put a positive spin on it (for example, "That's very close!").

Let the perfectionist know that mistakes are expected. Give the perfectionist a license to make mistakes; explain that they are a normal part of learning. Show him that even accomplished people are far from perfect. Point out that long-time home run king Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times during his career, and that Thomas Edison failed more than 1,500 times before inventing a filament that would work in a light bulb. Ask students to share amusing mistakes they have made -- and be sure to chime in with a few mistakes of your own. Consider posting such sayings in your classroom as, "We all make mistakes; that's why they put erasers on pencils."

Help the perfectionist set realistic goals. Suggest he develop concrete goals that represent realistic progress from his present level. You can demonstrate the progress he has already made by saving earlier work and comparing it to present work, or by using tables or charts to show improvement.

Challenge the student's flawed beliefs. For some students, the need to be perfect is driven by the way they think. They may believe that others will see them as weak if their performance is less than perfect. Or they may think that when someone offers a suggestion, it means they have performed poorly. As the perfectionist talks about himself, listen for faulty beliefs that need to be corrected. For example, if he fears making a mistake, ask him what he thinks will happen if he does.

Make your expectations clear. When giving an assignment, describe to students precisely what you expect in terms of content, format, and length. By doing so, you will make it less likely that the perfectionist will set unrealistic standards for himself. Also, spell out the primary purpose of the assignment, so he does not get hung up on extraneous concerns. For example, when asking students to submit note cards containing research information for a report, tell them that your chief concern is content, not grammar and spelling.

Use a divide and conquer strategy for long assignments. The perfectionist can feel overwhelmed by long or complicated assignments. Help ease his anxiety and get him started by breaking the task into manageable steps. For example, if students are writing a report, divide the assignment into the following parts: taking notes, making an outline, developing a rough draft, and writing a final draft. Establish a deadline for each step.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

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