Perfect is good, right? Well, sometimes, say scientists. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person working to be perfect – in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. But, as a Psychology Today study on teen anxiety suggests, perfectionism can often be unhealthy and focused on seeking approval. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck looks at behavior from a perspective of a fixed or growth mindset. Let’s look at perfectionism through this lens.
With a fixed mindset and locked-in definition of the perfect product, problems may develop In the classroom. Students who are perfectionists take longer than others to complete a task. For example, spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence answer. Or spending excessive time on simple tasks in the search for the perfect answer or the perfect wording, which can create problems getting work finished on time.
This fixed mindset may keep a student from attending class. Skipping classes may seem like a simple act of rebellion or misbehavior – but it can mask a deeper problem. Skipping a class, avoiding a class assignment, or the rising occurence of school refusal could be a symptom of a larger problem. Anxiety, despair, and feeling that it is pointless to make an effort unless perfect can derail a student’s academic progress.
It can also impact out-of-school choices. This fixed mindset can lead to avoiding a game or a new activity with friends because a student is afraid of failure or imperfection. Perfectionism can lead to paralyzing fear of failure that keeps a student from exploring and thriving.
The negative side of perfectionism is brought about (in part) by setting unreasonably high standards, by setting the bar so high that NO human could ever clear it. This leads to constant worry about making mistakes, letting others down, and not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and lots of stress.
It is important to learn to set high (but not impossible) personal standards and working towards these goals in a proactive manner. Parents, teachers, coaches, and students need to examine the goals set. Focusing on progress and a sense of accomplishment versus perfection relieves anxiety and allows for success to have a more realistic definition.
At a micro-school like LEADPrep the focus of learning is on the process. Using design thinking and project creation, there is inevitable failure. This is normalized and applauded. The goal is to “fail fast,” learning from the situation and using that information to try again. With the low teacher to student ratio, relationships are strong and students feel safe to fail. Teachers also model making mistakes and moving on. No shame–just more opportunities to learn.
This growth mindset is encouraged by having students set individual goals and reflect on progress throughout the process. Teachers can work with students one-on-one to teach them to look at different perspectives, exploring when compromise or adapting the goal will be a good answer, thinking realistically, and using positive self-talk. At LEADPrep we work on trading perfectionism for growth!