Nine Strategies for Helping Gifted Students Manage Perfectionism

I didn't get my driver's license until I was 20 years old.

And it wasn't because I was some terrible driver who kept failing the driving exam.

It was because until I was 20, I didn't sign up for the test.

I avoided taking the test because I was afraid to fail.

Afraid of making mistakes. Not achieving my goal. Feeling embarrassed in front of the driving examiner, my family, and my friends for not passing the test. Feeling that somehow, I was some kind of loser for not being able to pass a silly test that thousands of "regular" people pass every day.

Does this sound familiar to you? If you haven't personally experienced these feelings, perhaps you've seen signs in your students. Maybe they're procrastinators, avoiding the work until the very last minute. Maybe they avoid certain tasks altogether.  Perhaps they barely try on certain assignments because trying their best and not achieving the (sometimes unrealistic) goals they've set for themselves means they like themselves less because they've associated their self-worth with their achievement and perfection. These children are, essentially, creating a layer of protection around themselves because they never started, tried their hardest, or did their best, so no one can actually judge them on their true capability. This task avoidance is a form of coping with the sometimes crippling effects of perfectionism.

So, how do we help our gifted students develop a healthy mindset about achievement while still allowing them to set high goals and strive to achieve great things?

What is perfectionism and who does it affect?

Perfectionism usually takes on one of two forms: healthy perfectionism and its (appropriately, though not creatively named) opposite, unhealthy perfectionism. Although perfectionism is well documented among the gifted population (even to the point that it is an indicator on screeners for gifted identification), it occurs at pretty much the same rate among the non-gifted population as well.

In this NAGC article, healthy perfectionism has been defined as a person's ability to do their best and then move on, the person's ability to set high personal standards while still being accepting of their imperfect themselves, and being able to manage their behaviors so that they don't interfere with daily life.

According to the same article, perfectionism reaches unhealthy levels when there is a bigger emphasis on or rewarding of performance over other aspects of life, having the perception that one's work is never good enough, feeling continuously dissatisfied about one's work (which could eventually lead to anxiety and depression), experiencing feelings of guilt if not continuously engaged in meaningful work, and having a serious compulsion or drive to achieve, so much so, that the person places their own personal value based on what they accomplish or produce.

Unhealthy perfectionism is also a way of thinking. It's the perception that there are only two options for doing things: it's perfect or it's worthless.

At extreme levels, perfectionism can lead to self-defeat, underachievement, physical pain, alcoholism, eating disorders, depression, OCD and other maladaptive symptoms or behaviors.

How can we help our students deal with perfectionism (fear of failure, and task avoidance)?

Being #totallyhonest here. Unhealthy perfectionism is a complicated beast, with many possible contributors. This list of tips could be pages and pages long, but after much research, I'm leaving nine of the ideas I thought would be most valuable from my perspective as a perfect person recovering perfectionist. 

  1. Create or adopt an affective curriculum--we often assume that children pick up these "soft skills" on their own by watching how others interact and deal with things. And to some extent, that is true. But for gifted children and other differently-abled children, some of these skills require extra focus, explicit teaching, modeling, and practice. 
  2. Help the child decide ahead of time when to quit--One interesting component of perfectionism is that people sometimes have a hard time deciding when enough is enough. This is definitely something I struggle with (hellooooo lengthy blog posts... 🙄😬). Whether you decide on a time limit or a certain number of sentences, a particular number of objectives, or set of sub-topics, a conference with the child focusing on what a reasonable stopping point is could help release the child from some of the perfection pressure. 
  3. Work together to set realistic goals--Make sure that these aren't just any goals. Children who struggle with perfectionism benefit from realistic goals that focus on improvement and/or progress over perfection. It would be beneficial to take the goal setting one step further by helping the child map out incremental steps and set times to check in and take a peek at the progress being made. 
  4. Help the child separate their self-worth from grades/products/evaluations and the gifted label--This is a complicated imperative, but we can start by being careful with how we praise perfectionistic students. Focusing on the positive parts of their performance, and focusing on their effort over their achievement are two ways to help. Further, when assignments come back with less than perfect scores, sit down with the child to compare their product with the rubric or expectations of the assignment. Put the child in charge of vocalizing what improvements they would make while teachers/parents focus on what went well. 
  5. Share your mistakes with students--This seems obvious, but especially for teachers who like to maintain an aura of perfection, sometimes we really need to consciously take this step. 
  6. Study the lives of eminent people-- Focus on the person's path to success, qualities that they
    possess that have helped enable their success, and what kind of barriers they had to overcome in order to achieve success. 
  7. Change YOUR attitude about failure--Sometimes we need to work on and model our own response to making mistakes. Handling them with humor and a positive attitude goes a long way. Speaking aloud your own internal self-talk about how you can grow from the mistake provides students with a model for their own self-talk. 
  8. Play a round of Worst Case Scenario--if your student is really struggling with getting started or if the fear of failure is really preventing them from doing work commensurate with their abilities and you suspect perfectionism is the culprit, sometimes sitting down to think of and write out the actual WORST thing that could happen if the child fails helps put everything into perspective. Chances are, they will see how their big worries are comparing to small potential outcomes, and be able to move on toward meeting their goals. Conferring with the child after the stressful event or assignment would be a great way to help the child start connecting the dots to see that the worst things they had imagined really didn't happen!  
  9. Use books with characters who struggle and make mistakes--I'm a big believer in bibliotherapy.  I think sharing books with children that focus on perfectionism and the fear of failure can really go a long way in promoting positive ways to deal with these stresses. Keep an eye out for a future post featuring 15 books you can use with your students! 

I hope that through using these tips, you can help your students start to overcome their own perfectionism. May you have students who do not choose to wait for years to achieve something they really want!

Got other ideas? Leave me a comment or send me an email with suggestions. I'd love to hear them!

P.S. You can get a FREE copy of that infographic with the nine tips above by clicking on the picture, or clickng right here*Just to be clear, by clicking to get this freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Information for this post was collected from the following sources: 

Perfectionism on NAGC Website

Rimm, Sylvia. (2000). What's Wrong with Perfect? 

Cullins, Ashley. (2017). 6 Ways to Help Your Child Overcome the Fear of Failure. Big Life Journal.


1 comment

  1. I like talking to the student about your worse case scenario.


Back to Top