According to Tom Greenspon, a family therapist and expert on perfectionism, teachers and parents need to understand four key things about perfectionism:

  1. Perfectionism is emotional. It can be a vicious cycle for the perfectionist: making a mistake causes fear, which makes the student want to be even more perfect, leading to anxiety which causes more mistakes.
  2. Perfectionism is social. Perfectionists may feel that they won’t be accepted unless they are perfect.
  3. Perfectionism doesn’t make people more successful. It is not the same things as striving for excellence.
  4. The environment influences perfectionism. Perfectionist behavior may be learned from the behavior of others around them. A chaotic environment also contributes to feelings of needing to be perfect.

Here are a few thoughts, then, on how teachers can deal with perfectionists in their classrooms:

  • Create an environment of acceptance. Avoid “zero-tolerance” policies in your classroom. Provide second chances whenever appropriate. Set high, reasonable expectations, but show understanding and acceptance when students inevitably don’t meet them. Focus on positive character qualities in each child rather than on shortfalls.
  • Celebrate imperfection. Let students know that not only are mistakes are normal, they are expected and even essential to the learning process. When a student makes a mistake, celebrate the effort, or point out any good thinking that went into it. Tell stories about learning that happened because of a mistake, and point out that school is a place for learning, not for performing. Give each student a “mistake pass” to allow them to make an error any time without penalty. Or maybe give them two. Give students full credit for a mistake if they can tell what they learned from it.
  • Allow play time. Gifted children are still children, and letting students play without a specific goal allows them to explore thoughts and ideas without the pressure to perform. As any Kindergarten teacher will tell you, a great deal of learning takes place during unstructured play, and it is just as true for older students. The form of the play will look different: gifted students in upper elementary and beyond will play with ideas, words, and images, and numbers. Let it be what it is; don’t try to force it into an academic box.
  • Show your own flaws. We’re not talking about airing dirty laundry, here. Just let students see that you aren’t perfect yourself, and give yourself the same second chances that you give students. Make mistakes in class (deliberately if necessary) and allow students to correct you without penalty.

What else do you do to help your perfectionists loosen up a little?