4 ways teachers can help pupils overcome perfectionism

Taking risks is a key part of learning, so how can teachers help perfectionist pupils who fear failure?

Girls taking risk

Last Friday, Tes attended the annual conference of the Association of State Girls’ Schools. A recurrent thread throughout the day was the challenge of helping girls to take more risks, as well as helping them overcome unhealthy levels of perfectionism.

So, what should teachers do to build pupils’ confidence and ensure they feel comfortable trying new things?


Related: How to help perfectionists

Perfectionism: Demanding perfection leads to fear of failure…

Quick read: 'Teachers need to model happiness'


1. Try not to reassure pupils too much

This may sound counterintuitive – teachers want to help pupils feel safe and happy. However, Jenny Langley of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust – a charity helping young people with depression – cautions that this can simply reinforce pupils’ self-doubt over the long-term.

“Even though they might be getting really good grades, they keep checking in with you,” she said. “If you give them reassurance, they keep coming back, because every time it’s a bit less helpful, so they need to ask for more and more.”

Ms Langley said that while not reassuring pupils might make you feel uncomfortable or distressed, ultimately, responding to pupils’ fears with a “calm, warm and fuzzy” approach doesn’t help – change comes about through discomfort.

“We need to role model how it’s OK to feel distress.”

2. Look out for signs of unhealthy levels of perfectionism (and don’t assume this only applies to girls)

Perfectionism is stereotypically associated with girls, but Ms Langley also spoke movingly of her son’s experience with teenage anorexia. It is important to recognise that boys may be experiencing equal levels of pressure.

She said teenagers who are perfectionists may begin to develop inflexible, unhealthy rules, either about the grades they should achieve, or their eating habits.

“As your anxiety goes up, you tend to develop rigid rules, as it’s your safety strategy. It could be around exams – 'I have to be in the top three or get 80 per cent or a 9'. Or it might be about exercise or eating patterns.”

3. Show your vulnerability

Again, this advice seems to fly in the face of some of the common advice given to NQTs – "Don’t smile until Christmas", anyone? However, both Ms Langley and Bridget Ouimette, associate director at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in Philadelphia, USA, advised listeners at the conference to show vulnerability to pupils and model how to cope with failure.

Ms Langley, a self-confessed perfectionist, said: “It’s OK to make mistakes, and I need to role-model that when I’m teaching carers how to look after their kids -  to show that life is distressing and we need to be able to tolerate that distress.”

In her talk, Ms Ouimette spoke about how adults can unwittingly model a fear of failure.

“How do we innocently reinforce risk aversion with our girls? We must not be too hard on ourselves in front of them.

"It has been really important for me to be able to accept compliments from them but also to own, ‘I’m not perfect.’

"I want them to know that however they perceive me, it’s really hard, and I’m absolutely trying my best.”

4. Encourage risk-taking as opposed to extrinsic achievement

Ms Ouimette said perfectionism can particularly affect girls, and advised teachers to encourage risk-taking by creating a less competitive classroom environment. She said celebrating a range of different forms of success can help with this.

“In upwardly mobile communities, the definition of success is really narrow and extrinsically defined. And I know in my school and many girls’ schools in the States, it’s really about getting into a prestigious university, so girls feel very pressured.

"Everything they participate in is really a resume builder. I’ve had students tell me straight up, ‘I’m doing this club because I know it will look good on my resume.’”

She said teachers needed to create a classroom environment where low-stakes risk-taking is encouraged through collaborative work.

 “Perfectionism is really characterised by dichotomised, black-and-white thinking," Ms Ouimette said. "I’ve literally heard these words -  ‘If I fail this, I’m going to be homeless’, or, from a fifth-grader [year 6 pupil], ‘If I don’t do well in this project, I’m not going to get married’.”

She pointed out that she had advised the pupil that she had never been asked about her elementary school grades on a date. 

"But it was amazing that she jumped to that conclusion," she said. 

Working in groups in a less competitive atmosphere can help pupils to avoid this kind of thinking – known as catastrophising – and be more willing to experience failure, Ms Ouimette added.

 

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