ERIC Identifier: ED400124
Publication Date: 1996-10-00
Author: Brophy, Jere
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Working with Perfectionist Students. ERIC Digest.
Perfectionist students are not satisfied with merely doing well or even with
doing better than their peers. They are satisfied only if they have done a job
perfectly, so that the result reveals no blemishes or weaknesses. To the extent
that perfectionism involves striving for difficult but reachable goals, it
involves the success-seeking aspects of healthy achievement motivation and
functions as an asset to the student and as an ally to the teacher. Even a
success-seeking version of perfectionism, however, can become a problem to the
extent that the student begins to focus not so much on meeting personal goals as
on winning competitions against classmates (Furtwengler & Konnert, 1982).
Problems associated with forms of perfectionism that focus on seeking success
are relatively minor, however, compared to the problems associated with forms of
perfectionism that focus on avoiding failure (Burns, 1980). Fear of failure (or
of blame, rejection, or other anticipated social consequences of failure) can be
destructive to achievement motivation, especially if it is powerful and
persistent. Victims of such fear typically try to avoid or escape as quickly as
possible from achievement situations in which their performance will be judged
according to standards of excellence. When escape is not possible, they try to
protect their self-esteem either by expressing very low aspirations that will be
easy to fulfill or by expressing impossibly high aspirations that they have no
serious intention of striving to fulfill. In the school setting, many such
students become alienated underachievers.
CHARACTERISTICS OF PERFECTIONIST STUDENTS
listed the following as symptoms of student perfectionism:
performance standards that are impossibly high and unnecessarily rigid;
motivation more from fear of failure than from pursuit of success;
measurement of one's own worth entirely in terms of productivity and
all-or-nothing evaluations that label anything other than perfection as failure;
difficulty in taking credit or pleasure, even when success is achieved, because
such achievement is merely what is expected;
procrastination in getting started on work that will be judged; and
long delays in completing assignments, or repeatedly starting over on
assignments, because the work must be perfect from the beginning and continue to
be perfect as one goes along.
Other symptoms commonly observed in perfectionist students include
unwillingness to volunteer to respond to questions unless certain of the correct
answer, overly emotional and "catastrophic" reactions to minor failures, and low
productivity due to procrastination or excessive "start overs."
COPING WITH PERFECTIONIST STUDENTS
need to relearn performance norms and work expectations. They need to learn that
(1) schools are places to learn knowledge and skills, not merely to demonstrate
them; (2) errors are normal, expected, and often necessary aspects of the
learning process; (3) everyone makes mistakes, including the teacher; (4) there
is no reason to devalue oneself or fear rejection or punishment just because one
has made a mistake; and (5) it is usually more helpful to measure progress by
comparing where one is now with where one was, rather than by comparing oneself
with peers or with ideals of perfection.
Swift and Spivack (1975) emphasized that helping perfectionists develop more
realistic expectations is a process that needs to be couched within a context of
acceptance of their motivation to achieve and their need to feel satisfied with
their accomplishments. Thus, instead of dismissing their concerns as unfounded
(and expecting them to accept this view), teachers can use active listening
methods to encourage these students to express their concerns, make it clear
that they take those concerns seriously, and engage in collaborative planning
with the students concerning steps that might alleviate the problem. The goal is
to help perfectionist students achieve a 20- or 30-degree change rather than a
180-degree turnaround (Pacht, 1984).
Teachers want students to retain their desire to aim high and put forth their
best efforts, but to learn to do so in ways that are realistic and productive
rather than rigid and compulsive. Intervention efforts are likely to feature
some form of cognitive restructuring. McIntyre (1989) suggested the following
teacher strategies for working with perfectionists: "give permission" to make
mistakes, or divide assignments into outline, rough draft, and final draft
stages, with perfection promoted only for the final draft; discuss appropriate
reactions to making mistakes; and frequently use ungraded assignments or
assignments that call for creative, individual responses rather than correct
answers. If necessary, place limits on perfectionist procrastination by limiting
the time that can be spent on an assignment or by limiting the amount of
Teachers must be careful to be sure that the assistance they provide does not
make these students too dependent on them, to the point that they seek teacher
clarification and approval of every step of their work. The goal is to gradually
guide the student toward an independent work posture.
STRATEGIES OF EFFECTIVE TEACHERS
Brophy and Rohrkemper
(1989) found that effective teachers made an attempt to appeal to, persuade, or
change the attitudes of perfectionist students, and to support their efforts to
change, by doing the following:
building a friendly, supportive learning environment;
establishing the expectation that mistakes are a normal part of the learning
presenting themselves as helpful instructors concerned primarily with promoting
student learning, rather than as authority figures concerned primarily with
evaluating student performance;
articulating expectations that stress learning and improvement over perfect
performance on assignments;
explaining how perfectionism is counterproductive;
reassuring perfectionist students that they will get the help they need to
achieve success, following through with help, and communicating teacher approval
of students' progress and accomplishments.
Effective teachers identified the most ineffective strategies for dealing
with perfectionist students as criticizing or nagging, threatening punishment
for failure to change, controlling or suppressing perfectionist tendencies, and
ignoring or denying the problem rather than dealing with it (Brophy, 1995).
Perfectionists often show unsatisfactory
achievement progress because they are more concerned about avoiding mistakes
than with learning. They are inhibited about classroom participation and
counterproductively compulsive in their work habits. Identifying perfectionist
students is possible by observing their behaviors and talking with them about
habits and practices that interfere with class participation and performance on
assignments. Effective teachers take perfectionist students seriously,
communicating understanding and approval of their desire to do well and
sympathizing with the students' feelings of embarrassment and frustration.
Teachers can learn to support and reinforce the success-seeking aspects of
achievement motivation while working to reduce unrealistic goal setting.
This digest was adapted from: Brophy, Jere (1996). Teaching Problem Students.
New York: Guilford. Adapted with permission of the author.
Brophy, J. (1995). ELEMENTARY TEACHERS'
PERCEPTIONS OF AND REPORTED STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH TWELVE TYPES OF PROBLEM STUDENTS. East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching,Michigan State University. ED 389 390.
Brophy, J., and M. Rohrkemper. (1989). TEACHERS' STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH
PERFECTIONIST STUDENTS. Research Series No. 198. East Lansing, MI: Institute for
Research on Teaching, Michigan State University. ED 314 401.
Burns, D. (1980). The Perfectionist's Script for Self-Defeat. PSYCHOLOGY
TODAY (November): 34-52.
Furtwengler, W. J., and W. Konnert. (1982). IMPROVING SCHOOL DISCIPLINE: AN
ADMINISTRATOR'S GUIDE. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
McIntyre, T. (1989). A RESOURCE BOOK FOR REMEDIATING COMMON BEHAVIOR AND
LEARNING PROBLEMS. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Pacht, A. (1984). Reflections on Perfection. AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST 39(April):
Swift, M., and G. Spivack. (1975). ALTERNATIVE TEACHING STRATEGIES: HELPING BEHAVIORALLY TROUBLED CHILDREN ACHIEVE: Champaign, IL: Research Press.