Executive Function Strategies Blog

Academic Anxiety: How Perfectionism and Executive Dysfunction Collide

As an Executive Function coach and clinical social worker, I have had a fair amount of experience working with adolescents who struggle with anxiety. Over the years, I have observed a phenomenon that highlights the intersection between perfectionism and executive function challenges. I call it the “comfort zone of misery.”

Children with weak executive function skills in combination with a perfectionistic mindset often find themselves mired in unmet deadlines - and faulty SarahHanson.jpgassumptions. Though on the surface it may seem that these students aren’t doing work because they don’t care enough, it is often just the opposite. Many students with academic anxiety are so fearful of falling short that they actually adopt the protective mindset “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” The students convince themselves that they aren’t capable of producing high quality work or “right” enough work so they ultimately never reach completion of assignments. They often beat themselves up over and over for not getting the work done - yet this emotional pummeling is still less excruciating than risking being “wrong” or imperfect. At the same time, not diving in and grappling with the work brings on distress because they are keenly aware that they are failing to meet their own expectations and the expectations of teachers and parents. Hence, they stay in their comfort zone - or discomfort zone - of misery.

How does a cycle of academic anxiety persist?

By not trying, the fear of failure actually compounds. When we don’t face our fears- ultimately the fear increases and avoidance grows. I have worked with many students who have come to the point of rarely handing in assignments (especially writing) because an inner dialogue of doubt takes over: “What if I don’t get a good grade?” “What if I am wrong?” “What if my teacher doesn’t like it?” And though it defies logic, many students with a perfectionistic mindset would rather take a zero for a high-stakes assignment than risk passing in a less-than-stellar essay or project.

Students with this type of academic anxiety often struggle in several areas of executive function as well, which intensifies their challenges. Executive function skills are a range of abilities that help students manage themselves and be productive. If a student has poor emotional regulation skills, for example, the avoidance response mentioned earlier increases, due in part to poor coping strategies. Students who know how to calm themselves effectively can sit through the discomfort of risking error. Another weakness I’ve observed in students with academic anxiety is the ability to plan and prioritize their work. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you don’t understand how to break lengthy assignments into smaller chunks, or estimate how long they should take and when to do the work. Additionally, perfectionistic students often have difficulty with self-advocacy. Instead of reaching out to a teacher for feedback on a rough draft for an essay, for instance, they often assume they should “go it alone,” thereby getting stuck in their perception that the work just isn’t good enough to pass in to the teacher.

How can students break the cycle of perfectionism?

Breaking a fear of failure cycle is a difficult and sometimes lengthy process - but it can be achieved. In clinical settings, therapists may treat this type of academic anxiety with Exposure Response Prevention Therapy in which a student could be asked to write the worst possible paragraph he or she possibly can. This can be disturbing for someone with perfectionist tendencies yet also incredibly powerful. This method typically showcases for the student that they can in fact handle something being “wrong” and that the outcome is not as devastating as they think.

Additionally, developing stronger executive function skills can help students offset anxiety and build self-confidence. Through ongoing coaching, therapy, and support in school and at home, perfectionistic students can learn to risk failure and ultimately be productive and successful.

Do you know a perfectionistic student who would benefit from learning self-advocacy? Download our checklist of essential self-advocacy skills that every student needs.

Download Student Self-Advocacy Checklist

Sarah Hanson is an executive function coach and a licensed independent clinical social worker who has worked with pre-teens and teens in a variety of schools and clinical settings. Sarah attended Boston College for both her undergraduate education through the School of Education as well as her graduate studies through the School of Social Work. Sarah works from an empowering, strengths based lens, helping students build self-confidence and a sense of agency through development of their self-management skills.

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