Perfectionism in Students: A Case Study in Coping With Academic Anxiety


Are you worried that your child tends toward perfectionism? As coaches, we often encounter students with perfectionistic mindsets in combination with otherBrittanyWadbrook.jpg
Executive Function challenges. When students focus on producing “perfect” work, it can not only be counterproductive but research suggests it can even prove harmful. The good news is that the right kind of support can help ensure that such mindsets won't derail your child.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not simply when a student strives for excellence. In a New York Times magazine article, Melissa Dahl quotes psychologist Thomas S. Greenspoon, explaining that “perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect.” That’s a lot of pressure for a student to handle.

How Does Perfectionism in Students Manifest?

Parents want to see their children achieve good results for their efforts — but when a child is mired in perfectionism, it can lead to hours wasted in ineffective pursuit of the perfect essay, report, or problem set — with very little on paper to show for all that effort. And frequently, there are plenty of tears and meltdowns in the process, as well. It’s easy to imagine the frustration involved in attempting to produce error-free assignments. After all, mistakes are a natural and expected part of the learning process!

The Research and the Risks

Paul Hewitt, PhD and Gordon Flett, PhD have spent nearly three decades researching perfectionism. According to Etienne Benson, of the American Psychological Association, Hewitt and Flett’s work has “found that perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.” It’s no wonder that parents worry when their children spend endless hours perfecting their homework.

The Solution

While it can be a challenging and sometimes slow process, students can surmount the pitfalls of perfectionism with their schoolwork. Helping a child develop self-management skills, as well as gain a more realistic understanding of perceived expectations, can go a long way in easing the stress associated with perfectionism. Below is a glimpse into some of the challenges that our perfectionistic students face and how we, as adults, can help these students become more confident and productive.

A Case Study in Coping with Perfectionism

Jameson was a middle schooler full of energy, eager to please, polite, attentive, diligent … and wracked with academic anxiety. During a coaching session, Jameson described a take-home project he was assigned the week before. As he detailed the elements of the project, the strain spread across his face. When I asked how much he’d done already, he burst into tears. Despite having completed about 75% of the tasks, he was simultaneously stressed about his belief that what he’d done wasn’t good enough, and that there wasn’t enough time to finish the remaining 25%.  

One of Jameson’s work patterns was that he would begin an assignment, panic part way through about not having enough time, and end up wasting even more time in that panic zone.  Thus, his fear of not having time was self-fulfilled as he squandered a lot of his afternoons stressing out. Knowing this pattern, I gave Jameson 10 minutes of “Worry Time”, during which he focused entirely on listing the specific aspects of this assignment he was stressed about. When the timer went off, “Worry Time” would be over and work would begin.

Once we had the list of fears, I told Jameson it was time to investigate each one. By shifting our attention towards an investigation, Jameson’s tears halted and he became intensely curious about what evidence we might uncover. We started with his biggest fear: that what he had wasn’t good enough.  “Well, there’s only one way to find out,” I announced as I handed him the project instructions sheet, “so start reading me the directions.” Thinking like the teacher, I created a scoring rubric based on the criteria Jameson read aloud. Then, we evaluated his work based on the rubric. As it turned out, he was actually about 90% finished, and the pieces he had done scored quite well. “Well, let’s cross that fear off the list, buddy, because it clearly doesn’t exist!” I exclaimed. Jameson faltered at first, but soon realized there wasn’t really any use fighting the point: He’d self-assessed his work using the guidelines of the project and it was looking great.

We moved on to the second fear: that there wasn’t enough time to complete the rest. Now that he knew there was actually only 10% remaining, we made a list of the things he still needed to do, we over estimated how much time each one would take, and then we made a plan for the rest of the evening. Jameson used the 30/30 app to list his tasks and the time each would take. We also included a bonus 10-minutes of “Worry Time” so that Jameson had a chance - and the time for that opportunity - to acknowledge his stress. When we were done inputting our list into the app, it showed us Jameson’s end time if he got started right away: 7:46pm. Not too late at all.

Through our work together, Jameson gradually learned to evaluate his work based on the actual standards of the assignment - those given by the teacher - and not his own standards of what “perfect” meant. In addition, he often began to effectively use his “Worry Time” as a chance to acknowledge his concerns and evaluate their validity. Sometimes, “Worry Time” was followed by this guided meditation app or breathing exercises when Jameson needed an extra boost of emotional regulation. And finally, Jameson began to work with his tendencies by allowing for the actual amount of time different tasks take him (compared to the amount of time he thought it should take him), when planning his work.  

These new management habits didn’t completely stop Jameson from ever doubting the quality of his work, or himself. Rather, these tools and strategies armed Jameson with options for coping with perfectionism whenever he struggled to produce an assignment for school.  

When a student has perfectionist tendencies that hinder productivity and confidence, it’s important to have the right support on board. Oftentimes, a counselor or therapist working in tandem with an Executive Function coach can form an effective team to keep harmful effects of perfectionism in check.

Do you know a child who could benefit from support to manage academic anxiety? Contact us below to find out how coaching can be part of the solution.

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About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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