Perfectionism and the Gifted Student

  • By Alison Kingsley, Extended Services Psychologist, Barrington 220

    When perfectionism leads to a pursuit of excellence, it is a positive trait, inspiring students to set high standards, seek challenges, and do their best work. However, perfectionism can become a destructive force when a child becomes preoccupied with creating a perfect end product, fearful of making mistakes, and disinterested in the process of learning. Extreme perfectionism can lead some students to make endless revisions of their work while others may refuse to attempt any challenging assignments. Perfectionism can also lead to intolerance for mistakes or imperfections in one's self and in others. As a result, these students can become self-critical, competitive, and rigid, which interferes with their performance at school as well as their interactions with teachers, parents, and peers. The desire to maintain perfect grades can also affect the choices students make in high school and college, when a fear of failure can drive them to choose unchallenging courses, avoid new experiences, and set low goals that they know they can easily exceed. Debilitating perfectionism can lead to many negative academic and emotional outcomes including underachievement, anxiety, depression, and withdrawal.

    While the underlying causes of perfectionism can be different in every student, gifted students may be especially prone to perfectionism for several reasons. Some research suggests that gifted students are especially adept at envisioning ideals, forming a concept of perfect work or thinking of ways to improve almost anything. This ability, combined with their superior intellect and intense emotions, can put them at risk for believing that perfection must always be their goal. Some students develop perfectionism through social learning, based on their observations of parents or teachers who model perfectionist behaviors. Concerned that a gifted student may be underachieving or unchallenged, adults sometimes send a message that the student should be held to a higher standard and should consistently produce work that is better than that of their peers, no matter what the task. It is important to remind these students that perfection is not a classroom expectation and that while they may know how to go above and beyond what is being asked of them, it is often more important to demonstrate mastery of the material and move on to new challenges.

    The pressure to be perfect may also come from the extreme praise that gifted students often hear in their early elementary years, when many academic tasks are quickly mastered. These students may begin to notice that they can turn in perfect work with relative ease, while their classmates seem to expend more effort and make more mistakes when faced with the same material. This can lead gifted students to believe that schoolwork should always be easy and that they must continuously live up to the standard set by their early successes. Faced with this, the perfectionist child becomes risk avoidant and rejects opportunities to learn out of fear that expending a great deal of effort or making mistakes will reveal that they really are not that smart (or gifted) after all. The nature of praise also has an effect on students' perceptions of their own ability. Praising a child for being smart or gifted can create a mindset that ability is a fixed trait beyond the child's control. Recent studies have shown that when students are praised for their effort ("You worked hard on that.") instead of their innate ability ("You are very smart at this."), they are more likely to choose more challenging tasks and take academic risks when learning new material. When faced with failure, students who are praised for being smart view this as proof of the limits of their ability, something they can not control. Students who are praised for their effort assume that if they improve their focus and perseverance, they can improve their performance.

    Effective learning involves the ability to consider different approaches to novel problems and a willingness to take risks in pursuing a goal. Students must also be flexible enough to identify ineffective strategies and change their approach as needed. Extreme perfectionism leads students to "shut down" when faced with a new challenge if they fear that their initial approach may not be the right one. If a student has typically been able to master academic tasks with little effort, the idea of not getting it right the first time can be intimidating. It is not unusual for a student in this situation to declare the task to be boring, useless, or impossible. This can lead to work avoidance, procrastination, and underachievement. These students are sometimes perceived to be unmotivated when, in fact, they are highly motivated to create a perfect end product and if that does not seem possible, doing nothing at all appears to be a safer alternative. This all-or-nothing approach can lead students to perceive themselves as perfect successes or total failures. It is important that gifted students learn that not everything will be easy for them because every learner is different and that all students, regardless of ability, need to develop problem-solving strategies and strong study skills in order to be successful in school.

    Whether perfectionism is innate or learned, there are many ways to nurture productive perfectionism and discourage debilitating or destructive perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism that leads to persistence and the ability to learn from mistakes contributes to academic success. Adults can support gifted students by surrounding them with the message that acceptance, approval, and academic success are not dependent on perfect performance. Praising effort, engagement, strategies, and persistence reinforces their understanding that the process of learning is as important as the finished product or the final grade. Parents and teachers can encourage students to pursueexcellence, not perfection, and view setbacks as opportunities. Gifted students who set high goals, are open to new challenges, strive to put forth their best effort and learn from their mistakes will develop as inquisitive, confident, and capable learners.



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