Saraswati School

A Pioneer in Imparting School Education




Nearly everything about the modern world is about striving for excellence, and for some it is about striving for perfection. Is there such a thing as perfect? All around them, students are being lead to believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable; body image, educational or sporting achievements, what they possess, relationships. The media has played a huge part in steering these concepts, and also some parents, but what of the education world? Pressure for schools to be excellent, teaching to be excellent and pupils’ achievements to be excellent has increased ten-fold. There are of course excellent schools, teachers and pupil achievements, all of which are highly commendable, but where does the next ‘push’ push them towards? Is it realistic to expect perfection, and what is the impact of perfectionism on individuals?

When it comes to perfectionism, ‘anything less than a perfectly met goal is deemed as failure’. Mental health issues among young people have been widely publicised of late, particularly about the increase in recognition, diagnosis and referrals, but also on how stretched and limited services are. Many of the consequential effects of perfectionism are linked to mental health issues.

Perfectionism should not be confused with healthy high-achievers in education. These pupils set achievable goals, view the process of mistakes as a way to grow and learn, bounce back quickly, take pride in their work and learn from constructive criticism. Adversely, perfectionists are rarely satisfied, view mistakes as failures, see asking for help is seen as a flaw or failure, find it difficult to accept praise, find it difficult to bounce back from disappointment, may wallow in negativity and often avoid tasks in which they feel they will not excel.

This is a ‘push’ versus ‘pull’ scenario; high achievers tend to be ‘pulled’ towards their learning goals by the desire to achieve, them whereas perfectionists are ‘pushed’ by the fear of not reaching them. Perfectionism goes far beyond natural competitiveness.

Perfectionism often starts in the early years, perhaps starting with rivalry between siblings, peers, or maybe pushy parents. Suffers feel that what they accomplish is never quite good enough. They set themselves unrealistic performance standards by setting unattainable goals that are out of reach, resulting in less success of achieving them. This creates a vicious cycle. It’s important to dispel these beliefs and break the cycle as early as possible, before negative behaviour and attitude become too embedded. Research by The University of Sydney (2011) has shown that a perfectionist attitude actually interferes with success.

The resulting effects of perfectionism can present themselves in any of the following ways:

– Fear of failure

– Fear of making mistakes

– Fear of disapproval

– Feelings of worthlessness

– Highly critical and judgmental of self and others

– High levels of anxiety

– High levels of stress

– Low self-esteem

– Low mood

– Depression

– Self-doubt

– Difficulty forming friendships

– Lack of concentration

– Avoidance

– Eating disordersstreaming

– Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD)

– Erratic sleep patterns

Lack of sleep can greatly accentuate the condition. Grace Malonai states that “sleep problems affect a child’s mood, ability to cope, and academic performance and that sufficient sleep can promote emotional resilience”.

Perfectionism is a complex condition. Almost certainly, help from teachers is needed to support the pupil to help them devise coping strategies. Here are a few ideas how to help in the classroom:

– Praise for effort; working hard is just as worthy of recognition and praise.

– Create a positive ethos of how we learn from our mistakes.

– Enable the perfectionist to support some less able students and direct them on what and how to praise even small achievements.

– There are most likely perfectionist tendencies in all of us. However, teachers are not always right and don’t know everything. It’s important for students to know that. It’s ok to say “I don’t know”. It can be an opener for discussion: “How can we find out?”

– Set pupil targets in small steps. If the student is setting their own targets, are they being realistic?

– Group work, team work and paired activities help students to feel part of group success, and can help them to realise that if they don’t achieve the intended result others are also involved so takes away individualised disappointment.

– Involve the pupil’s parents / carers as soon as possible. Their support is crucial. Positive communication is essential and you need the parents on-board so that the student is supported in a consistent manner.

– Draw on a pupil’s strengths. They may be more successful with creative activities rather than academic ones. It’s important for them to know that everyone has strengths and excel in different areas.

– Promote emotional literacy. It’s okay to talk about disappointment and frustration. There is still far too much stigma attached to talking about our feelings.

– Encourage the student to ask “Can you explain that again please?” This is a positive way of asking for help if the student is afraid to say “I don’t understand.”

– Perfectionists prefer order, routine and predictability. Gently introduce situations that call for flexibility which enable the students to learn how to be more adaptable to changes.


Teachers who know their students well will quickly pick up on those students that are healthy high-achievers and those that become distressed at even the slightest disappointment and who set themselves unattainable goals. There is no quick fix but with the right support these students can overcome their difficulties. It’s important to recognize the signs at the earliest possible stage.

Categories: Education

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