Recognizing and Helping Gifted Adolescents Deal with their Perfectionistic Tendencies
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Suggestions for Parents and Teachers
These suggestions for parents and teachers are from Dr. Pat Schuler’s 1999 study, Voices of perfectionism: Perfectionistic gifted adolescents in a rural middle school.
- Recognize that your gifted adolescent’s intellectual and emotional characteristics are intertwined and influence each other. Understand that the personality trait of perfectionism is influenced by factors in your child’s environment that impact whether or not the manifestations will be healthy or dysfunctional. Know that perfectionism can be a positive motivator or be a cause of stress for your adolescent. Sensitize yourself to your gifted adolescent’s pressures, at home and at school. Talk with your adolescent about what perfectionism means to you and him/her.
- Understand and appreciate perfectionism as a personality trait that you may have as well as your adolescent. By recognizing the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism, you can help your child or adolescent pursue excellence, by modeling appropriate responses. Point out positive, imperfect role models in the media to help them understand that no one can be perfect.
- Learn to set priorities in your life ad help your adolescent to do likewise. Help your adolescent to realize that making mistakes is a learning experience. Model acceptance of your mistakes. Ask, “What did I/you learn from the experience?” Teach the concept of “constructive failure” whereby future improvement is dependent on present performance.
- Set high but realistic standards for yourself. Help your adolescent to have high standards for her/himself, but not to expect others to conform to them. Help your adolescent to understand that time, effort, and not giving up will help him/her reach his/her high standards.
- Help your adolescent understand that intense frustration and the pain of perfectionism can motivate him/her to become problem-solvers, hard workers, and emotionally healthy. Help him/her to understand that negative emotions are not only normal but need to be expressed in healthy ways.
- Work with your gifted adolescent to improve self-evaluation skills. Emphasize process and improvement rather than perfect products to encourage intrinsic locus of control. Praise efforts not just successes. Help him/her to understand that worth is not based on others’ evaluations of work, but that each student is responsible for his/her behaviors and the consequences.
- Show your adolescent that he/she has inherent dignity and self-worth, which are unconditional. Avoid comparisons with siblings or peers. Teach compassion for those who are less able.
- Recognize, support, and nurture your adolescent’s interests or passions that bring enjoyment to him or her. Provide time for creative activities and risk taking with safe opportunities to fail. Focus on the joy of discovery, use humor, and have fun with your adolescent.
- Teach your adolescent that health is important. Don’t let study interfere with eating and sleeping. Encourage relaxation strategies such as creative visualization.
- Seek professional counseling if your adolescent is unable to act or becomes fearful of rejection.
- Educate yourself about the intellectual characteristics and the social and emotional issues of gifted adolescents. Understand how their perfectionism, sensitivity, and intensity can be helpful or harmful to them.
- Learn and recognize the manifestations or perfectionism when it becomes stressful: a delayed start, an unwillingness to share work, refusal to turn in work or accomplish a goal; an inability to tolerate mistakes; and impatience with others imperfections.
- Expect excellence but not perfectionism from your students; talk with your students about the difference. Examine our own behaviors that encourage perfectionism. Don’t compare one student’s performance with another’s or a sibling’s.
- Encourage and role model the principle “dare to dream.” Talk with your students about how high standards can serve as motivators. Share how you have handled failure and successes in your own life. Use biographies of famous people in all subject areas to illustrate overcoming failures. Study an expert’s changing arguments or styles over time to illustrate how an individual’s ideas evolve.
- Teach the skills of task analysis, time management and goal setting in your classrooms. This will help the perfectionist to understand the value of more manageable steps.
- Teach and use the creative problem solving process. Encourage and reward creativity in thought and product. Gifted perfectionists need opportunities to use their creative abilities within a structured framework that is applicable beyond the classroom.
- Use specific criteria for assignments, projects, or products created by other students. Show your students exemplary products that other students have created. This will help the perfectionist to set realistic goals and not to be overwhelmed in thinking they have to produce beyond their capabilities.
- Help perfectionistic students to shape their thinking by setting goals and expectations prior to classroom assignments, to deal with situations as they work, and to evaluate their work during and after it is finished. Use contracts to encourage underachieving gifted perfectionists to finish or share their products.
- Provide opportunities to fail in a safe environment. Introduce gifted perfectionistic adolescents to new experiences so they can learn to take risks. Focus on open-ended activities. Offer more choices so that they don’t always choose the things at which they are most successful. This is helpful for those perfectionists who tae no chances and who go through enormous effort to ensure their success.
- Try not to grade all assignments; use pass/fail at times. Provide rewards that are connected to improvement, not perfection. Limit the use of extra credit work; perfectionists like to go above and beyond for an A+ grade, even if they are struggling in the subject.
- Focus on the perfectionistic gifted adolescent’s strengths and successes, not on the mistakes they make. Be careful about criticism because it can add to their own self-criticism for not being the perfect student.
- Be aware of gifted female adolescents putting more pressure on themselves to perform, and how teasing about being smart and/or perfectionistic is especially harmful to gifted male adolescents. Work to create a non-sexist environment and curriculum.
- Use humor in the classroom: create a “humor” bulletin board; discuss types of humor; have a joke of the day; incorporate humor in writings and problems; use humor instead of punishment; laugh at yourself.
- Learn techniques that are beneficial for gifted learners (e.g. curriculum compacting, ability grouping, acceleration opportunities). Modify and adapt current curriculum to provide more challenge.
- Use educational therapy techniques to address social and emotional issues: bibliotherapy, biography, journal writing, art, music, film, simulations and role playing, inquiry-based class, small group discussions, small group projects based on human behavior (e.g. creative individuals).
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Mary Codd has been interested in the arts and education for a long time. She has a BFA in Art Education from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a M.Ed. in Gifted Education from the University of Connecticut. She is currently the President of Acme New Media Solutions.