Pressure to be Perfect

A colleague put this article in my mailbox yesterday. It is an interesting read and spot on with some concerns I have been witnessing at home. My daughter struggles to be “perfect” while her twin brother does just fine, content to do what needs to be done and calling it good. They are on the brink of thirteen, but my foggy recollection tells me it began when they entered middle school if not a little before. This post will be a bit personal, with some speculations, but bear with me.

In her first year of middle school, my sweet daughter was a wreck. She would stress over school more than anyone I had ever met. I became so frustrated with her behavior choices and that only made matters worse. When she told me (more yelled at me) that she would rather die than have to finish her homework or study for a test, I knew there was a serious problem. This was not simply the onset of hormones.

I called the pediatrician and they scheduled us to see an in-house psychiatrist the next morning. Oh, she was not happy with me in the car on the way to the appointment! Though she declared she was not going to say a word to the doctor, thereby proving I would be wasting my money on this visit, she did talk a little. By the end, we uncovered that she stressed immensely about school work because she believed the stress was what enabled her to get good grades. What?!?! From her own mouth, she told the doctor this. I was floored and incredibly sad because of what came next. The doctor spoke to me alone and told me he recommended this, that, and the other, but that nothing was going to change until she saw the stress as a problem. Because she saw it as necessary for her success, there would be no reason for her (in her mind) to think this was a problem and therefore try to solve it.

*Just to alleviate your worries, dear reader, we have managed to reduce her reactions to the stress of school work through increased water consumption and dietary changes. She still has her moments, but they are much less frequent and I am relieved.*

Back to the article – When I read this article from New York Times, I found myself so thankful. This “perfection problem” is not just my daughter. I am also sad for all of those girls and their parents as I understand the stress and pain of it. Just as is written in the article, my daughter will write a paragraph when a sentence was all that was needed. Unfortunately, when her teachers commend her for being so thorough with her work, and putting in the extra time and effort to write more than needed, she feels the expectation has now been set to always write a paragraph instead of a sentence. On the flip side, my son will write the sentence, get the A, and be completely content.

As a teacher, I understand the intentions of the teachers applauding the extra work. It has become more frequent for students to turn in sub-par work than to put in extra effort. To find the gem who wants to spend more time learning YOUR subject – well that must be rewarded! However, I am coming to the realization that the extra time and work  does not always mean extra learning. My daughter does not go above and beyond because the curriculum intrigues her and she can’t get enough, she goes above and beyond because she wants to please the teacher. She would never claim to be perfect, or even acknowledge she is striving for perfection, but I think subconscious or not, she wants teachers to think she wants to be “perfect” and has put a tremendous amount of pressure on herself in the process.

Where do we go from here? Recognizing this is a problem is the first step. I am going to work on helping my perfection-seeking students to find the confidence they need without all the extra stress. I am going to work on directing my praise in a manner that boosts confidence. What does that look like? I don’t quite know yet, but I’ll keep you posted 😉

One strategy that I found success with this past week was a differentiated project. I pulled my top students into a group and shared with them that they were tasked with a completely different project than the rest of the class. Why? I told them! They are very good at student-ing. They know how to answer questions, follow checklists, and give me what I ask for when I tell them exactly what I am expecting. This project, however, was a challenge. I did not give them a checklist, not even a rubric (gasp!), but instead a paragraph description of what the problem was they were to address, the state standards they were working toward, and a wide-open platform. They were in shock. One girl, turned to head back to her desk and said, “Well, now I know I’ll have a C.” In that moment, I felt like a terrible teacher. I was setting them up for failure. I was ruining their lives. Then, I imaginary slapped myself in the face, and remembered I had a purpose for doing this. I put on my smile and reminded all of them I was giving them this challenge because I knew they could do it and I was excited to see what they came up with. Of course, their projects were well-crafted, demonstrated understanding, and they were all anxious to present to the class! Best part, I did not receive one, single, parent email asking me if I’d lost my mind 🙂 Now I need to figure out how to praise them in a way that will build their confidence and not reward stress. Oy! Teaching is hard 😉

 

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