In my early homeschooling days, I was sidelined by a perfectionist child. I had high hopes of correcting everything that went wrong in public school, and worked diligently to close every learning gap. I read up on every method of homeschooling there was, and chose only the best curriculum I could find. Then I started to homeschool my oldest, and my plan quickly derailed. This child had learned a level of perfectionism that no one could compete with. In her eyes, every math problem must be correct, every bit of prose perfectly written—and rewritten, and written yet again. Art was a disaster—especially anything that required free-form expression. The lack of structure was anxiety producing to her, and the constant revamping and start-overs led to a mishmash of art that looked more like mud pies.
The early days in homeschooling my perfectionist child were difficult. At first, I saw this as a reflection of my teaching skills, but I quickly learned how to help my child and myself, during this trying time.
Do You Have a Perfectionist Child?
Children may be perfectionists by nature or by learned behaviors and requirements. Regardless of the cause, helping a perfectionist child is not easy and takes time. Both teacher and student need patience and understanding to make homeschooling work with the perfectionist child.
Perfectionists set incredibly high standards for themselves and experience great pain and distress if they fail to meet those standards. Even when they have done well, they are often aware of what feel like inadequacies in their work.
Recognizing a perfectionist may not be easy. Often, they can appear lazy or unwilling to work. This is not the case at all, and in fact, some perfectionists are highly driven individuals.
Perfectionists may have some of the following traits:
- Unwillingness to answer questions or participate for fear of being wrong
- Anxiety or anger if they get work wrong, receive low marks, or make mistakes
- Excessive time taken to complete projects and tasks. Or reworking projects and tasks until “perfect”
- Inability to start tasks due to overwhelm
- Inability to complete tasks
- Not being satisfied with a standard of work which others see as acceptable
- Highly critical of others’ work or difficulty working on group projects
Perfectionism in homeschooled students is a problem in several ways. First, perfectionism not only slows children down, but it also slows their rate of learning and leads to missed learning time. These children tend to focus so deeply on the task at hand, that they miss vital instruction surrounding the topic.
Second, perfectionistic children may refuse to guess answers or try new activities. Children who don’t guess or explore possibilities in their learning have less opportunity to problem-solve.
Both the slow rate of learning and the missed learning can be detrimental to a child’s ability to learn. Homeschoolers can use several methods to help their perfectionist child.
10 Ways to Help a Perfectionist Child
Children, by nature, rarely achieve perfection in anything they do, but there are ways to help a perfectionist child start to feel okay about that. Children need our help to understand that it is normal, expected, and okay to make mistakes.
1. We need to point out to them that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. People aren't born knowing everything or being able to do everything.
2. Explain to them that goals may take longer to reach. Help them see that it takes a lot of practice to succeed in some activities and that it's normal to try and fail many times.
3. Children need to understand that some things come easily to people and some do not.
4. When correcting work, be sure to point out the areas where the child did well. A missed stepped does not equal failure. Especially in math, if the child understands the concept but calculated the final answer wrong, think about how you help them see where the error occurred: “You understood steps 1 through 6, but let’s look at step 7 again.”
5. If your perfectionist writer won’t stop revising their work, try reading back to them. Sometimes, hearing the text can help them quickly correct grammatical or contextual errors.
6. Work on helping them set deadlines for completion: “Be sure you have done all the revising you need to by 2 p.m.”
7. Encourage draft work. Perfectionist children still need to be allowed time to correct work that is subpar. Give them positive feedback and explicit direction on the areas that need attention. Highlighting draft areas that need correcting is a great way to help a child focus on that specific area. Be sure to tell them that anything not highlighted should be left as is.
8. Help children recognize the time and skill needed to reach a goal. Perfectionist kids may be overly confident in their abilities to complete a task or goal. Help them plan time, equipment, outlines, and skills needed BEFORE they start any task. Assure that they come to you frequently to assess the path they are on.
9. Encourage children to tackle small amounts of work rather than large projects at first. Shorter assignments allow for faster completion.
10. Value the effort more than the outcome. Praise efforts of guessing and trying regardless if wrong or right. Acknowledge work that is completed on time and left alone. Help your child see that it is possible to learn for the pure joy, without needing to create an end product that will be evaluated or graded.
Homeschooling can provide some relief for children who are driven to do all assignments perfectly. It can be a chance for parents and children to reduce external pressures and stress, that are often put-upon children in other educational settings.
Perfectionist children can be a challenge to teach in the homeschool setting. It can wear thin on both parent and child, but it’s important to remember that any challenge can be overcome with patience and perseverance. Spend time with your child, listen to their concerns, and help them manage their time and energy in completing the homeschool day. Remember too, when dealing with perfectionist children, that the journey is long, but it can be achieved!