Perfectionist Child: Lesson and Expert Tips

It can be heartbreaking to watch a student struggle through an assignment, especially when the student knows the material and has the ability to successfully complete it and move on.

The desire for perfection doesn’t have to be crippling, of course. Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, writes in her book that perfectionism can be a positive trait if it means the child has high standards. High standards, after all, can lead to high achievement.

But some students often take their desire for excellence and accomplishment to unhealthy levels, stymieing their work and throwing up roadblocks to their own success. These children see every school assignment and extracurricular activity as another opportunity to fail. They often fear bad grades and disappointing their teachers and parents, who have high expectations for them. For some students, that drive for perfection can lead to anxiety and depression.

perfectionist child

Recommended Grade Level: Elementary and Middle

SEL Skill(s): Emotion Regulation

Duration: 30 minutes

Materials: Embracing self improvement worksheet (available when logged in to your Centervention educator account)

Perfectionism Versus Self-Improvement Lesson

Lesson Introduction

First, explain the difference between perfectionism and striving to become the best possible version of yourself by embracing improvement and progress. You might want to say something like: 

“Some people think they have to be the best or perfect at everything.  A strength doesn’t have to mean that we are the best or perfect at it.  A strength can be something that we are good at, but want to improve upon.”

Today we are going to learn how to do our best while facing challenges. And we will change our beliefs and ways of thinking as a way to accept ourselves.

Group Discussion

As a group, talk through and discuss what your students think about these 2 different approaches to learning.   

Perfectionism looks like:

  • Fearful  to make mistakes
  • Sets impossible goals and standards 
  • Doesn’t want to fail so won’t try something new or take risks
  • All or nothing thinking/extremes like perfect or failure

Self Improvement:

  • Sees both strengths and weakness and feels OK with it
  • Knows strengths and weaknesses change over time
  • Sets challenging goals that are realistic
  • Motivated by learning and improving
  • Accepts  all qualities of oneself 

Discuss with the class some everyday examples of how we choose to learn and improve that could fit into either of these 2 categories: “Perfectionism” and “Self-Improvement.”

“Can you show me again the steps I can take to make my tennis serve more accurate?”
“This is my tennis serve and it’s fine the way it is.  I don’t want to try a new way.”

“I’m just so smart.”
“I spent a lot of time learning how to do that math problem.”

“I can’t wait to win the tournament.”
“I went to practice every day this week and worked hard so I’m prepared for the tournament.”

“I’m such a bad drawer that I’m not even going to try to draw that dog.”
“I’m going to try to learn the first steps in drawing a dog’s face.”

“I don’t want to try because I’ll look so ridiculous.”
“I’ll give it a shot and try my best.  I’ll laugh at the mistakes.”

“I’m not playing the game because I don’t know how.”
“I’ll watch first and then jump in and try.  I’ll ask if I don’t understand.”

“I’m not raising my hand because I might be wrong.”
“I’ll answer the part I think I know.  If I’m wrong, I’ll find out why.”

“I’m going to get every answer right on the science test.”
“I’m going to review the lesson 10 min each day so I understand it.”

Additional discussion:

Encourage students to reflect on what they have learned.  What are some emotions that someone might feel who is a perfectionist?  What are the emotions that someone might feel who is striving towards making progress and getting better?

You could say, “ We are all striving to get better and learning to accept our strengths and flaws. We are each a constant work in progress, changing, and growing.  This is what makes each of us unique as we understand and see our own challenges as a motivation to get better.  The perfectionist is more worried about making mistakes or trying something new because they are scared of failing.  We want to have a growth mindset, knowing that we can all change and make progress for self improvement over time. We will always make mistakes and can accept them as a challenge.”


Provide each student with a “Embracing Self-Improvement” worksheet.

Helping Perfectionist Students at Home

Parenting a perfectionist can be tough, but it’s crucial to find ways to show them that the process is more important than the final grade or outcome.

“Perfectionism is a way of managing fear,” said Phyllis Fagell, school counselor, therapist and author of “Middle School Matters.” “That’s why it’s so hard to combat.”

To help their kids, parents must uncover their child’s underlying fear, Fagell said. Are they worried about letting their parents or teachers down? Do they wonder who they are if they don’t shine in every aspect of their academic lives?

At the same time, parents should model good behavior themselves, Fagell said. Share with your child examples of when you’ve failed and what happened next.

Through books, introduce them to stories of other people, from fictional characters to successful professionals, who have experienced failure. And, she said, don’t forget to laugh when something goes awry, whether it’s falling over while attempting a yoga pose or forgetting an ingredient in the cake you’re baking together.  

“It’s really hard to be stressed and laughing at the same time,” she said. “It’s even better if you can be laughing and making those mistakes together.”

If your child is struggling with perfectionism, here’s what experts say you should do in the moment.

Take a break, consider the odds

“If you see them getting frustrated, remove them from the situation. Put it away for awhile—maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s the next day, depending on when it’s due. Say, ‘We’re going to do something totally and completely different, and then we’re going to come back to it.’”

Once they return to the project, determine what still needs to be done, but also ask them what, if anything, is actually wrong with their work and what the odds would be of failure if they turned it in as is.

Dr. Michael PostmaExecutive Director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted

Draw the line

“On those nights when kids just can’t seem to finish a project, it’s time to set some boundaries. If your kid is working until all hours of the night, you might have to get in there and set some rules. Give them a half hour warning. Say, ‘We’re going to power down. If your work isn’t perfect, that’s OK. If you want me to let your teacher know I told you that you have to go to sleep, we can write an email together.’ If it’s a younger child, you can write it for them. You do have to be patient because kids who are perfectionists are trying to deal with uncertainty and trying to have some sense of control. It’s easier to hide behind perfection than to admit weakness.”

Phyliss FagellSchool counselor, therapist and author of Middle School Matters

Embrace the mistakes

“Let your child know that it is OK to make mistakes. Do not expect perfection from your child. Mistakes are for learning and they are good. As a whole, our culture expects far too much perfection from children.  Don’t get caught up in that. Talk to your child about how mistakes are part of the learning process.”

Paige LindblomCommunity Outreach Director at Wildrock

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