November 7, 2023

Embracing Imperfection: Growth Mindset and Executive Function Skills are Key to  Managing Perfectionism

By Emma Michiels, Instructor

In the pursuit of academic excellence, many students find themselves grappling with the pressures of perfectionism. The desire to achieve flawlessness can be a compelling force, but it also brings along a set of challenges that hinder personal growth and well-being. In this blog post, we will provide practical strategies to help students combat perfectionism while fostering a mindset of growth and resilience.

Strategies to Combat Perfectionism

  • Encourage a Growth Mindset:  Growth mindset is the belief that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication, effort, and perseverance. It stands in contrast to a fixed mindset, which says that talents and intelligence are innate and unchangeable. For perfectionist students, embracing a growth mindset is crucial as it encourages them to view challenges as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than insurmountable obstacles. Here are some specific ways to encourage growth mindset:

Emphasize the journey: Shift the focus from solely achieving perfect outcomes to recognizing and celebrating the effort and progress students make. Praise students’ hard work and resilience in the face of challenges. A great way to do this is setting a reward system for each step of the task. This will allow your student to feel successful at each stage of their assignment and not worry about the overall outcome. 

Challenge Negative Self-Talk: Guide students to identify and challenge negative self-talk. Help them replace self-critical thoughts with more positive and constructive affirmations. A great way to accomplish this is to focus on having students “try their best” not strive for perfection. 

Reframe Mistakes as Opportunities: Model a healthy approach to challenges and setbacks by  demonstrating resilience, adaptability, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. One way to do this as a parent, guardian or teacher is to make a mistake on purpose and then explicitly model for the child how to work through the issue. Discuss how missteps provide valuable insights and opportunities for improvement. 

  • Use Executive Function Strategies. Executive functioning, often referred to as the “CEO of the brain,” encompasses a set of higher-order cognitive skills crucial for effective daily functioning. Executive functioning includes planning, task initiation, organization, flexibility and time management, among other skills. Perfectionism can be managed by exercising EF strategies, such as the ones outlined below.

Break tasks into chunks: Breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can make the process less overwhelming and more achievable. For example, have your students study for 30 minutes each night rather than studying for 3 hours in one night. Another way to apply this might be to help your student write out a to-do list for the test (ex. Create flashcards, attend tutorials, etc.), and then schedule each individual action item for a specific date (ex. Create flashcards Monday, attend tutorials Tuesday, etc.).

Use brain breaks: Many students find it effective to follow the Pomodoro method (Source), where they work in short, concentrated bursts (using a timer) followed by quick brain breaks. This approach can help students channel their energy and power through a task, knowing they will be rewarded on the other end with a self-selected break. This kind of structure helps motivate many students, and offers a scaffold for students’ emerging task initiation skills.

Create a “Getting Unstuck” checklist: A “Getting Unstuck” checklist empowers students to exercise their self-help skills when problem-solving. For example, if a student doesn’t know how to define a word, the checklist might suggest asking a friend or parent, looking up the word in a dictionary, or taking an educated guess using context clues. These steps provide options that students can try before giving up and/or displaying frustration. Of course, you would want to brainstorm ideas for the student’s “Getting Unstuck” checklist with him/her, to actively involve him/her in the conversation.

Perfectionism is a complex challenge that many students face, impacting their academic performance and overall well-being. By nurturing a growth mindset and exercising executive function skills and tools mentioned above, we can help students embrace the beauty of imperfection. At the end of the day, we need to remember that nobody is perfect, so just try your best!