When Homework and Perfectionism Collide

Does your child erase and redo homework over and over again until it’s just right?  Is anything less than 100% not good enough?  Welcome to the world of perfectionism, where unrealistic expectations are daily and unrelenting.  Perfectionists engage in frequent hypercritical self-talk, bringing themselves down and creating a whole lot of stress within the family.  With these children, the goal is to change their mindset.  Begin by using the following techniques:


Reward efficiency, not grades

Studies show that the majority of perfectionist children have parents that are demanding and overly critical.  Although this certainly isn’t the case with every child, it’s important for parents to pay attention to how they act and react when it comes to grades.  Let’s say your daughter brings home a 90% on a writing project.”  Instead of saying, “This is good, but you could have had a 100% if you had a stronger thesis statement.” Consider “Way to go!  You worked hard on this project, but didn’t spend too much time revising it.  It turned out just fine!”  Instead, praise your child’s efficiency when she gets her work done in a timely manner without redoing it multiple times.


Help to make a homework plan

When it comes to homework, perfectionists sometimes procrastinate because they fear the work they will produce won’t be good enough.  Having a homework plan helps them to feel in control and more confident.  Encourage her to start with an easy task followed by a hard one, and to repeat this sequence (easy, hard, easy, hard). In essence, she’s easing herself into homework by starting with something she likes.  Later, she’s rewarding herself after a tough assignment with an easy one.


Switch gears

If you see that your child is spending an inordinate amount of time on one homework assignment, switch gears.  At this point there are three choices.  The first is that she can either quickly finish it up with the mindset that it just has to be good enough.  The second is that she can take a much-needed break away from all homework, and the third is to switch subjects and go back to that assignment later with a fresh frame of mind.


Stick with a schedule

Starting homework at the same general time each day helps to reduce procrastination.  It’s perfectly fine to help your child get started if needed.  Take a few minutes to discuss the assignment and watch your child begin before you leave the room.  More important than a start time is an ending time for schoolwork.  Many students will correct and revise their work well into the evening.  Have a family policy such as, “All homework must be completed by 9pm.”  Remind your child that the final product just has to be “good enough.”


Empathize, do not criticize

Try to steer clear of comments like, “Stop worrying about that,” or “You don’t always have to be perfect.” Instead, empathize with her insecurities.  “I can understand why you’re worried about reciting your poem.  All of the children will be in front of the class, too.  You’ll be part of a group,” or “I realize that you want to correct your paper, but at this point, your essay has all the qualities the teacher expects according to the directions.”


Quell test-taking anxiety

For many, perfectionist characteristics spill over to preparing for exams and test-taking.  Studies show it helps when students write down their worst fears right before the test. Students who do this perform just as well as their non-anxious peers.  But students who do not take the time to jot down their anxieties perform poorly compared to the other two groups.  Taking time to release worries can make a big difference when it comes to test-day performance.


Know when you need outside help

For some children, perfectionism is just the tip of the iceberg.  If your child’s symptoms are interfering with homework completion on a regular basis, consider seeking therapy.  A good therapist can tackle the “all-or-nothing” and “worst case scenario” thinking that hampers your child.  Better yet, she will give you the strategies to make sure these perfectionist qualities don’t spiral downward.  Perfectionism can be embedded in anxiety.  It’s important that it is treated so that it does not result in depression or other mental health disorders.


Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring and Test Prep in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make learning less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at anndolin.ectutoring.com or ectutoring.com.