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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

The Pressures of Perfectionism

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High-achieving students may be silently struggling with anxiety—but schools can relieve the pressure.

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Social-emotional learning
The Pressures of Perfectionism
Credit: Vicky Scott / Ikon Images
Daniella, a 10th grader, appears to have it all: She is a three-sport athlete in honors and AP classes where she earns As and Bs. She performs well on standardized tests. She even forgoes her lunch period to participate in both orchestra and band.
But Daniella is burned out and anxious. She gets home from practice at 6:00 p.m., eats dinner, and tackles hours of homework and studying. Saturdays are filled with competitions and family obligations. She is always on the go—and everything feels equally important to her.
When her parents encourage her to take a break or eliminate one of her commitments, she fears her future will be ruined: She feels she has to take challenging classes, perform well in them, and participate in sports and activities to get into the best colleges.
When there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day, Daniella freezes, unable to decide where to begin. She experiences headaches, stomachaches, and has trouble sleeping. Daniella, and students like her, feel constant pressure to be the best, and their mental health suffers from the heaviness of that expectation.

The Rise of Anxious Teens

In 2012, 11.6 percent of teens were diagnosed with anxiety. Those numbers almost doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in 20.5 percent of teens worldwide dealing with symptoms of anxiety (DeAngelis, 2022). That means that for every classroom of 30 students, six students have symptoms of anxiety—and they may show no signs of it in the classroom.
A specific group of students is often overlooked in conversations regarding anxiety: high achievers. Because high-achieving students can often mask symptoms, and because they perform well on conventional measures of success in school, they rarely receive the supports they need.
Elementary schools identify high-achieving students early on, so “high achiever” becomes a label these students identify with from a young age. They compete not just against their peers but against themselves, often believing performance on assessments will “define their personhood, their intelligence, and their abilities” (Harris, 2023). If these students are not performing at a rate equal to or better than their peers, they may feel as if they are failing, and if they can no longer consider themselves—or are no longer considered within the school system—to be high achieving, their entire sense of self is shaken.
This pressure to be “perfect” is an identified source of anxiety for teens today: Clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist Jerry Bubrick sees “a lot of fear of not doing well.” Teens are experiencing high levels of “anxiety geared towards perfectionism, or needing to do their absolute best in school, beyond an intense work ethic” (Miller, Bubrick, & Anderson, 2023). As educators, we need to support students in regulating both their expectations of themselves and their emotional responses to stressors to help them academically succeed with their emotional health intact.

Ways to Remove the Pressure

From my own work with students, I have identified several actions that school systems can take, from early elementary school on, that can help students lessen their feelings of anxiety and relieve the pressure of perfectionism.

1. Rethink identity labels.

Like “high achiever,” labels such as “gifted,” “talented,” and similar terms can imply that “a child has been bestowed at birth with a multitude of blessings, destined to glide through life, advancing from success to success” (Johnson, 2021). For students already experiencing anxiety, labels like “gifted” or “talented” can set up an unrealistic standard of academic ease that ignores the reality that all students will encounter academic struggles at various points.
By moving away from labels that broadly categorize students and toward differentiated instruction that prioritizes students as individuals, schools can offer all students greater flexibility in how they navigate their learning experiences. For example, if Daniella sees herself as one of the “gifted” students, then when she encounters an academic struggle, like not understanding the unit on intermolecular forces in her honors chemistry class, she’s likely to feel too embarrassed to ask classmates or her teacher for assistance because she expects nothing less than perfection from herself. As a result, her anxiety about underperforming just keeps rising. Conversely, if the label is removed, Daniella is more likely to know that struggles happen to everyone during the learning process, and she becomes more comfortable asking for help because she’s not expecting perfection of herself. Students whose sense of self does not center on being perfect can meet academic challenges without feeling that they have let themselves, and the adults who care about them, down.

Not every assignment should be perceived as an absolute necessity; we need to help high-achieving students identify what will genuinely contribute to their growth.

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Will students still know who “gets it” faster than others? Yes. But the message to all students will be that no one is expected to be perfect at everything, so struggling does not change their self-identity. Without the label, students do not have a sense that they are defined by perfect achievement, so there is less anxiety to hold on to that label as an identifier of who they are.

2. Treat students as individuals.

When speaking with students about grades, standardized testing, and achievement, we often end up making blanket statements to whole classrooms of students. If we want students to try their best, we might make claims about the importance of a specific assessment and how it will influence students’ later successes. While some students may find this push motivating, for others, the looming idea of “If I don’t do well on this assessment, then I won’t . . .” can cause a thought spiral where the student imagines all of the potential consequences of what they ­perceive as failure.
When my own daughter was in 4th grade, one of her teachers, in an effort to motivate the students to perform their best on the NWEA MAP test, explained to her class how this test would have consequences for their placement in middle school, their placement in high school, and thus their acceptance into college eight years later. I spent much of that evening calming my daughter’s fears, as did several other parents with children in the class. With so much anxiety already internalized by these students, we cannot afford to keep repeating messages about the need to do well on assessments; they are likely already applying more pressure on themselves than we ever could.
Therefore, it is important that we know our students, know their expectations of themselves, and know their limits. We should be watching for signs of anxiety surrounding assessments, such as the need to compare their achievement with that of other “successful” peers or not being able to be attentive during lessons because there is a constant need to finish things and check them off a list (Buck, 2020). We need to know which students need to be pushed and which need to be told to try their best while being reassured that one assessment will not limit their future opportunities. We can change the language we use so that instead of saying “this test will determine . . .” we say “this assessment will show us how much you have learned or grown this year”—and treat all growth as a celebration. As trusted adults, our words impact our students, so we have to choose them carefully to promote growth and effort without inducing unnecessary anxiety.

3. Create calming study spaces.

If we want to remove some of the anxiety surrounding school achievement, we need to provide calming spaces within the school building for students to study and complete assignments. While school libraries have previously served this purpose, today “libraries are more like bustling community centers, where being at least somewhat noisy is the new normal, especially when kids are involved” (MacPherson, 2023). Libraries are now places for collaboration, creation, and ­socialization.
In contrast, some schools have created calming rooms to support students “in self-calming efforts by offering them a designated space to relax and self-regulate. It is a designated place designed to calm the senses where the student can experience calming visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli” (Whitlock, 2022). Typically, students can choose to go to a calming room, or be sent by an adult, when they feel dysregulated; however, this is a short-term solution, often used as a reaction to specific situations. In the school where I work, there has been a time limit of 10 minutes before students are expected to reenter the classroom or seek help in the counseling office.
Neither school libraries nor calming rooms are appropriate for a student who needs a relaxing environment in which to focus so that anxiety doesn’t set in. A hybrid of the two—a calming study room—would benefit students. Offering them a longer span of time, such as a free period, study hall, or lunch in a quiet space with comfortable lighting and furniture could help them proactively address anxiety symptoms while progressing with their studies.

4. Prioritize self-awareness and ­self-management.

Most important, we need to include social-emotional learning in all classrooms. The CASEL Framework identifies five interrelated areas—including self-awareness and self-­management—to help students develop into healthy, ­competent adults.
Self-awareness “includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose” (CASEL, 2023). To avoid the anxiety that comes with overcommitment and perfectionism, a student needs to be able to identify their own limits. For example, when registering for courses, a teacher or counselor could suggest to Daniella that maybe a fourth AP course would be too much since she also has time commitments outside of the school day. She may need someone to help her look at her weekly schedule because Daniella may not even be aware of all that she has put on her plate.

The pressures of perfectionism have contributed to a generation of students who struggle to identify when they are doing enough and when they simply are enough.

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Self-management “includes the abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations” (CASEL, 2023). Identifying stressors, and knowing how to respond appropriately to them, can mitigate feelings of anxiety. When high-achieving students experience stress, they may feel they need to push through it, even at the cost of their well-being. Self-awareness can help students identify achievable goals, while self-management can help them regulate emotions and maintain balance in relation to pursuing their goals. These are skills that will not only benefit them as students, but will be valuable throughout their adult lives. And that is one of the measures of our success as educators—whether or not our students have the skills to be successful after high school.
To model self-awareness and self-management for students, we need to create a classroom culture where teachers and students talk openly and honestly about standardized tests, grades, and performance-related stressors. We need to be honest about how assessment scores will be used and help students focus on growth rather than fears about long-term perceived failure. We have to stop scaring students into performing well. We can have fair late work policies, encourage reassessment, and even let a student choose not to complete a formative assignment if they are feeling overwhelmed. This can only happen if we know our students and engage in one-on-one conversations about their learning and life. Not every assignment or opportunity should be perceived as an absolute necessity; we need to start helping high-achieving students identify what will genuinely contribute to their growth as a student and as a balanced, successful individual.

A Pivotal Moment

With so many of our students experiencing symptoms of anxiety, we have reached a pivotal moment in education. Schools and teachers can keep pushing students, sending the message that they need to take all the most difficult courses, excel on every assessment, and participate in multiple clubs or sports. But we know the outcome of this messaging for our already highly successful students like Daniella: They will always feel the need to do and achieve more.
These pressures have contributed to a ­generation of students who struggle to identify when they are doing enough and when they simply are enough. Educators have the ability to prevent many of these feelings of anxiety that high-achieving students experience. Our words and our actions need to communicate to students that we understand who they are—we value their success but do not need them to be perfect, as none of us are. If we can take away that impulse to keep pushing no matter the cost, we can help nurture healthier, happier students.
References

Buck, T. (2020, November 5). 5 Anxiety-provoking habits among high achievers. Psychology Today.

CASEL. (n.d.). What is the CASEL framework? https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/what-is-the-casel-framework

DeAngelis, T. (2022). Anxiety among kids is on the rise. Wider access to CBT may provide needed solutions. American Psychological Association, 53(7).

Harris, P., II. (2023, February 9). Competition can motivate, encourage and inspire students. But it can also harm them. EdSurge.

Johnson, V. (2021, August 27). ‘Gifted programs’ need to change their name. The Globe and Mail.

MacPherson, K. (2023, May 12). It’s okay for libraries to be loud! Take it from me, a librarian. Washington Post.

Miller, C., Bubrick, J., & Anderson, D. (2023). How anxiety affects teenagers. Child Mind Institute.

Whitlock, K.(2022, August 25). Creating calming rooms. Alexander Youth Network.

Lauren Katzman is a high school English teacher and literacy and performing arts division head at Lake Zurich High School in Lake Zurich, Illinois, for Community Unit School District 95.

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