By nature I am a rule follower and a perfectionist. So receiving a paper marked up in red was horrifying for me as a student. I remember one teacher in particular would circle any misspelled words or misplaced punctuation and draw a gigantic frowny face next to it.
Whenever I had assignments for that teacher, especially in-class work or tests, I would freeze up, paralyzed by the fear that I would misspell something or make a grammatical error. I can remember intentionally deciding to use different words that were easier to spell. I would also write less on purpose so that there would be a smaller chance of a mistake.
Many kids go through a perfectionist stage, and like me, they will sometimes freeze up, choose not to write, or select different, easier words to spell, often at the expense of the clarity of their message or the quality of their writing.
So how can we help the perfectionists in our classrooms?
Speaking as a lifelong sufferer of perfectionism, one thing I can say for sure is this: Encourage them in every way possible to make mistakes, to give things their best try, and move on. Make your classroom a place where mistakes are expected and celebrated, and something to be learned from, not feared.
Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Model encountering difficulty. In minilessons, during shared writing, or during small group work–any time you are writing in front of kids–try to model what you do when you encounter a tricky word. Stop. Think aloud. Say out loud, “I don’t know exactly how to spell this word, but I’m going to use what I know to give it my best try.” Then continue thinking aloud as you spell the word as best you can and move on.
- Coach students not to spend forever figuring out a word. In conferring and small group work, interactive writing, or other guided writing situations, you can use short, transferable phrases to help student give the word their best attempt without spending too much time on it. A perfectionist student is going to try to replicate whatever you do together in a conference–so if you spend five minutes solving a word together, watch out, that is literally what the student will attempt to do every time. Say things like, “You gave it a try. Now move on.” or “That’s it! You wrote the word. Now keep going.”
- Be wary of teaching students to use dictionaries or long word lists to look up words. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place, but be sure the resource matches the students’ independent reading level (or easier) so that the resource can be used quickly and efficiently, rather than becoming another tool that takes students away from their writing for minutes at a time. For many students, dictionaries might best be saved for final edits on a published piece, rather than during the generating ideas or drafting phases.
- Try switching to pens and teaching students to cross things out instead of erasing. This might be painful for some students at first, but with lots of encouragement and positive feedback about making multiple attempts, pens can make a HUGE difference. Try saying things like, “Wow! I am noticing that you’ve crossed out a lot of words! That’s so great! I can literally see your hard work! That’s exactly what I do when I’m writing, too. I make a lot of changes as I go.” Make it a point to highlight and display work with cross-outs, celebrating the process and the hard work, instead of only displaying perfect-looking writing.
- Teach students a few simple strategies for giving tricky words their best try. One of my favorite “Let it Go” strategies (as in, let the perfectionism go) is to write the word three times on a scrap of paper or in the margin, choose the best one, and move on. An even simpler version is to teach kids to write the word as best they can and circle it if they know it still might not be perfect. Grown ups do this all the time – we write sp? next to words, put asterisks next them, underline them, just to show that we know it’s not spelled perfectly but we’re not wasting valuable time to worry about it too much. Let it (the perfectionism) go!
The month of March is a good time to consider who in your classroom (including yourself) may be showing signs of being a bit of perfectionist (and not in a good way). By now you know your students really well, and they trust you.
And, if you’re participating in the March Slice of Life Story Challenge with us this month, then you too can practice being not-too-much of a perfectionist all month long.
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.