Over the past few years, NACE has partnered with a team of researchers headed by Professor Andrew P. Hill at York St John University, focusing on perfectionistic characteristics in highly able learners. This work arose from and has augmented our awareness of the potentially harmful impact of perfectionistic traits, the increasing prevalence of such traits, and the capacity of schools to make effective interventions.
An independent charity dedicated to supporting schools to improve provision for more able learners and challenge for all, NACE’s work is grounded in a set of core principles. These have at their heart the belief that providing for more able learners is not about labelling, but about creating a curriculum and learning opportunities which allow all children to flourish. This holistic ethos underlies the support we provide for schools and our research ventures, including the “perfectionism literacy” intervention outlined below.
The context: understanding perfectionism and its impact
When students are perfectionistic, they place unrealistic expectations on themselves and others, or report experiencing pressure from others to be perfect (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). The expectations can pertain to a range of things: academic achievement, appearance, sporting achievements, or any area of life they consider important.
Being perfectionistic is already common among students, and research suggests it is increasing, with young people more perfectionistic than ever before (Curran & Hill, 2019). The Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions will certainly have done nothing to lessen these increasing levels of perfectionistic characteristics in young people.
A considerable amount of research has been dedicated to understanding the consequences of perfectionism in education and other achievement settings, with a number of reviews now available that summarise this work (eg Grugan et al., 2021).
The consequences of perfectionism for performance have been found to be complex. On one hand, there is evidence that students who are perfectionistic can outperform their peers academically. However, on the other hand, there is also evidence that students who are perfectionistic may find setbacks particularly difficult to deal with, so their motivation and performances suffer in the longer-term.
The consequences of perfectionism for mental health and wellbeing are much clearer. Students who are perfectionistic are generally likely to be more worried and anxious, and more vulnerable to a range of mental health and wellbeing difficulties. The more extreme and clinical consequences of perfectionism can include eating disorders, depression and suicidality (Limburg et al., 2017).
Being perfectionistic does not mean necessarily that students will experience these problems and many students can be supported before any problems develop. Here, schools can play a role in helping students to understand and recognise perfectionistic characteristics, and to seek additional support when needed.
Classroom intervention: developing perfectionism literacy
One way to support students is to increase their perfectionism literacy: the ability to recognise features of perfectionism, knowledge of the help available and a willingness to seek help if needed. Our project evaluated the effectiveness of a single classroom-based lesson focused on improving knowledge of perfectionism and willingness to seek support if needed.
Our research question was: “Can a single classroom-based lesson improve student-reported knowledge about perfectionism and willingness to seek support if needed?”
The content of the lesson was designed to increase familiarity with different aspects of perfectionism, its features and origins, highlight differences between perfectionism and trying one’s best, and the importance of seeking support if needed.
Our evaluation of the perfectionism literacy lesson indicates that it had a positive impact on students. Following the lesson, students reported they had more knowledge of perfectionism and better recognised the importance of seeking support if needed. The lesson therefore offers an easily implemented preventive intervention for schools to use with their students to help reduce the negative effects of perfectionism among students.
We made the following recommendations:
- The perfectionism literacy lesson is a valuable addition to the activities aimed at safeguarding mental health and wellbeing in schools. We encourage teachers to consider integrating it in to the personal, social and health curriculum for their students.
- We encourage teachers to consider the degree to which current practice in the classroom might inadvertently encourage, rather than discourage, perfectionistic thinking in their students. Unrealistic expectations, frequent or excessive criticism, anxiousness over mistakes, and public use of rewards and sanctions can all reinforce perfectionism in students.
- We recommend that schools ensure teachers can recognise the development of difficulties associated with perfectionism. In this regard, increasing perfectionism literacy among teachers is a useful way of supporting student wellbeing. The resources used in the lesson, and the learning that arises from preparing for and developing the lesson, are one way to do so.
The resources developed for this intervention are available free for all schools, along with guidance on how to use the materials, a full intervention evaluation report, suggested lesson plan, PPT, additional reading, and videos for staff and students.
To learn more about NACE and York St John University’s work in this field and access all of these free resources, visit the NACE perfectionism collection
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.
Grugan, M. C., Hill, A. P., Madigan, D. J., Donachie, T. C., Olsson, L. F., & Etherson, M. E. (2021). Perfectionism in Academically Gifted Students: A Systematic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 1-43.
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470.
Lakens, D. (2013). Calculating and reporting effect sizes to facilitate cumulative science: a practical primer for t-tests and ANOVAs. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 863.
Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10), 1301-1326.