Perfectionism in the Elementary Music Classroom

by Stephanie Owen

I self-define myself as a perfectionist and it has often brought me feelings of failure, disappointment, and anxiety. Even as a child I can remember the worry and the sense of panic I would feel over things that- looking back not- did not matter. I would spend hours thinking of a conversation that didn’t go as I liked and imagine what I could have done better. What would have happened if I had just said this? I can remember the strong need I had, and still have, to make sure my schoolwork was neat and tidy. If it wasn’t? Well, I would erase and start again. As a college sophomore, I played a leading role in a musical and literally made myself sick from the anxiety I created for myself. Even as a graduate student I often have to take a step back and assess myself. Will it be the end of the world if I don’t get an A on this assignment? Will it prevent my graduation? When I do this, I realize that the majority of the stress I experience in life is my own doing. Nobody has as high expectations of me as myself, and that’s good right? Except when it’s not.

So, if I feel this way and have these experiences, I can’t be the only one. Do my students feel this way? Is there something I can do in my instruction to help them and give them the support they need? We often see discussions of the prevalence of perfectionism in University music students but what if we could prevent or stop them before they get there? In this post, I will discuss what perfectionism is, give strategies and interventions that can be used in the elementary music classroom, and emphasize the importance of these strategies and interventions.

What is perfectionism?

Being a perfectionist can be complicated. A child may strive to be a perfectionist in math class but not give a second thought to English. An adult may have the most organized desk at their office yet have piles of garbage in their car floorboards. This is because perfectionism is multidimensional [Flett et al 2012, Flett et al. 2016, Hewitt et al 1996, Rice & Preusser 2002]. There are many different aspects to it and as a result, it can be difficult to measure and predict. Scientists have tried to tackle this complex subject for years and have developed some theories.

Adaptive perfectionism is defined as the behaviors we see that are used to better a person’s performance [Kottman & Ashby 2000, Rice & Preusser 2002]. These behaviors in the elementary classroom might look like a student who is conscientious, has neat handwriting and work, organized, engaged in class discussions, and asks questions that are relevant to the subject among others. These behaviors are seen as healthy; however, even these behaviors can have negative effects when taken to extremes [Kottman & Ashby 2000].

Maladaptive perfectionism are the behaviors we see that cause extreme levels of anxiety to meet a person’s excessive level of expectations [Kottman & Ashby 2000, Rice & Preusser]. These behaviors in the elementary music classroom can be, but are not limited to, erasing and rewriting time and time again to get it “just right”, having an all or nothing attitude which can result in many zeros in the grade book, refusing to participate in class discussions to avoid embarrassment, reacting to situations with extreme emotions of sadness or anger, blaming others for their mistakes, and tendencies to focus only on negative qualities.

While you were reading that list, did a student who you would never associate with perfectionism come to mind? That’s because these maladaptive behaviors look very similar to behaviors we would associate with immaturity or socio-emotional weaknesses. In fact, perfectionism is prevalent in many types of disorders [Evans et al. 1997, Flett & Hewitt 2012]. We often associate these behaviors with children that have been labeled gifted but not to our students who don’t have that label. The sad truth is that perfectionism is no more prevalent in gifted and talented students than typical students [Parker and Mills 1996]. Perhaps some of the struggles we see with our typical students are a result of their excessively high standards, but they don’t have to resources to cope when they aren’t achievable.

Two more terms used within perfectionism are Self-Oriented Perfectionism and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. These terms were primarily coined through the work of Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt among others. They define Self-Oriented Perfectionism as high personal standards that drive an individual to achieve [Flett et al. 2016]. This can lead to intrinsic motivation and in healthy amounts, has positive links with school effort enjoyment. However, extreme amounts can lead to compulsive behavior that suggests these individuals are not entirely using self-determination [Flett et al. 2016].

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism is defined by Flett [Flett et al. 2016] as the perception that other people demand perfection from the self. This can include peers but a primary source in children and adolescents come from parents [Botha & Panebianco 2018, Haimovitz & Dweck 2016]. Socially Prescribed Perfectionism had strong links with suicide [Hewitt et al. 1996, Roxborough et al. 2012]. People who have high levels can experience social isolation, low self-esteem, depression, and a sense of hopelessness [Flett et al. 2016]. These are all high-risk factors for suicide. High levels of Socially Prescribed Perfectionism also result in excessive amounts of anxiety when the person put extra pressure on themselves. In a study presented by Patricia Marten DiBartolo and Sara Pierotti Varner [2011], they presented an object and asked children to name as many uses for the object as they could. There were six rounds with goals: two high number goals, two low number goals, and two goals where the children picked their own goal. Children who scored higher with Socially Prescribed Perfectionism reported more anxiety across all rounds, even the rounds with low number goals or rounds where the child picked the goal themselves. These children also stated that they should have performed better than their peers. Despite this, these children reported the same level of satisfaction as their low Socially Prescribed Perfectionism peers. This is alarming in that it suggests these children not only place more pressure on themselves, but they also might feel the need to put on a façade.

Extreme Socially Prescribed Perfectionism has numerous features that make it difficult to rehabilitate once it is present [Flett & Hewitt]. These features include rigid thinking, an enduring fear of failure, high levels of self-focus, and a tendency to poorly react to mistakes. The links it has with depression suggest that high amounts of Socially Prescribed Perfectionism can interfere with intervention treatments [Nobel, Manassis, Wilansky-Traynor 2011] meaning that children with high levels may not benefit as much as their low Socially Prescribed Perfectionism peers.

Preventing and lowering the prevalence of perfectionism in the elementary music classroom

Now that we are all aware of the qualities and potential perils of perfectionism you may be asking yourself: What can I, an elementary music teacher, possibly do in my short lessons twice a week to prevent something so complex and damaging? The answer is, well, a lot! I propose three things that we can incorporate in our instruction that can make a big difference: goal setting, embracing a growth mindset, and promoting self-awareness.

Goal setting

Goal setting is an important skill needed for everyone but especially perfectionists [Kottman& Ashby]. Perfectionists can often become overwhelmed and give up too quickly and setting goals is a great way to highlight and see progress. In a study by Johannes Hatfield [2016], the undergraduate music majors that were studied had little to no knowledge or experience with how to set goals. This resulted in reactive planning that negatively affected their concentration, satisfaction, self-efficacy, and failure coping skills. Several of them gave up when they were not immediately successful.

We need to teach our students how to create and set goals [Mofield & Parker Peters 2018]. We need to teach them how to identify the skills they need, break the large goal into smaller chunks, and how to place those chunks in an order to achieve our long-term goals.

Once we begin teaching our students how to set goals, we need to teach them what realistic progress looks like. A study from three colleges across the United States asked music undergraduate and graduate students the most stressful and frustrating issues they face with their major [Barney Dews & Williams 1989]. The third highest issue that the students identified was impatience with their musical development. Since perfectionists can be quick to give up when immediate success doesn’t happen, we need to make sure they understand what realistic progress looks like. Kottman and Ashby [2000] suggests making charts or graphs of actual progress and perceived progress and comparing the two. Perhaps our students will realize how unrealistic their perception of progress can be when they see it on a graph.

Embracing a Growth Mindset

A study [Barney Dews & Williams 1989] asked college music majors if a considerable amount of their self-esteem was related to how they perform, and seventy-nine percent said it was. In some studies [Kottman & Ashby 2000, Rice & Preusser 2002] it is suggested that adaptive perfectionism should be promoted and encouraged; however as our students age and their work becomes harder, those adaptive perfectionism tendencies may transform into maladaptive as they desperately try to keep up with their own high standards. I think preventing them by shifting their thoughts to a growth mindset is a more healthy and worthy investment.

In her book, Dweck [2006] defines two main types of mindset: growth and fixed mindset. Fixed mindset is the perceived idea that you are the way you are and there is not much you can do to change yourself or your intelligence. A growth mindset states that you oversee yourself and your intelligence and that with hard work, the possibilities are endless. When embracing a growth mindset, we emphasize the process and not the end product. We must reflect on the learning process itself with our students. It’s not just about putting in the time of practicing but making the time count with deliberate practice. Did we make those goals in small chunks that will lead to our big goal? Did we focus on and fix the problem area of the song or glaze over it? We also need to celebrate and give praise for personal growth. Students need to hear that they are valued beyond accomplishment and we affirm their efforts and dedication [Mofield & Parker Peters 2018].

One of the hardest things about embracing a growth mindset is recognizing that mistakes are part of the learning process [Dweck 2006]. In Virginia Wayman Davis’s article, Error Reflection: Embracing Growth Mindset in the General Music Classroom [Davis 2016], she uses the statement “That feeling of music being hard is the feeling of your brain learning.” In the study [Hatfield 2016] they found that when these college musicians would make a mistake, they would often tense up in a desperate effort to control. This caused unnecessary physical and mental tension, resulting in poor interpretation and expression. The students were then instructed to accept all their mistakes without freezing up. The students found that when they did this, they started to view performance situations as unique possibilities to try out the psychological skills they were working on. As a result, they became more resilient in their practice.

Perhaps more important than talking about growth mindset is modeling it. We should model the positive verbal processing we do [Davis 2016, Mofield & Parker 2018]. In the elementary music classroom, it might look something like this: “Oops, I forgot to lay out the mallets for our activity today. Next time I should make a list of the materials I need.” Showing our students that mistakes are normal, not a big deal, and a chance to learn is powerful.

How we react to their mistakes and failures is very important. A study by Haimovitz and Dweck [2016] showed that children’s intelligence mindset was determined by their parent’s failure mindset. Parents who viewed failure as debilitating were more likely to react with concerns to their child’s talent and performance rather than support them in their learning process. This in turn, created the child’s perception that their intelligence is fixed.

Things that we can do in the elementary classroom to promote a growth mindset are to include activities of composition, improvisation, and others where there is no single solution or answer [Davis 2016]. The music classroom is the ideal environment for this because it the nature of music itself to have infinite possibilities of solutions. This can encourage students to explore and accept new challenges without fear.

Promote Self-Awareness

Promoting self-awareness is important because our students may not realize that they are a perfectionist or that what they are feeling is anxiety. By teaching our students what perfectionism is and what it looks like, this self-awareness can become self-management. It is important that we know who our perfectionist students are and what it looks like when they struggle to cope with it. To the outward observer, a student may seem “just fine” [Mofield & Parker Peters 2018].

There will be many times when a student will need an individual intervention. Mofield and Parker Peters [2018] suggest using phrases such as “Are you thinking like a perfectionist?” in a way that doesn’t make the student feel belittled or judged. Validate the student’s fear of failure and offer support [Mofield & Parker Peters 2018]. Ask the student to think from another perspective: “What would your friends think if you made a mistake?” “If you made a mistake do you think I would judge you or love you any less?” “Have you ever seen me make mistakes?”.  In a crisis situation, the best approach may be as simple as saying “you don’t have to be perfect” or “I will still love you if you make a mistake.”

When we are able to recognize and provide interventions for perfectionism for our students, we can not only save precious class time by preventing meltdowns, but we can also provide a better outcome for our students in the future. Having children that can recognize and apply strategies to alleviate their perfectionistic tendencies means having young adults that are more willing to take risks and put less pressure on themselves when they fail. This can contribute to a lifetime of less depression and anxiety, a problem that many of us struggle with today. As we move back to our classrooms, I implore you, when you have a child who is having a meltdown, ask yourself: “Could this child be struggling with perfectionism?”  By doing this and preventing these tendencies, it can not only save valuable class time, but contribute to a better-adjusted future for the child.


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