The Perils of Perfectionism and Delay

David Baker ’04

Upper School History Department Chair

What constitutes academic success? Many of us make the mistake of defining academic success as perfection. Considering this view, a test, essay or project isn’t a success unless it’s flawless and earns an A or A+. As a result of this mindset and message, students are likely to obsess about their work, to spend hours making endless revisions on a paper, or cram every particle of information into their heads for a test.

This frantic quest for perfection often leads students to ask teachers for extensions of deadlines or postponements of assessments. Such requests are often accompanied by statements such as, “I just need more time to make this paper better!” or “If I had just one more night to study, I know I’ll ace the test!”

• The Value of Making Mistakes 

By pursuing this false god of perfectionism, students are seeking to avoid an essential component of the educational process – making mistakes. Deep and essential learning often takes place when a student gets an answer wrong and discovers why it’s wrong, or when a student responds to a teacher’s suggestions for improving an essay. Goals are achieved during the process of learning, not by turning in the final product.

Not getting it right the first time is OK. This provides the opportunity for constructive feedback, productive adjustments, and for thoughtful revision. Just by doing the work and trying, a student is already succeeding.

But when students seek perfection, they’re trying to avoid the mistakes they actually need to make to understand the material and, more importantly, themselves. Fear of being imperfect can also erode a young person’s willingness to try new activities and experiences. A runner, who focuses solely on training only for the 200-meter dash, for instance, is missing out on the success and enjoyment to be savored by trying the 400-meter or the high jump. Those additional events can help with the 200-meter training and can lead to new growth as an athlete and competitor, even if the times and heights aren’t as competitive.

• Doing, Not Delaying

As high school students have already discovered, there are no extensions in the real world. Before firing the gun at a track meet, the starter doesn’t pause and ask the runners “Does anyone need more time to prepare for this race?” A barber doesn’t keep customers when he turns people away because he’s still perfecting his craft. An attorney doesn’t help a client if she misses the trial because she still needs more time to prepare. And future professors, bosses, or colleagues won’t say, “That’s OK; just turn it in tomorrow” when deadlines are missed.

Thus, a key responsibility of educators is to prepare students by establishing high standards, not only for the quality of academic work but for its timely and consistent completion. Students learn most effectively when expectations are high and they’ve done their best work in the time allotted to do it. Doing so helps students become more resilient and more independent as lifelong learners and as soon-to-be adults in a demanding world.

• To Delay Is To Stress

Ironically, the stress generated by continually asking for exemptions from deadlines can actually lead to lower rather than higher grades. This desperate scramble produces even more stress in students because now, rather than completing the work and being done with it, they must agonize over the assignment for an even longer period. This takes time away from their work in other classes, leading to even more academic panic. It’s better to do the work than to delay it.  

• A Healthy Balance

Adolescents today are pulled in many different directions. This requires them to learn how to plan and organize their time, balance the simultaneous and competing responsibilities of academic, athletic, extracurricular, and personal activities, and make difficult but necessary decisions about priorities, preferences, and passions. 

In my experience, students actually do better academically when they’re actively and authentically involved in a variety of activities outside the classroom. That’s because the organizational skills and resilience they’ve developed to handle competing tasks bring discipline to their studies as well. Moreover, participating in sports, performance groups, publications, and clubs provides an invigorating break that enables students to return to the classroom refreshed and re-energized.   

• True Academic Success

A complete and effective education means, not only absorbing information and mastering concepts, but also developing the self-discipline, resilience, and resourcefulness to meet the challenges and tasks of learning: to complete essays, homework and assessments on time, to do one’s best work under existing constraints, and to forsake perfect grades for true learning and a happier, less stressful life.  

Pandemic Underscores Importance of Social-Emotional Wellness

Brenna Chiaputti ’98 Middle School Counselor

Moving Toward the Post-Pandemic Future

As devastating and disruptive as the pandemic has been, it has taught us all that emotional and physical well-being are as important as academic achievement. It has provided the opportunity for Kingswood Oxford to do what it has always done best – to nourish our students academically, socially, physically, and emotionally. And it has reminded us all that we’re not just educating students; we’re helping to raise happy and healthy kids. 

Now that the pandemic has subsided, at least temporarily, and Kingswood Oxford has returned to in-person learning, our school’s teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators are asking: What lessons did we learn? Where do we go from here? What kind of support do our students need and how can we provide it?

Expanding Wellness

Kingswood Oxford’s Wellness Team, comprising counselors, deans, academic skills specialists, and the school nurse, has identified the development of five key social-emotional skills as essential for our students: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making.

To help build these competencies, our school will sustain and expand two resources already in place: the Life Skills program at the Middle School, and the VQV program at the Upper School. These classes engage students in discussions about a range of issues including stress management, conflict resolution, leadership, drugs and alcohol, healthy relationships, mental health, and sexual health depending on their grade and age and provide coping strategies.

Managing Screen Time

Another key focus of these two programs is the healthy and safe use of technology. Because online learning during the pandemic separated students from one another physically, many became even more dependent on technology for social interaction. It is well known that social media can reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve. Many kids are being exposed to images and stories that they don’t have the context or the capacity developmentally to process or make sense of.

Enhancing Learning

Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking that teaching of social and emotional skills distracts and detracts from academic learning. In fact, our own experience as educators, as well as hundreds of academic studies, have shown that social and emotional learning actually enhances academic success. Students who are managing their emotions, relationships, and self-awareness well are much more likely to excel in their classes and have better life outcomes.

Building Equity and Inclusion

An important part of our vision is building equity and inclusion. Welcoming, respecting and valuing students of all ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures and identities are essential to nourishing an environment of social and emotional wellbeing for all of our students. By becoming a more equitable community that embraces diversity in all its forms, our school will also become a healthier emotional community. 

Fulfilling Our Vision

Our school’s Strategic Vision summons us to engage students in learning opportunities beyond our campus and to “develop compassionate collaborators, ethical problem solvers, and active citizens who lead and serve in the wider community.” What could be a more effective way of nurturing these future leaders than helping them build a lifelong foundation of social and emotional health?

A Mindful Education

By Kata Baker, Upper School Science Teacher, Head Coach Girls Swimming, Form Three Dean

We talk a lot about “managing” in education. “Good management” is generally held in high regard because it suggests students who achieve this skill are on the path toward accomplishing their goals – and impressive ones at that.

We say that students should manage their time, manage their stress, and manage their workload. This often means juggling several honors or Advanced Placement courses with an elective, Model United Nations, a varsity sport, and theater rehearsals. 

We say that students with good time management skills will be able to research, write and edit an English paper while cramming for a history test and preparing for a debate tournament the next day. We might even describe such students as “managing their stress well.”

Crisis Management

“Management,” in its essence, means “authority.” It implies having control or facing challenging odds and “coming out on top.” By using the word “management” in education, we’re subconsciously acknowledging that there ISN’T enough time, there IS too much work, and that students SHOULD feel an unbearable amount of stress – but that we want them to trudge through anyway. 

Under this mindset, putting together a “successful” four-year education for high-school students requires students to forget about discovering their true interests, abilities, and values, and instead to check off boxes and keep score – courses taken, clubs joined, sports played, leadership positions acquired, volunteer work performed. Students become so busy with everything, that they actually commit to nothing.

Education, when not tended and nurtured with the support and guidance of mindful adults, can easily become a goal-oriented, process-blind way of approaching life. The result is a school culture that values accomplishments over authenticity, performance over purpose, and superficiality over substance. This is not what teachers want for their students. 

Yes, curriculum and classroom lessons should invigorate, challenge and stretch students. Yes, it’s natural there will be time limits; teachers want to make productive use of the 60 minutes they have with their students. Yes, there is a task, a goal – work! And, yes, students will feel challenged. There IS some stress. 

All these things, in moderation, create a joyful, invigorating, and powerful education. But when pressure, deadlines, and rigor become excessive, teachers and students are simply managing.

Mindfulness, Balance, and Self-awareness

The role of teachers, advisors, and parents – the beautiful triangular support system our school provides – is to think mindfully about the life each student wants to live and about how to help each student strive for balance. 

Here’s what I wish for our students:  

• Quality over quantity. Sample, and then choose. ONE THING. Take an A.P. course only if you’re in love with the subject. Commit to one club that you can’t imagine not being a part of.

• Lead with you and your interests. 

• Listen to your body. We’re all designed to manage some stress. We naturally respond by releasing hormones that trigger a productive and appropriate response. Stress isn’t something we stifle or ignore, but we have to be thoughtful about how to react to it. 

• Learn how and when to say NO. Set boundaries. Set bedtimes. Know when enough is enough. When you decline a request for your time and participation, there’s no reason to apologize. Walk away with dignity and respect for your own well-being. It’s not that you’re not enough; it’s that the extra work and worry are too much.

• Build time into your schedule for the essential three R’s: recreation, refreshment, and rest.

• Do the thing. If you’re gonna’ do it, do it right. Dig in. Work hard, stop wasting time, and get it done. If you’re thoughtful about selecting to do what you love, this will come naturally. 

• Choose mindfulness, not management. By seeking an awareness of your true interests, virtues, values – and limits – your experience as a student will be more joyful and rewarding.