To support students who see themselves as perfectionists, it helps to identify if they are a ‘Try Hard’ or a ‘Be Perfect’, writes Mandy Lancy, West London CEO for Aspirations Academies Trust. Ms Lancy is a trained business and personal coach. This article was first published by TES

It can feel as if perfectionists are everywhere. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist” is often given as the answer to the question about your “worst trait” in an interview, or dropped in as a humblebrag – but is this always an accurate self-description?

Are those who call themselves perfectionists actually perfectionists? Or are perfectionists, or “Be Perfects”, often muddled up with “Try Hards” – a very different beast?

For busy teachers, spotting the difference between the two can be beneficial – for both the teacher and the student.

School behaviour: Teaching perfectionists and different personality types

When I first started teaching, I didn’t give a thought to what drivers lay behind my students’ behaviours; I was just determined to keep them behaving well and on track to meet their targets.

Then, as I moved from the classroom into leadership, I realised that in order to get the best out of people, we need to understand what motivates them.

I read about the work of American psychologist Taibi Kahler, in which he identified five drivers of behaviour that he believed we all have in differing amounts.

Each driver is associated with a personality type: Be Perfect, Be Strong, Try Hard, Please People, Hurry Up. These are all influenced by our environment from early childhood; messages given to us by the adults in our lives about what they perceived as appropriate behaviour.

Applying this to the classroom

As a teacher, I felt I benefited from applying this theory to my students – especially those with Be Perfect and Try Hard tendencies.

Knowing who your Be Perfects are or your Try Hards means you are able to put in place the right strategies to get the best out of your students, and also help them to overcome the barriers that their dominant driver presents in order to benefit their sense of self-worth.

Try Hards and Be Perfects

The personality traits of most of the five drivers are very different. However, many of the traits seen in a Be Perfect are also found in a Try Hard, making it a challenge to correctly identify them among the students in front of you.

The Try Hards, like the Be Perfects, will beat themselves up for days over an 8/10 on a spelling test or an 80 per cent mark in an assessment because they believe they can do better, but the same approach to feedback will not work with both types of student.

So, how do we spot the difference?

Be Perfects

  • Struggle to put pen to paper because they don’t want to get anything wrong.
  • Frequently self-edit and redraft and take a long time to complete a task.
  • Are reluctant to volunteer an answer out of fear of being wrong, and lack patience in others who do get things wrong.
  • Use the words “probably”, “definitely” or “absolutely” more often than others.
  • Find group work challenging due to their high expectations of their classmates, and find it hard to show emotions or watch others show strong emotions.
  • Although they may struggle to see other people’s points of view, they are good organisers and work really hard on their assignments.
  • Expect to get top marks in everything they do and have perfect presentation in their work.

What makes someone become a Be Perfect?
We don’t really know. Perhaps it was due to their parents’ attitudes towards mistakes when they were younger or some other influence.

How can teachers help?

  • Let them know that it is OK to make mistakes by frequently telling them that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.
  • Deliberately making errors when modelling to demonstrate this is a natural part of learning. For example, when modelling a maths problem, get the calculation slightly wrong and then check it aloud, acknowledging the error.
  • Give lots of praise, especially for less than perfect work or for tasks that have not required too much effort.
  • Give very precise constructive feedback; for example, “redraft this paragraph to be less descriptive and more instructional”, rather than “this paragraph needs improvement”.
  • Offering help when you see them struggling rather than waiting for them to ask for help.
  • Supporting the student to understand that their best really is enough and letting them know it is OK to be themselves, not their perceived perfect version of themselves.

How do we spot the Try Hards?

  • Are often anxious and cannot relax fully. 
  • They will volunteer for everything going and frequently use the language of “I will try” and “It is very difficult”.
  • Constantly ask for more homework but struggle to complete it, while wanting praise and struggle to believe it.
  • Find it difficult to hear criticism because they perceive it as a confirmation of their belief that they haven’t tried hard enough.
  • They will often start a task with great enthusiasm as they like the challenge of something new to try, but then will fail to complete a task as they have become bored before it was finished.
  • Are happy in group work and helpful to others. Often they are the class extrovert and are always willing to offer a comment.
  • Will give their best and persevere with solving problems.

Try Hards enjoy the trying but are not always concerned with the achieving, which can be frustrating for their teachers who see them working hard but not completing tasks.

Why do Try Hards behave in these ways?

Like the Be Perfects, it’s impossible to say for certain. It might be that their influential adults have and still are giving them messages that their best efforts are not good enough – they should be able to do better. 

How can teachers help?

  • Help the Try Hards to see that their best is good enough – praise them for achieving the task.
  • Break larger tasks up into smaller pieces and praise the completion of each specific section.
  • Acknowledge the amount of effort they have put into a task but only praise the outcome.
  • Use the language of “achieving” and “succeeding”, not “trying” – for example, “I can see you have succeeded in this today” and “I know you can do this”.
  • Encourage them to spend time chatting with friends during some break times rather than always going to an enrichment activity.
  • Support them to act as a peer mentor in order to deepen their understanding and feel a sense of achievement through helping others.
  • Modelling a growth mindset – for example, “I know this is challenging but I also know we can do this”.

Giving some thought to why our students behave in the way they do and altering our approaches to them will help us to get the best out of them and better prepare them for the world of work. Employers want socially and emotionally intelligent employees and where better to start developing these than in the classroom?