Improvement Over Perfection

I’m not much of a fan of the word “perfect,” as it’s usually a recipe for disappointment. Unless you’re using the word in reflection, predicting anyone or anything will be “perfect” is setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations and reinforcing a fixed mindset. I used to have this misguided notion we had control over situations and their outcomes, but the older I get, the more I have learned to listen to my husband who always reminds me, we have no control over people, places, or things. 

Strangely, it’s been easier to purge the word “perfect” from my vocabulary than it has been to dispose of the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and to me, this one is far more dangerous than “perfect.” Dr. Anita Archer says, “practice makes permanent,” not perfect. Anything you practice repeatedly is going to result in working it’s way into your long-term memory, so if a child is practicing something incorrectly, it’s going to become a bad habit making it far more difficult to correct down the line. To ensure practice leads to improvement, it’s important children are monitored when practicing a new skill or completing a new task, and given affirmative or corrective feedback along the way. Regardless if it’s learning the proper way to hold a pencil, learning how to brush your teeth, or learning your multiplication tables, practice is more likely to be damaging than it is likely to lead to perfection if guidance isn’t provided along the way. 

Instead of focusing on perfection, I have found it’s far more productive to focus on growth. To build habits for success, a growth mindset is imperative. One way to nurture this is to teach reflection by taking advantage of the “golden window.” Right after receiving a grade or feedback on an assignment or assessment, teach children to take the time to analyze what they did well and where they lost points. In our house, we go as far as identifying what type of mistake was made, “a paying attention” mistake or a “I didn’t know it” mistake. For “paying attention” mistakes we talk about using strategies like rereading the problem and answer before turning it in or reviewing the directions or the rubric before submission. For “I didn’t know it” mistakes we discuss how strategies such as breaking up studying over a longer period of time, using mnemonics, or studying with a peer may help. We always end our conversation by identifying and writing down what strategies they will try next time to improve their performance in the future. 

Using the golden window to coach your child though the reflection process is not a one and done. It takes years of intermittently reviewing with them, helping them reflect on their behavior, practices, and performance, then comparing those results to your expectations for yourself, and lastly, making a plan for employing new strategies that will help them improve in the future. Following up with reminders to use the strategies we discussed is typically a necessary step, but over time, kids will start to own this process more and more, requiring your involvement less and less. Not only do I love this strategy because it fosters a growth mindset, but I also love it because it helps children see the connection between their behavior and their results and it empowers them to know how to take action to improve when they are unhappy with their outcome.