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Partial perfectionism February 19, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, teaching, younger son.
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The younger son had forgotten a text book which he needed to do an assignment, so I told him that he should get done what he could and try to finish it up in the morning.

But mom…she doesn’t accept work unless it’s completely done.

She may not, I told him, but your future teachers probably will, so it’s a good habit.  At least she’ll see you made some effort on it.

There were several classes I’ve had throughout college where I didn’t complete the entire assignment.  Frankly, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or maybe I was short on time.  However, handing in 8 out of 9 problems, even if it didn’t earn me a perfect grade, certainly earned me enough to get a very high grade in almost all of my classes.

I really don’t like this policy of “it has to be completely done, and I won’t accept anything late.”  I totally get not accepting anything late, but I think the “completely done” thing is bunk.  I would rather a student put it in a thoughtful, partial attempt than not do anything at all.  The feedback I would provide as a teacher may be helpful to the student, too.

The notion of “all or nothing” feeds into perfectionism, particularly the kind that leads to paralysis and lack of motivation.  “It’s not worth it to do anything if she won’t accept incomplete work,” is the kind of mindset I grew up with.  Now that I teach, I know that every effort you make on your homework or on learning something will not be wasted effort.  Few people ever get any topic 100%, but putting in time and effort will get you closer.

I would always tell my students to put the best effort you can into your homework and then go to the teacher for help on the rest.  Teachers would rather see an effort or an attempt to solve something rather than a student who shows up empty-handed and saying, “I don’t understand.”  It’s very hard to understand how to help the student unless you can see where they’re struggling.

This is a good life skill to have, too.  Is it better to wait to clean the kitchen fully or should you at least take 10 minutes to do what you can?  Personally, I try to do what I can because I seldom have blocks of time to allow me to do things with the full depth and effort I would like.  You can make progress doing it a bit at a time.  It’ll never be as fast as you want, but it’s better to keep doing it than forget it because you can’t do it ‘right’.  Once it’s done, it doesn’t always matter how quickly you did it.

It also dissuades people from trying new things.  “Oh gee…I can’t cook crepes perfectly the first time out, so there’s really no point in trying.”  Honestly, a mangled crepe is almost always better than no crepe at all.  More importantly, you’ll learn from the experience.

I am therefore doing my best to teach my son that some effort is far better than no effort.  There are few things in life that we can do as well and fully as we like, so I want to disavow him of the notion of “all or nothing” right away.

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I walk the line June 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son.
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I’ve been watching the older son grappling with his courses for the past year.  He was taking courses through an independent study organization to finish up some credits he needs to enter college.  I didn’t feel comfortable with some of these (especially literature classes), so we decided to go this route.

In doing this, I’ve discovered that the older son has a deadly combination of issues: ADHD and perfectionism.  I didn’t quite understand how the two fed into each other, but I can definitely see it now.

The older son also had the disadvantage of not working in the classes with peers.  The first few he did were in print rather than online. He would struggle for days to complete a single assignment, and it didn’t make sense to me at first.

Another thing I found odd was how one of his teachers was initially very abrupt with him.  It didn’t take long before she had completely changed her tune and was being incredibly nice and encouraging, which I thought was odd.

The second set of classes have been online and part of the assignments involved discussing things in a forum, so the student could see what the other students had submitted.  This was an eye-opening experience for me.  It also helped me make sense of his teacher’s dramatic change in behavior.

After watching him and seeing what other students have submitted, I realized three things:

1 – He can easily and quickly finish things that are simple.

2 – When things appear to be more difficult and/or time-consuming, he has difficulty concentrating and finds himself unable to stay on task.

3 – Part of the reason things are difficult and/or time-consuming is because he has seriously high expectations for himself that are way beyond what is often required.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have ADHD, because he most certainly does.  We tried for years to forego medication.  One day, he came to me and said he couldn’t even concentrate on projects he wanted to do for fun, so we opted at that point to look at something to help.  (He does take meds, but it’s the lowest dose that’s effective.)

However, in homeschooling him, neither of us had a reference for what a ‘typical’ high schooler should be doing in his classes.  He would give me an assignment, and we would spend a lot of time revising it.  He worked very hard, but progress was slow.  In one or two cases, he would hand things in half done because of lack of time.

What surprised me is that even the items he handed in half done or that were rough drafts often came back with exceptional grades.  I remember one assignment full of rough drafts of short essays which he aced.  I couldn’t figure it out.

The problem is that both of us really expect a lot out of him, and I learned, after seeing work that other students were doing, that it was likely too much.  Far too much.  While he was going into a detailed analysis of similarities because characters from two different novels set in two completely different cultural and temporal reference frames, it appears his fellow students who likely are trying their hardest, are writing something much more simplistic.  They are being told to elaborate, and he’s being told to eschew obfuscation.

The thing that has me concerned is that college is around the corner, and I worry that he’s going to continue to hold himself to those standards, even when it is so obviously working against him.  He struggles with the idea that it’s better to just hand something in, even if incomplete (by his standards), than to turn it in late, though perfect.

A lot of perfectionists deal with this.  I have told him that it’s not a bad trait, but that he needs to save it for the things that are really important to him.  If he wants to write the Great American Novel that people will pore over and debate and analyze, that is the time to be a perfectionist.  If he’s handing in an assignment that fulfills the requirements laid out by the teacher, who likely will spend ten minutes skimming the entry, being a perfectionist is really not going to help.  He needs to learn to walk that line.  To some extent, we all do.

Stupid mistakes January 24, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, physics, research, societal commentary.
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I used to be one of those people who beat myself up whenever I found a mistake I’d made.

Okay…who am I kidding?  I still do that.

In fact, I just did it.  I’ve been sitting here for about 2 days, trying to figure out why something I was programming wasn’t scaling correctly.  I was trying to add a little bump to something big…but my bump was a lot bigger than the stuff I was adding it to.  When I finally found the problem, it turned out that my scaling factor had been multiplied by the big thing, not the bump.

*facepalm*

First and foremost, this is why I can’t code at 11 p.m. when I’m about ready to pass out.  These things happen a lot more often.

However, the bigger issue is that my automatic reaction to these things is that I must be really stupid to make a mistake to begin with.  I’m trying to train myself out of that particular thought process.  I try to think instead that I’m obviously not stupid or I would have taken what I did and run with it.  Instead I did notice there was a problem and I fixed it.

This is particularly important when you’re doing simulation work.  I found this out working on my master’s thesis: if you see a problem with your results, dig into it immediately.  Look at everything and make sure that no numbers are off.  This is where the notion comes from that you should have a good idea what sort of results you expect before you get them.  Now, that won’t always happen.  And, in fact, getting results that are ‘off’ is sometimes good as it can lead to new areas of research.  However, more often than not, it can also be a result of bad input.

I’m not sure where  this comes from, although I have some rather perfectionistic tendencies.  I also believe some of it comes from the fact that, as a kid, I was often ahead intellectually of where I was placed academically.  I was able to get everything right, so I always assumed that being smart meant getting things right all the time.  If I got things wrong, I never was told that maybe I just needed to be more careful or slow down or spend more time on something.  I’d been told that I got things right because I was smart…leading me to believe that when I got things wrong, I must be stupid.

Now, however, I try to remember that it’s not as important to get it right the first time as it is to be able to find my mistakes and correct them.  Therefore, I need to check over my work thoroughly, and when I’m done with that, I should have someone else check it over.  (I’ve often found, though, I’m more likely to find my own mistakes than others because I know what I’m looking at.)  What would be stupid is to not correct the mistake or to not identify it when it’s glaringly obvious.  Still, I find the impulse is there to berate myself for making a mistake to begin with, especially when I’m short on time (which is always).

An appropriate challenge November 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, younger son.
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I’ve mentioned before that the younger son is doing math through Stanford’s EPGY program.  In order to get into the program, he had to take an exam online to see if he qualified.  Now that he’s enrolled, he gets weekly emails from his teacher talking about his progress.  Most of the time, they say something like, “Keep up the good work.”  I just tell the younger son that his math teacher is happy with his progress since he’s not real familiar with the concept of email.  (Occasionally we’ll talk about some of the concepts she thinks need a bit more explanation.)  I learned there’s a lot of other things he doesn’t quite understand…but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Last month, he took a final exam to finish the grade he was working on.  He didn’t pass, but he didn’t bomb it, either.  He was a few points lower than the cutoff to go onto the next grade.  It was a good thing, in retrospect.

The younger boy is a Perfectionist (with a capital P!), and it kills him to not do something perfectly.  In fact, he refused to read until very recently because he couldn’t figure out all the words immediately.  He was very disappointed when he didn’t pass the math exam and had to go back and redo some of the material.  He retook the test a few days ago and got a very high grade.  The lesson learned is that ‘failure’ isn’t death and doom…just means you need a bit more practice before you can go on.  I think the practice did him some good as it seemed like he really got a better handle on things the second time around.  I also think it helped him to see he isn’t expected to understand everything the first time he sees it.  In other words, this is a good learning experience for the young perfectionist…one he would likely have not gotten in school given his grades are much higher there.

After finishing the test the second time, I showed him the email his teacher sent.  I said that it was from his teacher at Stanford.  I guess I’d never mentioned that bit before.

“My teacher is at Stanford?”

“Yeah, do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s a big college that made the math program you’re using.”

“I didn’t pass the test the first time.”

“No, but that’s okay because it’s a hard math program.  You just needed more practice.  You wouldn’t be able  to figure some of this stuff out unless you were pretty good at math.”

“Did you tell my teacher at Stanford that I’m good at math?”

“I’m pretty sure she knows.”

What’s kind of funny is that I don’t think he knows.  That’s good, though, because it means he’s being challenged and not repeating work he already understands.

When procrastination is just procrastination August 17, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, societal commentary, teaching, work.
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Last week, I wrote a post at my favorite engineering blog on how to deal with perfectionism when it manifests itself as procrastination.

There were a couple of comments on that article that I wanted to look at:

After many years in engineering I have found that you need to be able to throw stuff away. 

and

But how do you know when procrastination is about being lazy, not wanting to do it, or Perfectionism? I was label a Perfectionist in college when going for my BT in Network Administration. It mostly hit me in my writing assignments. The question relates to my guilt about being labeled a Perfectionist since my GPA ~2.7 might suggest otherwise.

The first case of not wanting to throw things away is not necessarily perfectionism.  Perfectionists want to do things perfectly, but they usually are more than willing to rip something up and throw it away when they realize it’s going to end up imperfect.  Sometimes they will do this repeatedly, not realizing that they have seriously violated that corruption of the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule.  (In fact, I’ll bet most perfectionists have never heard of it.)

In fact, I have gotten really fed up with people who aren’t willing to go back and improve their work.  I have run into many students and have had coworkers who suffer from what I call “Don’t Want To Do This Over” syndrome.  In students, it’s just plain annoying, but with coworkers, it can be pernicious.  Students will often say they’ve got it done, it’s good enough…even when it is clear they’ve done the absolute minimum to complete the assignment.  With students, however, it’s understandable as they often have other classes.  Other times, it’s a class that isn’t in their major and they simply aren’t interested.  There are also those who really did make the maximum possible effort, and that’s the best they can do…even if, as a teacher, you find the result underwhelming.

This is a trait that makes me absolutely insane when it shows up in coworkers.  I’ve had coworkers who have refused to start things until we have every detail of the project nailed down.  They also will not take initiative to complete things as someone may ask them to change it later.  They will get bogged down in details, thinking that they can’t do anything without defined minutia.  And when they do something, they will either expect you to live with the results and problems that arrive from their lack of quality or even expect you to rave about the quality of their work (undeserving as it may be).  Of the people I’ve worked with, those who have this “Don’t want to do it over” attitude make me nuts primarily because it flies in the face of perfectionism.  Not wanting to do something over when necessary often means, to me, that they don’t care about the quality of their work.

It’s crazy to expect that everything one does the first time will be perfect, and I say that as an perfectionist: I would rather spend extra time and do a good quality project to give to someone else than rush through things and give them something that I did once and in which I can still see a lot of flaws.

The second point above is similar: all procrastination is not perfectionism.  There are a lot of reasons that people procrastinate, and a lot of them don’t have to do with perfectionism.  It’s normal to occasionally feel overwhelmed and stressed, and this will lead even the most diligent person to procrastinate.  Sometimes people procrastinate because lack of interest in a subject or simple boredom.  And there can be other reasons.

Back to the ‘big picture’, I talked about procrastination as being a sign of perfectionism.  However, that by itself does not mean one is a perfectionist.  A perfectionist will have several other ways of expressing their perfectionism.  (A good article which catalogues some of these behaviors is here.)  However, that doesn’t mean that those other reasons for procrastination make it any less frustrating.

He’s not as smart as his brother… March 4, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, older son, younger son.
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I’ve been living with an illusion for the past six years that was pretty much shattered recently.  Having an illusion or misconception shatter is both good and terrifying.

Older boy and younger boy are, in terms of personality, like night and day.  The older boy likes to say he broke the mold.  The younger boy once was very puzzled by this, responding, “There’s no mold inside MY body!”

The older boy is the quiet, isolated, brilliant, and frustrated type.  I think he’s an artist at heart, and though we try, there’s so much depth, I doubt I’ll ever understand entirely how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking.  The younger boy is the social, loving, empathetic, athletic type.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, and usually that heart is joyful.

Both were IQ tested.  The older boy showed up at a level I call “scary smart”, but at least he wasn’t “terrifyingly smart”.  These terms are not supposed to mean the kids are scary, but that parenting a kid like this can be scary.  And it’s worse when you throw learning disabilities into the mix.

Given the huge number of difficulties we had with the older boy even before school, I was so relieved to get the younger boy’s IQ test back.  One of my first thoughts was, “Thank goodness he’s not as smart as his brother.”

It was pretty naive of me to think this.  But there were other differences.  He had never really had serious problems getting along with other kids.  His daycare and preschool providers always talked about him as a sweet, sensitive boy.  This was a huge contrast to what his brother went through, so I kept thinking that he was going to be my “easy kid”.

Maybe even normal.

And he is my easy kid, but even easy kids have problems.  I shouldn’t have been so complacent: starting elementary school caused all of the difficulties to start coming to the surface.  How many stories have I read about gifted children starting school, and *BAM!*  the formerly pleasant, bright child turns into a puddle of tears?

To be fair, I was aware it was happening.  When you wake up a child in the morning, and the first thing he does is cry because he has to go to school, you know there’s a problem.  Or when he says his teachers don’t like him.  Or that school is too hard.

I kept trying to discuss the issue with the school principal and the oft unavailable teacher.  When my husband hit his breaking point, she finally told us that he had shut down and was pretty much refusing to talk with her.

I’m sitting here, puzzled why she didn’t tell us this when it first started.  I got comments like, “He’s wandering around the room, not working.”  I was never told that he was flat out refusing.  And I can’t figure out why she would wait weeks or months until teacher conferences to tell us that.

The breaking point was the comment: “Your son probably needs special ed or to be diagnosed with something.”  There is nothing that will make a parent see red faster than that statement, especially when they know their kid inside and out, when one of them is an educator, when they’ve dealt with a whole slew of doctors and diagnoses because of a previous child.  And when they are absolutely certain that the one and only thing that is wrong is the child’s very low self-concept.

It has been obvious that the younger child was a perfectionist from day one.  We have tried very hard to reassure him that we really just want him to try.  At four years old, he would fly into howling fits because he couldn’t manipulate Legos the same way his significantly older brother could.  He sometimes dreads going to his favorite athletic activity because there is one single exercise he couldn’t do well.  He refused to read books to anyone but me because, in his words, “I can’t read.”

It’s typical for a kid who suffers from asynchronous development.  A kid whose mind is, even at this young age, a few years ahead of his body is going to be easily frustrated because of his awareness of what he can’t do.  The fact that he is very capable for his age isn’t even on his radar.  It’s even worse that he idolizes his brother, who is nearly a decade older than him.  He thinks he should be able to do everything as well as his brother, which is completely unrealistic but which he’s too young to really understand.

A child like this needs encouragement to just try, to be recognized for effort, not for achievement.  Unfortunately, his teacher apparently didn’t understand that.  She would complain about half-finished work, wouldn’t accept anything unless it was done, would seldom give him positive comments unless it was…you guessed it…perfect.

Putting him with that teacher was like water on an electrical fire.

So I’m facing that fact that my “easy kid” may still be easy relative to his brother at this age, but that he’s still different enough to have problems that the average or even average gifted kid will not.  He’s going to be a handful for a teacher who is not used to dealing with his issues.  I think that he will still be easier than his brother because the biggest issue will be finding a teacher who has the right kind of nurturing personality.  But, like his brother, he broke the mold.

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