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How to help a perfectionist finish schoolwork

Sarah’s son, Todd, is a perfectionist who spends hours doing his homework. He gets upset whenever he doesn’t like his work and tears it up or destroys it rather than fix it. Todd creates an image in his mind of his perfect project, and often his image is unrealistic.  In spite of these high expectations, Todd strives to create something that matches his image. He spends an extraordinary amount of time trying to achieve his goal and usually ends up dissatisfied with his results.

When prompted to finish a project in a timely manner, Todd is unable to do so without getting upset. I introduced Sarah to the Wonder Wheel of Thinking as a tool to help guide Todd toward a new approach to his schoolwork.

Wonder Wheel of Thinking

Wonder Wheel of Thinking



The first step in the Wonder Wheel of Thinking is to understand the problem. Sarah was clear that the problem is Todd’s perfectionism. We discussed that part of his perfectionism was his inability to shift from one idea to another. This inability to shift makes him inflexible and unwilling to compromise in order to get the project finished in a timely manner.


Now that she understands the problem Sarah is ready to move the second step. This second step is where Sarah needs to start working with Todd. Developing the ability to stop and clear his mind will help Todd complete his projects with less stress.

I spoke to Sarah about Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Program and the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers.

  1. Social Thinking’s Size of the Problem teaches children to determine what is a Big, Medium or Small problem and then react accordingly. Many children react to all problems as a BIG problem. Learning to judge how big a problem really is helps children with appropriate problem solving.

  1. The Zones of Regulation teach a child to monitor how they’re feeling. Awareness of emotions allows children to self-monitor so an intervention can occur before a breakdown.

o   Teach Todd to monitor his frustration when his work is not up to his standards. Guide him to take small breaks and get help before he escalates into a meltdown.

Step 3: Wonder

Now that Todd has the skills to calm himself down and he is able to open his mind, he is ready to wonder. His wondering will focus on different ways to solve the problem.  He can ask himself questions:

I wonder:

..why I am doing  this?

..what this will look like when I am done? long do I have to compete this assignment?

Step 4: Wonder More

Todd can now Wonder about the best way to complete his project.

Start thinking of solutions

Option 1:  I can make my project look exactly like my ideal image no matter how long it takes.

Option 2: I can break my project into parts and set a time limit on each section. When the time is up I will move on to the next section.

Option 3: I can pick one section to focus on and spend as much time as I want on it. Then I will stick to the time limit for the other sections.

Step 5: Keep Wondering

Todd has multiple options to select from before he starts working on his project.  He needs to take a moment to consider the pros and cons of each option. Once he has considered the pros and cons he can rate the options.

It will be important to discuss the pros and cons along with the rating. Todd wants his project to be perfect and done in a reasonable time. Todd’s challenge is going to be learning about good enough and time management. That can be a big trade off for a perfectionist.

Talking to Todd’s teacher can be helpful. Understanding homework and project expectations can help Todd create realistic images for his work.

Step 6: Act

Todd is now ready to begin working. Option 3 is rated the highest, so this will be his plan. He can pick which section to focus on to match his ideal image. Then he will stick to the time limit for the other sections.

Step 7: Don’t Give Up

It will be hard for Todd to stop working when his time is up. Create a chart with each section of the project listed along with the time allotted for the section. Parent check-ins along the way will help Todd monitor his time and frustration. Here is a sample chart from the Executive Functioning Workbook.

Step 8: Keep Trying Until You Find The Solution

This process is not going to happen overnight or with one project or homework assignment. It will take a lot of practice for Todd to get used to stopping when the time is up. As he works through each section of his work he can start to WONDER about where he can save time with the least impact on his final product. Each little time saver will get him closer to his goal of being happy with his final product while completing it in a timely manner with minimal frustration.


Like a wheel that goes round and round to get you to your destination, the Wonder Wheel of Thinking  needs to be used again and again to build thinking skills. The Wonder Wheel shows that thinking can require effort and planning. Helping children learn the steps to follow for flexible thinking and effective problem solving will enable them to become more successful learners.

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