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A Vision of Wellbeing

The curse of perfectionism and the importance of providing balanced, realistic thinking throughout School life

St Catherine’s School, 2020 Vision Intent 2: Student Wellbeing 

St Catherine’s is committed to: 
GOAL 1: Educating girls with a philosophy of academic care and personal wellbeing underpinning our approach and celebration of all achievements;

GOAL 2: Delivering a comprehensive girls’ wellbeing program that ensures a safe School environment and fosters good health, citizenship, active leadership and social responsibility in our students;

With the guidance and expertise of our Director of Student Wellbeing, Ms Merran O’Connor, the re-development, this year, of our Student Wellbeing Program has been a significant focus for the Year Level Deans and members of teaching staff in Barbreck and our Early Learning Centre, in Campbell House. Our Wellbeing Program aligns with the Student Wellbeing goals committed to in our School’s Strategic Intent: 2020 Vision.

Integral to the re-development of a girls’ specific wellbeing program is a comprehensive understanding of the current literature and research in girls’ education. As the peak advocacy group for girls’ education in Australia, the Alliance of Girls School Australia (AGSA) is one such avenue providing considerable research and information to underpin the development of our Wellbeing Program. In a recent article from the AGSA, they identify the heightened levels of anxiety and pressure experienced by teenage girls in their quest for academic success. The greater vulnerability of girls to academic pressure may partly result from a greater desire to please. And the increase in the sheer number of criteria against which girls now judge themselves. At St Catherine’s, we aim to ensure our girls achieve a balance in their lives with shared interests, realistic thinking and an understanding of the difference between excellence and perfection.

The Curse of Perfectionism
The end of every academic year brings media stories about examination stress and the increasing pressures faced by students fighting for university places, training and jobs. However this year the spotlight has fallen on female students, with research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) showing that girls, and particularly gifted girls, suffer the highest levels of stress, anxiety and pressure in their quest for academic success.

The UNSW researchers interviewed 722 Year 12 students from a representative sample of Sydney schools, finding that 42 percent suffered from high-level anxiety and 16 percent reported severe levels of anxiety. Just over half of the students felt that too much was expected of them in

Year 12, identifying workload as the main pressure they faced. But what did they identify as the greatest source of pressure? Nearly half (44 percent) said the pressure they felt was self-inflicted, with other sources including family (35 percent) and school or teachers (21 percent). Gifted students, however, were the most likely to say that pressure was self-inflicted, with 47 percent saying they put pressure on themselves to achieve top marks compared with 24 percent of average-ability students.

While the result that 42 percent of students experience high levels of anxiety in Year 12 is concerning, the UNSW researchers state that “it is the impact of pressure, however, that is most concerning” with 44 percent of students describing themselves as regularly being agitated, irritable or nervous. Academic pressure leads to stress and altered learning behaviours, such as procrastination, lack of sleep and all-night cramming sessions. The result is that even the most academically able students can do poorly on exams due to the impact of stress.

A factor in stress and anxiety that is receiving increasing attention is perfectionism, particularly in girls. Flinders University psychologist Dr Tom Nehmy, who reviewed 700 research papers from around the world, says that perfectionism is the common risk factor that best explains the problems associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. “Perfectionism,” he says, “basically involves things like very black and white thinking, being extremely self-critical and having an inability to cope with pressure because of fear of failure.”

Similarly, researcher Chloe Yu Shu from Curtin University has linked stress, low mood, anxiety and self-criticism in her thesis examining young females aged 14–19 who are struggling with “unhelpful perfectionism” and are at risk of developing eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She says her research shows that teaching skills to manage perfectionism and stress are effective in improving wellbeing, and that preventative programs can help young people before their perfectionism and stress “builds up into something big.”

Conclusion
Dr Nehmy believes the most effective way to address mental health problems is to prevent them occurring in the first place. Young people need to learn balanced, realistic thinking and how to regulate thoughts and behaviours associated with perfectionism. Similarly, the UNSW researchers comment that regular sleep, exercise and relaxation time are all more important than an extra hour of study. Students interviewed for the UNSW study described a variety of “great programs” run by their schools from those designed to build resilience and identify stress and anxiety, to yoga and relaxation programs and sessions on study skills and organisation. “Perfectionism is only captured in a moment — it’s not achievable longer term,” says Judith Carlisle. “Unhappy people can’t learn anything.”

Mrs Michelle Carroll
Principal

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