Maya* is a bright 11-year-old girl who attends Year 6 at a high school in Sydney’s south-west. In fact, bright is probably an understatement for despite arriving in Australia on a humanitarian visa only 6 years ago and speaking no English at all, Maya has gone on to thrive academically and has been earmarked as the likely candidate for the Dux of the Year award – a prestigious honour that recognises the top academic student of a school.
However for the past year, Maya’s teachers had become concerned about the amount of pressure she was putting on herself. She frequently complained about her work never being ‘good enough’. She depicted excessive anxiety surrounding failure and showed a high sensitivity to criticism. These were all signs of perfectionism – a personality attribute that drives people to be concerned with achieving unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals that often lead to many forms of adjustment problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and low self-esteem. These adjustment problems can lead to suicidal thoughts and tendencies and influence or invite other psychological, physical, social, and further achievement problems in children, adolescents, and adults.
There is also a strong correlation between perfectionism and eating disorders in adolescent girls, and although Maya was only 11 years old, she had unfortunately already started developing behaviours indicative of anorexia nervosa. Her Year 5 teacher last year noticed that following the fasting period for Ramadan, Maya continued to skip meals at school and had visibly lost weight.
The school counsellor was informed and Maya began receiving support via our Expressive Therapy program in a 1:1 setting. She responded well to psychotherapeutic intervention, and during the sessions it emerged that Maya was particularly concerned about high school. Despite her strong academic success, people with perfectionism struggle to enjoy their accomplishments and worry that they won’t be able to replicate the results or maintain their level of success. Maya knew that the work in high school can be challenging and more demanding than primary school. All the Year 6 teachers kept reminding their lackadaisical students that they’d be expected to put in more effort in high school. This was a well-intentioned message, designed to encourage goal setting and diligence in some of the less engaged students, but for a student like Maya, these warnings provoked deep fear and foreboding, frequently keeping her up at night and intensifying her eating disorder, which was the only thing she felt she had control over.
Maya was subsequently identified as an ideal candidate for a new group program designed to support at-risk students with their transition to high school. During one of the sessions, it emerged that Maya fiercely opposed participating in sports at school and for a while teachers thought that as a perfectionist, she was hesitant to undertake something that she didn’t normally excel at. However Maya shared that as her calorie intake was low and she frequently felt weak and dizzy, she feared that she would faint during the activities. We spoke to her teachers and Maya has since been assigned non-strenuous roles such as point scoring or setting up the equipment.
The road ahead for Maya isn’t an easy one. We have reached out to her high school to ensure that next year she’s connected to the school counsellor for monitoring of her eating disorder and perfectionistic tendencies. However, following the high school transition program, Maya reported feeling relieved to discover that she wasn’t the only one feeling anxious about Year 7. She identified that two of her peers would be attending the same high school as her and they have made an agreement to look out for each other whilst there. She was also able to readily adopt some of the strategies that were explored during the sessions such as realistic thinking and arts-based exercises that would help support her during times of high stress. Following the end of the program, Maya’s Strengths & Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores showed the strongest improvement out of her group of 6.
Supporting a strong and successful transition is a whole-school priority at Maya’s school and teachers have brought many of the strategies into their Year 6 classroom, ensuring that the entire Year 6 cohort benefits from this specialised high school transition program.
For all children and families, but particularly for those with complex support needs, the transition to high school is a time of both opportunity and vulnerability. A problematic transition can have both short- and long-term consequences. Following this program, Maya and her peers are now set up to have the best possible start to what is an exciting and important milestone in their life.
*At KidsXpress we respect the privacy of the children and families we support. So while their stories are true, stock images of children have been used and client names have been changed.