Properly setting goals adds tremendous value to an individual’s life, and research has found that those who set overarching objectives for what they want to achieve tend to have a greater sense of purpose, maintain better relationships, and may even live longer. Goal setting takes on a special type of importance for children, as having dreams and aspirations at an early age provides a guiding light and gives them something meaningful to reach for. It also boosts children’s self-esteem and confidence in their abilities, helps them make better decisions, and gives them motivation to keep going through challenges.
Too often, though, we do not realize that goal setting is a skill, and, therefore, it can be taught. By the time we’re adults, we think of setting goals as a natural part of life, and we easily forget that the concept would have once eluded us. I’m sure you even know some adults who still have problems with setting and pursuing productive goals. But goal setting is an essential and practical skill that all children should be taught.
The first step in teaching the skill of goal setting is to give your child a chance at decision-making. Encourage your child to come up with different solutions to a problem. Low-stakes, short-term decisions, such as choosing apples with peanut butter or graham crackers for a snack or choosing which shirt to wear to school, are a natural start. Give your child two good choices and help her become comfortable with making a decision that she is responsible for.
Once your child has experience in making and accepting her decisions, she is ready to begin thinking about goals. Let your child have a voice in deciding what she wants to do, help guide her to decide what she can accomplish (and what you would like her to accomplish, as her parent), and work along with her to create a plan to reach that goal and achieve success. For example, if your child tells you she wants to buy a new video game, you may want to discuss the steps she will need to take to achieve her goal, such as saving her allowance or figuring out ways that she can do additional chores around the house to earn more money.
When getting your child started with goal setting, there are three tips to keep in mind:
- Be Clear: In ASCD’s Understanding How Young Children Learn,author Wendy Ostroff explains that “children learn best when the goals and objective of a teaching situation are clearly articulated to them.” In the early stages of goal setting, you will have a larger say in determining the goals for your child. But, when you help your child clearly understand what the intended outcome of the goal is, she will begin to comprehend the concept of goal setting and move a step further toward setting her own goals independently.
- Be Reasonable: It’s important to help your child understand what goals are appropriate at her level of development and to manage your own expectations and be realistic about what your child is ready for. The Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP), set forth by NAEYC, provide a guide for meeting children where they are—based on their stage of development—and developing reasonable goals that are challenging yet achievable.
For example, here’s a situation from my own work: Dillon, a four-year-old boy, was struggling with food and weight gain and his mom reached out for coaching. After spending time with the family, I realized that Dillon’s mom was giving him too many choices because she felt that if he could choose what he wanted to eat, he would eat it and gain weight. To find a solution, we discussed how she would need to be clear—Dillon should easily understand what his options are—and reasonable—Dillon should only receive two options (as two options are appropriate for Dillon’s developmental stage). I am happy to report that snack time is no longer a challenge: Dillon now chooses from two options, mom is happy, and Dillon has gained weight. While choosing what to have for snack doesn’t seem like a complex decision to an adult, it is developmentally appropriate for Dillon and has moved him one step closer to an understanding of goal setting.
- Be Consistent: The lessons you teach your child about setting goals must remain consistent and develop progressively. If you make your child feel that a goal is reasonable one day and unreasonable the next, he will become confused. You should remain clear about the goals at each step of the process, gradually increase the difficulty level of goals as your child develops, and help him increase his autonomy in setting and pursuing goals. In Dillon’s case, his mom created consistency so that he would understand what was expected of him each day and wouldn’t freeze—and she wouldn’t become frustrated. Now she can work with him to identify a goal and create a plan to reach it, using the same three tips.
Don’t worry if your children are already a bit older and have not yet received guidance on this skill. As Myrna B. Shure shares in her book Raising a Thinking Preteen, children at ages three and four are capable of making decisions, but “ages eight to twelve isn’t too late to start.” If your child is a preteen, or even a teenager, you can still help her learn how to make decisions based on an understanding of different possible solutions to a problem. For instance, if your teen is trying to figure out what to do after she graduates from high school you can discuss her options and the benefits and disadvantages of each. Then once she decides what option will work best for her, you can help her devise a plan of action to accomplish this goal. Many children never get proper instruction in this critical life skill, so working with them now will set them up for increased success, especially when it comes to their future college and career goals. It’s never too late!
At each step of this process, remember that you know your child best. Your child can make a good choice and reach her goal if the choices match her abilities. Together, you and your child can work at your own pace to develop an invaluable life skill for every age and stage.
Additional Resource for Parents:
Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., Steven E. Tobias, Psy.D., and Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D. 1999.
Donna Snyder is the manager of whole child implementation at ASCD, where she works with U.S. schools to implement a whole child approach. Over the past 20 years, Donna has worked with organizations at the state and national level and become adept at infusing scientifically based research into strategies that facilitate continued, sustainable school growth.