Goal Setting for Kids

When you read about goal setting, it’s often in the context of finances and career. But setting goals in any area of your life is important for enhancing motivation, giving you a sense of purpose and helping you manage overwhelm.

This practice is just as useful for children as it is for adults.

Goal setting fosters resourcefulness, which allows you to apply problem-solving skills to novel situations. Kids who set goals may do better in school and achieve more success in their lives. Setting goals helps improve self-esteem.

Have you ever noticed that kids are naturals at setting goals? They talk about what they want to be when they grow up. They discuss the types of cars that they want to own when they’re older. They may already know that they want kids and a family at an early age.

These dreams should be encouraged. Teaching children to believe in themselves is vital for their motivation and confidence. If you can show them how to set and meet small goals consistently, they’ll sail into adulthood feeling independent and sure of themselves because they’ve already demonstrated that they can accomplish anything they set their minds on.

What are the Benefits of Goal Setting for Kids?

Teaching kids how to set goals at an early age allows them to make goal setting a habit. It doesn’t come naturally for everyone. If you’re an adult who procrastinates, has trouble following through on obligations or projects or feels a little lost in this world, imagine what would change if you had an effective goal-setting practice.

If you had learned how to do this at an early age, it might come as easily as brushing your teeth.

Kids rely on adults for almost everything in life. Grown-ups can teach independence by helping children set goals. When kids are responsible for taking actions to achieve a desirable result, they start to notice that they can control their own lives, especially when it seems like adults are always telling them what to do.

Here are some of the other benefits of goal setting for kids:

Motivation

Children are often praised for positive behavior and punished for misbehaving. Even in school, they work hard to get certain grades, which is an example of extrinsic motivation.

Setting goals helps them develop intrinsic motivation, which gives kids responsibility for their actions. If they are intrinsically motivated, kids engage in certain behaviors because they want to.

For example, research has found that intrinsic motivation is related to learning goals. Extrinsic motivation is linked to performance goals.

In other words, a child who sets a goal to earn good grades may demonstrate stellar performance. But do they learn anything? They may adopt some study skills that allow them to memorize information before a test, but they might not retain that information.

To encourage intrinsic motivation, you should help children set goals that are based on what they want. You can also use extrinsic motivators, but you should include a good balance of both.

Sense of Purpose

Goals give children a sense of purpose. They provide direction and guidance, which children crave.

When kids set goals, they realize that they can make a difference in this world. Purpose is the idea that you can help the world become a better place.

Creating purposeful goals with children allows them to understand how important they are and how meaningful their life is.

Purposeful goals for young kids may involve:

  • Kindness
  • Fun
  • Helping others
  • Contributing to the family
  • Earning money

You can implement goals for each category by brainstorming with your children. Ask them how they could demonstrate kindness every day. They may say things like:

  • Give someone a compliment
  • Help with the groceries
  • Pick up something that someone dropped
  • Join someone who is sitting alone at lunch

Once you set a goal to be kind every day, you can work these ideas into your routine. You might even consider creating a chart so your child can keep track of their progress toward the goal.

Purpose-filled goals don’t have to be ongoing, though. Perhaps your child wants to help the community by cleaning up the park. You could help him organize an event that gathers volunteers to pick up litter for the weekend.

Focus

If you’ve ever watched a young child, you can see that their attention span is not the same as an adult’s. It’s hard for kids to focus for 10 minutes, much less for an entire school day or year.

Goals give them a way to come back to what’s important. Even though their attention span shifts every 5 to 15 minutes, kids can maintain their interest in the long game by setting goals.

Part of focus involves learning and remembering rules. Kids are naturally exposed to these types of experiences through play and at school.

Setting goals brings rules to another level. In a sense, goals are guidelines that children create for themselves. They must make them clear, remember them and celebrate when they’ve followed them.

Practicing this skill helps kids get things done and organize their lives, even when everything seems chaotic.

Self-Control

It’s not always easy to teach kids to exhibit self-control. Children are used to acting on their impulses. They don’t always respond when they’re constantly being told what to do.

What if you could frame their world in a way that makes them the authority over themselves? That’s what goals do.

When kids learn to set goals, they’re no longer at the whim of adults who think that they know better than them. They get to decide what they want. They choose what they get to work on.

As they consistently set and reach their goals, children learn that exhibiting self-control is intrinsically rewarding. When we accomplish goals, our brains send out chemicals that tell us to do the same activity again because it feels good. Setting goals helps kids establish a habit of self-control.

Adults Should Model Goal Setting for Kids

In early childhood, kids learn by imitating behaviors that they see. Observational learning can happen in any setting. Kids watch what their parents, teachers and peers do. They also learn from the grocery store clerk and the characters that they watch on their favorite TV shows.

Until they’re about 5 years old, kids don’t use logic to understand their world. Instead, they base their perceptions on what they see as well as past experiences. Throughout their childhood, they gain reasoning skills, but they don’t use them the same way that adults do.

For that reason, you may not be able to teach goal setting by sitting your kids down and explaining it to them. But you can show them how you do it.

Share your goals with your children. When New Year’s rolls around, come up with a resolution even if you don’t normally do so. Share it with your kids.

As you take steps toward your goal, explain that you’re doing these things because they support the goal that you established at the beginning of the year. Although they may not cognitively put the pieces together completely, they will see that you take action when you say that you’re going to do something, even if the results aren’t immediate.

You can also model goal setting and purpose by talking about your work. Many kids see their parents coming home from work and complaining about the hard work or long hours.

Expressing what your work means to you shows children that you’re doing something that supports your ultimate goals. It’s important to convey the message that you are going after something that you want, whether it’s expressing yourself, providing for your family or contributing to the community.

Working Toward Something Helps Kids Stick With It

Especially at an early age, children are constantly being told what not to do. If you’re a parent, you know what we mean. You might follow your toddler around, saying, “Don’t put that in your mouth. Don’t run. Don’t hit.”

How does that work for you? You have to repeat it time and time again.

What if you helped your child work toward a positive behavior instead of preventing a negative one? Research shows that doing so can help make the behavior stick.

Here are some examples:

  • “Be nice” instead of “Don’t be mean”
  • “Walk” instead of “Don’t run”
  • “Speak quietly” instead of “Don’t yell”

When it comes to setting goals, make sure that you’re using approach-oriented language. If you’re trying to improve performance at school, you might create a goal to get a certain number of A’s or B’s instead of avoiding getting a C or a D.

How to Set Goals for Kids

If you or your child is new to goal setting, you’ll need to practice before the technique feels easy. Here is a simple process that you can use to create this useful habit.

  1. Start by determining where your child already sets goals.

For example, perhaps your little one has to finish her homework before she can play video games. Discuss the steps that she has to take when she gets home from school to earn the reward of screen time.

She might list actions such as:

  • Look at my planner
  • Show my parents what homework I have
  • Find a quiet place to work
  • Make sure my backpack, paper and a pencil are available
  • Ask for help if I don’t know how to do it

Explain that those actions are steps that she is already taking toward her goals.

  1. Next, ask your child what she would love to obtain or achieve in the next week.

Maybe she wants to buy a new toy. Perhaps she is working on a birthday card for her grandfather. She might want to invite a friend for a sleepover on Friday.

Encourage your child to write down the goal. You are 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. In fact, writing them down more than once keeps them at the forefront of your mind. If writing the goal in the morning and at night is too much for your child, post the goal somewhere she can see it regularly.

Kids are visual creatures; they can draw a picture of the goal or cut one out from a magazine if that works better for them.

In fact, focusing on the goal in a way that feels good can help anyone accomplish it. Experts recommend concentrating on the feeling that you expect to have when you achieve a goal. They say that it’s that feeling that propels you into action, not the goal itself.

If kids do a craft or a fun activity that involves their goal, it’s much more likely to stick.

Make sure that the goal has a specific deadline. Write that down too.

  1. Create a chart that allows your child to monitor her progress.

Goals have to be trackable and measurable so that you can evaluate whether you’ve reached them. A simple sticker chart is appropriate for children and can help them be accountable for their own behavior.

Making a chart will also help you ensure that the goals are clear enough for your child to understand and implement.

Let’s say that your child wants to invite a friend for the night. What needs to happen for that goal to succeed?

  • She has to make sure that she doesn’t have soccer practice that day
  • She has to call her friend
  • Her friend has to ask her parents
  • She has to keep her room clean every day (discuss what it means to keep her room clean if she says that she has cleaned it and you don’t agree)

Once you have identified those elements, put them on her goals board. She can check them off or place a sticker next to each task once it’s completed. Some of these are one-time activities. However, she must clean her room on a daily basis.

  1. Talk about how it went.

After the deadline, discuss how the process went. Did your child meet her goal? Why or why not?

If she did, celebrate the things that she did well. If she didn’t, ask her what she could have done differently. Using the chart as data can help her visualize what she might have missed.

Is Goal Setting for Kids Different than for Adults?

Adults have various techniques for setting effective goals, including the SMART goal-setting technique. Kids can’t comprehend that level of complexity.

Still, the technique is similar. One thing to note is that adults often set goals that build on one another. Kids can do this too. For example, if they’ve learned to button their pants, they can work on tying their shoes next.

However, don’t push this. Let kids work on goals that follow their interests. You’ll be less likely to experience conflict, and your child will be more apt to commit to the goal.

Goals for kids should include the following elements.

Fun

You might not want to use the word “goals” when you’re initiating this practice with children. Some kids immediately shut down in the face of pressure. If you tell a 10-year-old that he’s about to learn something, he won’t be as eager to do it as he will if you tell him that he’s going to do something fun.

Therefore, you might want to use words like “wishes” and “dreams” instead of “goals.” Eventually, you can let kids know that they’re setting goals. But wait until they enjoy the process before you explain that they’re learning a valuable life skill.

You can make goal setting fun by making a game of it. Using fun printables or craft supplies during the goal-setting process can make it more enticing for kids.

Research shows that kids are more equipped to learn when they’re enjoying themselves. Playing releases endorphins, which promote learning and put you in a good mood.

Here are some activities that can make goal setting for kids more fun:

  • Make a bucket list as a family
  • Draw pictures of the goals
  • Put together a dream vision board

If your child is having trouble coming up with goals, play a game called “Three Stars and a Wish.” Build their confidence by asking them to list three things that they’re really good at. This may include building legos, reading and coming up with games to play at recess. Then, ask them what they wish they could do better. You can use this to spur the goal-setting process.

Short-Term

One of the biggest differences between goal setting for kids and adults is that children can’t conceptualize the future the same way that adults can. An 8-year-old’s 10 year plan would require them to imagine what life is like after graduating high school when they’re only in second grade. That’s unfathomable for most children.

Therefore, goals for kids should be broken down into small chunks so that they have short deadlines. For some children, that means setting daily goals. Others might be able to handle weekly goals.

If a goal has a longer deadline, try to separate it into action steps that can be accomplished more quickly. Creating a timeline can give children visual cues that help them celebrate the small successes so that they can stay motivated to achieve the greater goal.

Controllable

Kids need to know that they’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to goal setting. Therefore, make sure that you set goals that involve the child’s own actions.

For example, your son might want to improve his grades. However, he doesn’t exactly have control over the marks that his teacher gives him. Therefore, setting a goal to get Bs or higher in school might leave him feeling disappointed, especially if he worked hard and still received a lower grade.

Therefore, you need to ask, “What can you do to get better grades?” Then, instead of making “better grades” the goal, make the actions the objectives. In this scenario, your child might set goals to:

  • Finish homework before socializing with friends after school
  • Begin studying for a test five days in advance
  • Write up flash cards before each test
  • Review his planner every night before bed and make a to-do list for the next day

As adults, we sometimes set goals that are beyond our control. However, that comes after we’ve learned that we have some control over our actions. Help kids learn this by breaking goals down into doable baby steps.

Also, goals for kids should be based on the process, not the outcome. Instead of setting a goal to win every baseball game, they can set goals to exhibit better teamwork and practice every day.

Realistic

This characteristic of goals for kids is related to the control aspect. Science shows that people are more motivated to achieve challenging goals. But you don’t want to discourage children from this practice by making all of their goals hard to reach.

It’s more effective to create a progression that leads them toward a greater goal. If they have a huge dream, don’t dissuade them from pursuing it. Instead, break it down until every element is completely realistic.

You can think of this as part of the ABCs of goal setting. The goals should be A-chievable and B-elievable. (The C stands for commitment).

Check Their Own Work

In a Montessori environment, kids evaluate their own work instead of relying on teachers to give them grades. When they’re learning to write letters, for example, they may be asked to circle the one that looks the neatest. This gives them the ability to develop their own standards for excellence instead of conforming to someone else’s expectations.

They can do the same thing when they’re setting goals. Allowing them to create their progress chart is one way to help them take responsibility for their actions. Talking to them about how they think the process went helps them to become problem solvers.

You should acknowledge what your child has accomplished. But make sure that they’re setting goals so that they’re proud of themselves and not just to please you or another adult.

What Kinds of Goals Should Kids Set?

The most important part of goal setting for kids is the process, not the outcome. Therefore, allow them to choose goals that excite them.

Kids also have a strong need to establish their independence. You can help them work toward goals that allow them to do this, such as:

  • Doing laundry
  • Washing dishes
  • Getting dressed by themselves
  • Using the toilet
  • Taking showers on their own

Many schools work on goal setting with kids. In an educational setting, goals may revolve around manners, discipline and performance. Some examples of goals for school include:

  • Raise my hand when I have a question
  • Follow directions
  • Check my work
  • Respect other people’s belongings
  • Keep your hands to yourself

Goals are also important in sports and extracurricular activities. Some goals to set in this category include:

  • Show up to games on time
  • Maintain a positive attitude even if you lose
  • Focus on the game even when you’re on the sidelines

Stop Telling Kids to Do Their Best

Kids hear the phrase “Do your best” all the time. As a parent, you might even say this. “Nobody’s perfect; just do your best.” Have those words ever come out of your mouth?

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, goal-setting research has found that people tend to put in less effort when they’re told to do their best. That’s because there is no way to quantify what doing their best really means.

It can differ from one day to the next. It’s easy to come up with excuses for why doing the bare minimum was equivalent to doing your best. Plus, your child will always try to argue that they’re doing their best. There’s no way to counter the argument if you don’t quantify what you’re asking for.

Second, it’s exhausting to do your best all the time. No one is at the top of their game at all times. In fact, by breaking goals down into small, realistic chunks, you can often achieve them without breaking your back.

Do we really want to teach our children that the only way to success is through hard work? Most adults grew up with this messaging. How do you feel about it?

What if you still live paycheck to paycheck? What if you haven’t been promoted at work in a while? What if these things are happening, and you already work 60 hours a week?

Is the answer to drop your personal life and work even more?

Working hard and doing your best isn’t always the answer. Highly sensitive kids can pick up on that pressure and end up feeling as though they’re not good enough if their best doesn’t result in achieving their outcome-based goals.

That’s why it’s so important to set achievable, process-based goals. This teaches kids diligence and persistence. It helps them realize that working smarter, not harder, can help them accomplish their biggest dreams.

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