I, like most people, have goals for almost everything. And I, like most people, often fail to achieve my goals. Setting goals is one of those things everyone does… then almost everyone forgets about.
People set goals to lose weight, to find the love of their lives, to earn more, to work harder, to procrastinate less, or even to work out every day.
But setting – then failing to achieve – our goals does not mean that goal setting is a worthless activity, no more than an idle pass time. And adopting goal setting for kids can completely change both you and your child’s life, irrespective of whether you set behavioral, personal, educational, financial, or habit-related goals.
Why every parent needs to adopt goal setting for kids
Every kid can benefit from goal setting. It can help our kids change inappropriate behavior and adopt more positive behavior, help them deal better with difficult situations such as fear or anxiety, and help them to adopt specific behavior.
Having a conscious goal can influence your child’s behavior and teach them the important habit of keeping goals from a young age. It can also help them learn the link between planning, taking action and perseverance.
The great thing about goal setting is that it is impossible to use it in almost every area of your child’s life.
Setting goals for our kids can help them:
- Reduce or eliminate negative behavior
- Reduce specific habits such as procrastination
- Deal with specific issues such as lack of focus and concentration
- Adapt different ways of doing things, such as keeping a tidy room, putting their toys away when they’re done, helping with household chores, etc.
- Keep motivated
- Improve their school performance and/or behavior
Does it really work? Exploring the research
Goal setting first emerged in the 1960s when Edwin Locke developed the goal-setting theory of motivation. Applying his theory to the workplace, Locke found that employees who set goals performed better than those who did not.
Arguing that goal setting is imperative for positive performance is perhaps too large a claim (and perhaps wildly optimistic!). But the available research says that it helps, and I believe that many of these finding can be applied to teaching children to set goals. This is what it says:
- Kids tend to be more committed when they set their own goals
- The harder the goal, the greater the need for goal acceptance
- Setting goals for your child without their participation or acceptance will lead to their failure
- Short term goals are more effective than long-term goals. This is especially true for kids who tend to become frustrated or to develop learned helplessness if they feel like they are “always failing”.
- To work, the goals set must be in line with your child’s real capacities. Expectations set too high or too low will only lead to failure.
How to make it work
We’ve all promised, at one time or another, that this will be the year that we stick to our new year’s resolutions. But we all know how that often ends. Most of us take our eyes off our goals, or we fail to set goals for success, meaning that we often fail to achieve our goals.
Goal setting experts say that some things make it easier to achieve our goals and there are a few things to avoid. Here are just a few of them:
DO NOT set vague goals. The clearer the goals are for your kid, the higher the chances that they will achieve them.
DO NOT set unrealistic goals. Goals for kids can only work if they are line with your child’s actual developmental stage, and if they take into account their personality and their actual capacities.
DO NOT set easy goals. Contrary to popular belief, everyone needs to feel capable of overcoming challenges. If the goals that we set for our kids are too easy, they will eventually switch off or, worse, believe that you do not trust in their ability to overcome challenges.
DO NOT set goals for kids all by yourself. Children, like most other people, resist any decision that they feel is imposed upon them. If we want to see real change in our kids, we must be ready and willing to involve them in the goal-setting process.
Also, the more your child is interested in the goal set, or at least sees how this goal will affect their life, the higher the chances that they will work toward it. There needs to be some form of personal commitment for goal setting to work.
DO NOT forget to give your child positive feedback. Positive feedback helps, negative feedback doesn’t. Don’t tell your kid what they did wrong, tell them what they did right if you want them to repeat the same thing.
Positive feedback helps our kids know that they are making progress and gives them the motivation to keep going. Using positive reinforcement is one of the most effective positive discipline strategies that can help you transform your child’s behavior.
The Positive Behavior Kit has all the information you need to get positive reinforcement right (and avoid feeling like you’re bribing your child!)
How to teach your child to set goals
When teaching kids to set goals, it is especially important to set the goals right from the start.
You’ve probably heard about the importance of setting SMART goals, meaning goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
This term was first proposed by George T. Doran, a management consultant, who believed that goals set according to this proposition provided a clear road map to help individuals achieve their goals.
Ever since, there have been other relatively similar variations regarding the criteria necessary for achieving goals. The reason why Doran’s SMART goals theory has met with such a huge success is because it has been shown, over and over again, that if you want goals to work, you have to set them right.
Setting goals right is even more important when it comes to kids. The more we set SMART goals for our kids, the higher the chances that those goals will be achieved.
So, how do you ensure that you set your kids’ goals right from the outset? Here are five things to consider when teaching kids to set goals.
1)Relevance, relevance, relevance!
Relevance refers to several things when setting goals. First, it refers to whether or not your child views the goal as having relevance in their lives. It must touch on something that your child believes that they could use help with.
In other words, your child’s goals need to matter to them. If they are not clearly defined, there are high chances that they will not be achieved.
Examples of relevant goals for kids could look like:
- Improving academic skills (reading, math)
- Improving music skills (playing an instrument)
- Making more friends
- Learning something new (play a music instrument, ride a bike)
- Increasing self-confidence
2) Make it as easy as possible to measure progress
How will you know that your child is achieving their goals? More importantly, how can he or she keep track of their progress?
The easiest way to measure progress is to become as specific as possible. Creating an action plan is even more important for kids because while some kids seem to know what they want and to have no trouble asking for it, many others lack the words to express their needs.
It is therefore important to help your child understand “what they need to do”, “how they need to act” or “what they need to say” to get to “where they want to be”.
For example, if your child’s goal is to make friends, they need to be aware of the specific actions that will help them achieve this objective.
Depending on their age, this could look like:
- Joining a kids’ club
- Volunteering at an organization
- Asking other kids to play
- Participating in play dates, and so on.
Here is another example: If your child wants to improve their piano skills, specific actions could include:
- Playing the piano for 10 (or 20 or 30) minutes a day at least five times a week
- Reading their music notes at least three times a week
- Organizing one family concert a week during which they play the piano
- Practicing piano with a friend
- Listening to the song they’re learning when they’re not playing
- Adopting a piano practice morning routine
3) Stop chasing too many things
It’s not just kids who are unable to do many things at the same time – most of us are. Trying to do too many things at the same time often always leads to failure.
It’s even worse for kids because they have shorter attention spans and they are still in the process of developing important skills such as effective executive function skills, which means that for most kids, focusing on multiple demands at a time will often lead to failure.
In other words, most young children struggle with issues such as focus and control, distraction, self-control and hyperactivity issues, and a difficulty responding to multiple stimuli.
The fewer – and more specific – the goals for kids, the easier it will be to achieve them.
4) Focus on your child if you want goal setting to work
Childhood is neither a race nor a competition and expecting your child to act like other kids will only lead to tears and frustration.
For goal setting to work, it is important to take our kids’ real capacities into account, and not what we believe that they should be able to do because other kids their age (or their brothers, sisters, cousins or friends) are able to.
In other words, the goals you set for your kid must be achievable to avoid frustrations and learned helplessness.
5) Know when success has been achieved
Goal setting is about helping children achieve something or replace specific undesirable behavior with more acceptable behavior. This means that at some point, your kids must be expected to achieve those goals and to move on to something else.
In other words, it is important to focus on what a good, or at least an acceptable, outcome should look like.
Having a realistic time frame makes it easier for your child to know what they are working toward. A realistic time frame can include the time within which the goals are expected to be achieved (for example, learning a song before a music concert) or, they can be linked to actual behavior (practice for 10 minutes a day until I learn to ride my bike).
To wind up on goal setting with kids, I must stress again how important it is to keep goals for kids “short and sweet”.
Do not focus on too many goals, and make is super easy for your kid to understand what they are aiming for, the actions that will help them get there, how they can measure their progress, and when they will know that they have achieved their goals.
Let’s looks at a simple example about a child struggling with reading.
The goal: Improve my reading skills
Specific (and measurable): Read my book for 10 minutes a day every day
Timeframe (and measurable): By the end of two weeks; I will have finished reading my book
Writing goals down is powerful, especially for kids. It makes the goal setting process more concrete and helps your child visualize, every day, what they need to do to achieve their goals.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: DO NOT focus on failure. Some kids are quick learners. Others need more time to change their behavior or habits – A hell of a lot more! If this is your kid, focusing on the future – “what will you do next time”? – will get you better results every time.
If you’d like to try goal setting for kids, below is a simple and free template that you can download and use to set SMART goals with your child. I’d love to hear about the goals you set for you kid and how that experience went – let me know in the comments section below!