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Water Cooler: Ways to help children set goals

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 5, 2021

Learning how to set goals is an important skill for children, and one you can facilitate in a variety of ways.  (Pixabay)
Learning how to set goals is an important skill for children, and one you can facilitate in a variety of ways. (Pixabay)

Setting new, personal goals might be the last thing a kid wants to think about when they’re diving into all the assignments they’ve been handed after returning to school from the holidays, but learning to set goals at a young age is a worthwhile effort.

It can be especially helpful to learn how to set goals outside of the classroom. School provides a lot of structure in order for your child to achieve a certain amount of learning in the duration of each school year, but it is important to learn how to set goals for oneself too. It can help younger children and students prioritize things that they want to do outside of school and can also instill them with a stronger sense of confidence and self-efficacy once they see the results of their own efforts. It also helps build an important lifelong skill.

To start setting goals, help your child reflect on the things they do well and the things on which they would like to improve . This helps them increase their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their potential for growth. It also starts the conversation off on a positive note, allowing them to reflect first on the things they have already achieved and learned. Discuss how their accomplishments and strengths make them feel. If they are able to recall, discuss how they were able to do those things or acquire those strengths.

This helps conceptualize what a goal is and their ability to improve over time. When assessing the areas in which they wish to improve, help them formulate those thoughts into specific, measurable and trackable goals. For instance, maybe your child is struggling with making new friends. Instead of making a goal to make more friends, ask them how many new friends they would like to make this year. If they want to improve in their favorite sport, make a specific goal such as being able to run a mile in a certain time, or being able to make a basket from the 3-point line.

Next ask them why exactly they want to reach their goal. This helps them hone in on their intrinsic motivation. Discuss with them why their goal matters to them and what they hope to gain from achieving it. If kids understand their purpose and motivation, it helps them buy in to their efforts. They might also have a self-transcendent purpose that goes beyond just doing something for themself. For example, maybe they want to get better at singing because they love to sing for their grandparents. They might want to improve their science skills because they want to later help create new inventions to help people.

Now break those goals down into manageable, short-term steps. This helps your child focus on and understand that reaching goals is a process and that it isn’t all about the outcome. A helpful visualization for this is the goal ladder. Put the end goal at the top of the ladder. Between each rung, fill in small steps that can be taken to work up to the goal.

For example, if they want to learn how to ride a bike, put that goal on the top. A first step to put on the bottom of the ladder could be to watch a sibling, friend or adult ride a bike. The next step could be to practice riding with training wheels for two hours every weekend. Next, they could try to pedal on a bike with an adult holding the seat behind them and then eventually work up to practicing for a set amount of time on their own.

Don’t forget to encourage and check in with your children along the way and help them reflect on all the amazing ways they are growing.

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