Setting Goals Is a Key to Success for Students of All Ages. 5 Tips From a Chief Academic Officer in Developing Your Child’s Goal-Setting Habits

This essay originally appeared on the SummitLearning.org blog.

From a young age, we teach our children to dream. We constantly ask them what they want to be when they grow up. But how do we help our children achieve those dreams? Successful people around the globe will tell you that the ability to do meaningful and ambitious goal-setting has been key to their success.

As an educator for 18 years and chief academic officer at Summit Learning, a personalized learning approach used in more than 300 schools nationwide, I’ve seen children as young as 7 years old begin to set learning goals for themselves. Just like other habits, the earlier you start, the better. As children grow, their goal-setting can become increasingly complex.

Here are five tips for developing this important life skill in your child.

1 Make your goals SMART.

Effective goals are SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. The more specific a goal, the better. This helps your child get more motivated and feel like the goal can become a reality. Also, make sure the goal is measurable; how will your child know if the goal’s been met?

Setting achievable goals is not the same as setting easy ones. Children often know what they are capable of, so help them understand what it means to stretch and challenge themselves. Goals also have to matter to the person setting them. They have to be relevant to a child’s life and be important enough that the child is motivated to work hard to achieving them. And finally, goals should include a time parameter. If they go indefinitely into the future, your child will lose interest.

2 Start simple, and let goals grow with your child.

Help your children think big and then connect their long-term aspirations to shorter, more concrete steps. At a young age, children should have simple goals tied to a short timeline. Over time, the amount of time needed and the steps involved to achieving the goal can increase.

Provide guidance as they think through what their goal should look like. In particular, they’ll likely need your help in taking their big goals and turning them into more achievable and time-bound ones. The best goals are rooted in these long-term aspirations. They’ll be more relevant to your child’s overall interests, and they’ll illustrate the fact that even complex goals are achievable when you work conscientiously toward them.

Keep in mind that one of the most challenging parts of setting and accomplishing goals for people of all ages is thinking through all the ways that a plan could fail due to predictable obstacles in our paths. Talk with your child about a plan to accomplish a goal. Then, you can help your child visualize how to overcome these obstacles. These conversations model the strategies that adults use to accomplish their goals, while making sure your child is driving his or her own success.

3 Find the right motivation.

When your child is younger, he or she may need external motivators — rewards or recognition — to help work toward a goal. For example, you might create a reward system tied to your child reaching that goal. Something like: “When you read a whole chapter of the book by yourself, we’ll go out for ice cream.” Or, better yet, it can be even more motivating when rewards are aligned with the goals themselves: “If you practice batting every night this week, then we’ll go to a baseball game together.”

These external motivators are a good way to spark your child’s interest in setting goals for him or herself. They shouldn’t be a forever thing. Eventually, completing the goal itself should be its own reward. To help move your child to this point, start by focusing all your positive energy on how incredible it feels to accomplish a goal. Soon, your child will be internally motivated to complete the goals. Slowly phase out the external rewards and let the accomplishments speak for themselves.

4 Check in regularly.

Once a goal has been set, make time to check in regularly. Find a way to make this into an established process that works well with your family’s routine. Maybe your meeting time is every Thursday on the way to soccer practice, or maybe it’s simply over dinner. Whatever it is, be sure to agree upon it in advance, and stick to it!

Try to find a fun way to display the goal itself. This will keep your child accountable to what he or she is striving toward and keep the goal top-of-mind. Maybe the goal is spelled out in big letters on the fridge or on a whiteboard in the child’s room. This may even help engage visitors to your home — grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends — with the process of informally checking in and talking about goals with your child.

5 Reflect and reframe failure.

Whether a goal has been met or not, reflecting upon it presents a valuable learning opportunity. For example, your child had a goal of finishing an assignment in a week and doesn’t meet that goal. Take some time with your child to explore why. Was motivation the issue? Was there not enough time, or were there too many distractions? Failure is one of the best ways for your child to learn and figure out what works best.

Taking a positive attitude toward failure will help your child develop a growth mindset, which will help him or her to be more successful in achieving the next goal and overcoming more significant challenges in the future.

Setting goals is an important habit to develop your child’s motivation, sense of accomplishment, and self-awareness. And it doesn’t have to be a solo activity! Involve your whole family, sharing and displaying your own goals and discussing your journey with your children to show them how important this skill will be for their future.

Adam Carter is chief academic officer of Summit Public Schools.

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