Tips for Helping Kids Set Goals
It’s that time of year (again!) when millions of kids are starting to head back to school. And, while the 2020 school year will look very different because of Covid-19, kids will still be responsible for setting – and completing – goals.
In fact, the challenges presented by Covid-19 make this skill all the more necessary as kids have to manage more of their own learning remotely.
As you prepare to send your kids back to school, here are some tips to help you help them with goal setting.
Write them down
It sounds cliche, but writing down goals is HUGELY important. Not only does it help to make the goal more ‘real’ by taking it out of our heads, but it also helps with accountability and reinforcement. If I see my goal on a sticky note posted on my bathroom mirror every day, it will be reinforced in my brain and I’ll be more committed to it. I’ll see more opportunities for accomplishing it. And I’ll be more likely to accomplish it.
Writing it down also helps with accountability, which you’ll need to provide (see below). If you and your child are looking at a piece of paper with a goal written down, you’re starting from the same reference point. It also makes it clear that you’re working together to accomplish the goal and it’s not something you’re “nagging” about.
Finally, for this to be really effective, it needs to be your child writing it down, not you. After all, it’s their goal, not yours.
Do it Together
Before helping your kids to set goals, it’s important to recognize that kids of differing ages have wildly different abilities to set and keep goals. This isn’t because of their ‘character’ or ‘temperament’ as much as it is their brain’s development.
Younger children’s brains, for instance, haven’t yet developed the ability to think abstractly. Or delay gratification. Teens, on the other hand, have both.
Because goal setting requires skills that develop over time – the ability to curb impulses, conceive of abstract possibilities for the future, prioritize tasks, etc. – your kids will need help getting started. And probably following through.
For kids age 7-11, this will look like setting really concrete goals with (probably) daily tasks and check-ins, while teenagers may be able to set quarterly (or annual) goals. Most will still need periodic check-ins.
In many ways, setting the goal isn’t the hard part – it’s making sure the goal is both SMART (more on that below) & acted upon. Since most kids will have had no formal training in this, they’ll need your help. For best results, set aside 15-20 minutes each week to follow up and coach.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
One of the most important components of goal setting is approaching it with a “Growth Mindset.” The term “growth mindset” was popularized by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her groundbreaking book, Mindset.
A “growth mindset,” according to Dweck, is one that sees intelligence and skill as something that can be manipulated. This is in opposition to the idea of a “fixed mindset,” which sees talent and intelligence as static traits that you can’t manipulate.
Take, for example, a common thing you hear people say: “I’m not a math person.” That comment betrays a ‘fixed mindset’ – the idea that a person is ‘naturally’ good (or not) at math. The mindset leaves room for ‘giving up’ before you even get started.
A ‘growth mindset,’ in contrast, would say “I’m struggling with this math concept, how can I do better?” That mindset doesn’t make an assumption about whether one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘smart’ or not in a particular domain, but merely acknowledges that one’s performance at a particular time is just a dot on a spectrum.
And that dot can move with help, focus, and grit. In fact, the results are more than merely psychological, but neurological. The more kids learn, the more neurons they develop and the stronger their brains get. (By the way, that’s true for adults, too!)
While our individual talents incline us to be better at some things versus others, most of us can cultivate way more of our potential than we realize. The same is even truer for our kids, who haven’t yet formed rigid worldviews or ideas about their potential.
When setting goals for – and with – kids, it’s important to focus more on the effort they exert and their ability to learn anything (with dedication and discipline) than on ‘natural talents.’ Over time, the ‘growth mindset’ will help kids accomplish more goals and take their natural talents even further than they could imagine.
Angela Duckworth’s excellent book “Grit” focuses on the role of perseverance (combined with a growth mindset) in setting and accomplishing goals.
One of the challenges to goal completion is that many goals are really hard. In some ways, that’s what makes them so satisfying to accomplish.
Still most people get tempted to give up at some point. Complicating factors is the reality that sometimes ‘giving up’ is really the right thing to do.
Unsurprisingly, grit, like a growth mindset, can be cultivated. However, research shows 4 key preconditions that help leverage grit:
- Passion – it’s something they care about
- Practice – and are willing to work at deliberately
- Purpose – because it’s meaningful
- Hope – the attitude needed to overcome discouragement
As you work with your kids to set – and achieve – their goals, they’ll likely need help practicing well and remembering why that goal is important (purpose). For kids who are easily discouraged, encouraging them (hope) and keeping their passion kindled will be part of your charge as well. Finally, remind them to be patient with themselves; it’s ok to fail and ok to be a beginner.
Set Appropriately SMART Goals
Management gurus around the world coach business leaders to set SMART goals in pursuing business objectives. SMART is an acronym that means the goals are:
- Specific – The goal is concrete: “I will make the varsity football team”
- Measurable – The goal can be measured: you’re on the team…or not.
- Actionable – The goal can be acted upon: “I will do a morning conditioning workout every day before school”
- Realistic – The goal can be realistically accomplished. A 16 year old making Varsity is realistic. A 16 year old making it in the NFL, is not.
- Timely – The goal will be completed within a specific time frame: “I will make the Varsity football team my Sophomore year in high school.”
The aim of SMART goals is to make them concrete enough to be realized and clear enough to be measured. That way, you can see if the goal is being accomplished. Timeliness provides concrete intervals to check progress.
For younger kids, goals need to be very concrete and timeframes need to be really short. As kids get older, the goals can become more abstract and the timeframes shifted out, but the “actionable” part likely becomes a “series” of actions done over time.
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Resources to Check Out
There are many wonderful resources out there to help you help your kids learn how to set and achieve goals. Keeping in mind that even with these resources, you’ll need to be their main coach, you may find these other resources helpful.
The Big Life Journal
The Big Life Journal is not merely a journal, but a full-fledged system designed to help kids adopt a Growth Mindset. Their website offers different resources for kids of all ages including links to their “Big Life Kids’ Podcast,” which helps kids (and families) learn how to adopt a Growth Mindset. The podcast covers things like what a growth mindset is, how to stop comparing themselves to others, approaches to mindfulness, and more! It’s definitely worth checking out.
7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens
For older kids and teenagers, Sean Covey (son of the legendary Stephen Covey) has adapted his father’s framework for “Highly Effective People” to teenagers. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens is targeted towards teenagers and designed to help them develop goal-setting as a habit, not merely an activity. Combined with the companion workook, it can help teenagers learn the valuable skills they need to thrive as adults.
Grit, by Angela Duckworth is more a resource for you than your kids. In this book, psychologist Angela Duckworth examines the role of perseverance in accomplishing goals and achieving success. Not surprisingly, grit is an important component. But, is it inherent or can it be cultivated? With a growth mindset, argues Angela, it can be cultivated. But, it requires passion, a supportive environment and focus. Reading this book will help you, help your kids.
Setting – and attaining – goals is a really important part of living a successful life. As parents, you have an awesome opportunity to help your kids live great lives now – and in the future. Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way!
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