Teaching Goal Setting to Elementary Students the Easy Way

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Teaching goal setting to elementary students is an invaluable gift that must not be overlooked.  

According to research from the University of Scranton, only 8% of people who set “New Year’s goals” actually achieve those goals.  That’s why so many people get frustrated and feel like failures.  They feel as if they are stuck in the mud simply spinning their wheels.  You see, they were never taught how to set goals and think big.

As teachers, we have the ability to make an impression on future adults by equipping them with lifelong skills.  So, we need to make sure that we take the necessary time to teach our kids how to set achievable goals, practice this skill over and over, and then give them the courage to dream big and achieve.

Think Big

Quite possibly the most vital part of teaching goal setting to elementary students is helping them think big. This will probably also be the most challenging part since most kids can’t think outside of what they are doing for lunch, much less what the future holds!

Sadly, in the rural area where I live, many kids don’t envision much, if anything, for themselves in the future. Some have big plans, but most don’t even know how to think outside of our little town. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a cycle of lower achievement. Why work hard when there is nothing to work hard for?

This is why encouraging students to think big is crucial.

A great activity that you can do with your students to get them thinking big is to ask them about their interests. Have them take out a sheet of notebook paper and list anything they enjoy doing.

Then after you give them some time to brainstorm, use one student as an example. Share their list using your document camera.

Talk about how your student’s love of creating with Legos would make them a great architect or engineer. Another student’s interest in animals could make her a perfect pet groomer.

If you have a student that can’t think of anything he enjoys, but he has a long list of things he DOESN’T like to do, use that dislike list as a springboard for conversations. If he doesn’t like being stuck inside, he might enjoy being a game warden or a construction worker.

Getting kids to think about their future now helps them envision what it would be like to actually achieve their goals. For some, it will be to simply graduate high school. For others, it will be to graduate from college or become a doctor.

Be S.M.A.R.T.

As I said before, most adults struggle with the concept of goal setting because they don’t know how to set appropriate and meaningful goals. What’s worse, even if they know what end result they want, many adults don’t know how to actually get there or how to even get started.

To curb this deficit, we can use the SMART method to teach goal-setting to elementary students. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, and Timely.

Let’s use an example…

If a kid says, “I want to do good on my spelling test this week”…is that an effective goal?

Let’s use the SMART method to find out!

  • Is it Specific? Yes, it’s specific to the subject of spelling.
  • Is it Measurable? No, there is no way to measure “good.”
  • Is it Attainable? Without being measurable, there is no way to attain the goal.
  • Is it Reasonable? Yes, because this student typically gets 5/20 correct.
  • Is it Timely? Yes, the goal is set for this week.

Sure, we know what they “mean” by their goal, but, to help them feel accomplished, they need to rephrase this goal.

New goal: I want to get 10/20 on my spelling test this week.

The student has now set a goal that is specific (spelling), can be measured (10/20), is attainable (50%), relevant (yes), and timely (this week).

Start Small

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” -Lao Tzu

Now that the kids have set a goal, they need to learn how to achieve them.

As you know, we all need little victories to give us the courage to continue. This is also true when teaching goal setting to elementary students. Whether it’s learning something new or setting goals that will take a long time to accomplish, if we start small, we can create momentum needed to successfully achieve our goals.

Using the same spelling example as before, you could begin by encouraging them to earn 10/20 on their weekly spelling test. Obviously we want them to get 20/20, but the whole point is to set the bar lower than you typically would just to help them see themselves as successful.

For perfectionists and “A+” students, this will sound ridiculous because they believe that anything less than perfection is failure. But teaching them to see imperfect growth as success may help them release some of their need to strive for perfection.

It’s test time!

Have your kids write that goal in the top left hand corner of their paper. Then, when you grade it, they can compare their goal to the actual result.

How did they do?

If the student achieved or surpassed their goal, congratulate the child and help them set the next goal of perhaps 15/20. If the student did not achieve their goal, encourage them to continue going for their goal.

Starting small is exactly what some of your lower achieving kids need to build up their confidence.

Do You

Have you ever heard the expressions, “You do you”?

There are two ways this phrase applies to teaching goal setting to elementary students.

Compete Against Yourself

First, remember that you are competing ONLY with yourself. Regardless of what we are teaching, the last thing we want to do is encourage kids to compare themselves to others. (Unfortunately, they’ll learn to do this on their own and we certainly don’t want add that pressure.)

However, learning to try harder than the day before is a skill that will help your learners overcome every obstacle they encounter. Deciding to work harder than ever will help them take ownership of their learning, and give them a vested interest in the outcome.

If they feel as though they are doing everyone a favor just by being present in class, they will never be successful. However, if we can get them focused on beating their best time or getting one more right than they did the day before or the week before, they are vested. And that is how we get them achieving.

Re-route As Needed

The second way “you do you” applies in teaching goal setting to elementary students is knowing when to re-route.

Rerouting, or shifting a goal in some way, does not mean you’re a failure. It simply means that you want to pursue a new path with a different end result than your original.

Helping our students understand this fact gives them the freedom they need to set stretch goals that will push them.

Sometimes students need to adjust their goals. *EXAMPLE*

Don’t stick to the same goal just because you think that is what you should do or because someone else wants you to do it. It’s your choice! Be YOU!

Rerouting or shifting is a completely acceptable part of the goal setting process and should be taught as such.

The Secret

Want to know the secret sauce? As with any skill worth having, practice is key.

Ok so it’s not a new secret, but goal setting isn’t one of those skills you can simply introduce and say you taught it. It needs to be practiced regularly. And, one of the easiest ways to practice goal setting is by using “Tickets Out the Door.”

When students are leaving the classroom, they submit a written answer to any question you pose regarding what they have learned throughout the lesson.

My favorite way to do this was to use post-it notes as the “Ticket.”  My kids would put their answers on those, and then stick them on the bulletin board beside the door under their assigned number.

To effectively use this for teaching goal setting to elementary students, hand out the post-it notes at the beginning of class. Have them set a goal for themselves. Then, at the end of class, your students can explain whether they met, exceeded, or didn’t meet their goal.

As an added level of reflection, have your students tell what they feel like their levels of effort were. Did they give their absolute best efforts, or did they slack a little today? You’ll be amazed at the level of honesty from many of your kids.

While teaching goal setting to elementary students is not a simple task, it is a skill they will use for the rest of their lives. No matter how small or how silly the goal may seem to you, just encourage it. It’s this future thinking that will be critical to their success.