Classroom, Curriculum, Elementary, High School, Junior High

10 Easy Tips for How to Teach Students to Set Goals

As teachers, we all know the importance of setting goals. I hope you’re all setting them (and I assume if you’re the type of person perusing teaching blogs in your spare time, you’re also the type of person who sets goals). It can be harder to convince students of the importance of goal setting.

I don’t only think goal setting is important in order to attain the things we desire and become better versions of ourselves. I also believe they are extremely important because they give us a purpose. Having a clear purpose and a reason for getting up in the morning can be a major game changer for anyone feeling depressed, indifferent, apathetic, or as though they’re just “coasting” through life.

Goals shouldn’t just be seen as a quick activity to complete at the start of the school year or the new year. Students should be taught how to effectively create meaningful long and short term goals and to monitor their progress toward them. This skill helps them throughout their lives as they aim to better themselves and create a life that’s meaningful to them.
Obviously, you can tell I’m really passionate about goal-setting. I like to make sure it’s something we work on throughout the year and continue to change and evolve as we grow.

I’m sure we’re all very aware (sick of?) the SMART goal setting method. I think this is a smart (see what I did there?) way to set goals, but there’s more we can do to help support our kids than just go over SMART goal setting and then just setting it and forgetting it.

Here are some of my favourite tips for supporting student goal-setting at school:

Ensure students’ goals are meaningful

Writing a goal that has absolutely no meaning or impact for your student is a waste of their time. This is a big pet peeve of mine when classes just do a quick lesson or activity around setting goals, but they don’t dig into the importance of it. You may as well not even bother doing it!

I suggest giving examples of goals and having a large discussion around setting them. Make is extremely clear that everyone’s goals will be different and that that’s completely normal and okay. In fact, it’s a good thing because we’re all unique and want to achieve different things. I also suggest giving students examples of goals they may want to achieve in different parts of their life. For example, they may have an academic goal, a goal around their friendships or families, a goal around their hobbies and/or learning a new skill, and so on.

In ensuring goals are meaningful, it’s also really important for students to highlight why they want to achieve it. For example, if a student doesn’t see the point of raising their grade in math, setting that goal is going to me useless for them. But, if they want to get a better grade in math because they’re interested in getting into an electrical program after high school and they need to have good grades, that goal is something they’ll actually want to strive for and meet.

Moral of the story: always have really strong discussions and activities with kids about why they are setting their goals. Not only with this make them more likely to work toward them, it also helps them build self-advocacy skills and create a life that’s significant for them.

Goals should be clear and specific

If a goal is too vague, the student can slack off on it or not really know when they’ve hit it. This doesn’t seem like a major issue, but I find that it becomes a problem because the kids stop caring if the goal isn’t clear enough. They struggle to actually know if they’ve hit it or what they need to do to find success, and this causes them to stop trying.

I always, always aim to teach students the skills they need to find personal success and advocate for themselves. Beginning to slack on goals is a surefire way to never reach them. When this happens, I also find that students begin to get into the thought pattern that goal-setting doesn’t work or is a waste of time. I obviously don’t like this because I think they’re so important for success.

When students are first beginning to discuss goals and creating theirs, it’s vital to give them examples of clear goals and different examples of vague versus detailed goals. Try crafting some yourself as a class to show kids the steps in turning an ambiguous goal into a specific one.

Make short term goals

I find it very helpful to teach kids the difference between short and long term goals and have them create some of each. These help them to stay on track and recognize that goals all are going to look different and can be applicable for various times in our lives. Setting short term goals is great because kids get the results quickly. When they can begin seeing the pay-off of their hard work right away, they will start seeing the benefit of goal setting and start setting more.

Short term goals, like getting a good mark on an upcoming test or shooting ten hoops in a row are things kids can achieve right away. These are great learning opportunities even if they don’t succeed because they can show students where they may need to re-evaluate their timing, whether the goal was too difficult, or if they didn’t apply themselves well enough to reach it.

Make long term goals

Long term goals are really effective for students to achieve major successes in their lives. The best thing about making short and long term goals is that long term goals are usually larger and have a bigger impact, but shorter term goals act as stepping stones for these goals and also keep kids motivated as they strive to reach goals that are further away.

It may be difficult for students to determine what kinds of long term goals they’d like to reach and whether they’re attainable. It’s important for you to provide a lot of support around this. Work with the whole class to think of various long term goals students could be striving for. Talk with them about the fact that these may seem really hard to achieve but if they work really hard they can get to them, they don’t have to be as achievable right away as their short term goals. At the same time, they have to be reasonable! Have lots of talks and support around this and they’ll be able to start recognizing what good short and long term goals look like.

Ensure goals are attainable

Sometimes our students can get a bit carried away and begin setting goals that are unlikely to be met. For example, if a student who has been failing ELA and hasn’t read the last three short stories the class has done wants to get a 95% on the test in two days, well that’s unlikely to happen.

If students start setting goals and don’t find success at least some of the time, they’ll begin to give up and may even feel resentment toward goal-setting and/or what they aimed to achieve. I don’t ever want kids to feel this way, because I worry it will start of have a negative impact in how they view their lives and the agency they have.

I have to pause here to recognize my own privilege and the privilege of some students over others. Obviously, there are a lot of kids who really do have an extremely difficult road ahead of them. It will be must harder for some students to reach goals than it will be for others. Unfortunately, this is the current reality in which some people have access and privilege that others don’t. However, I want to do everything I can as a teacher to impart students with the feeling that they can take ownership over their choices and their lives in whatever ways possible.

Have meetings with the students

I have always liked to meet with my students multiple times a year to chat about their academic goals and how they are progressing with them. I now also like to check in on their non-academic goals as well. I find this helps them stay on track and also positively builds my relationship with them.

If you’re incorporating goal-setting into your classroom, it’s really important to follow through and check in with students. That’s part of our responsibility in order to teach students how important it is to continually check in on the goals. The majority of our kids won’t have this skill right away, so we need to help them with it. Additionally, it show them how much we care about them and their future success. having someone “in their corner” is really important for our students, especially those who may not have great relationships outside of school.

Break goals into steps

Simply setting a goal and then hoping it will work out is more than likely to fail. If we tell kids to “work hard” or other general advice for working toward their goals, most are unlikely to know where to start. We need to show our students how to set actionable steps in order to actually meet the goal. This also helps to keep the goal itself from being overwhelming. If the goal seems too big, we risk just quitting or giving up.

If a student has the goal to get better at soccer and become their team captain, we could break this into steps such as practicing shooting from various spots on the field, working on dribbling, practicing passing with a partner, taking on leadership roles in the classroom, and so on. They should specifically decide what skills to work on and set times in which they can and will practice these. This way, the student can check off working on each step to, hopefully, eventually meet their goal.

Change goals when necessary

Setting a goals doesn’t set it in stone. It’s our responsibility to let students know that it’s completely fine to change goals that just aren’t working or which are no longer relevant. Sometimes a goal will change because the student realizes it just isn’t attainable or that it’s not something that they want or care about anymore.

It’s important to really talk about the difference between changing a goal and quitting a goal. We shouldn’t let out kids just give up because they think they can’t reach it, but if they’ve realized that something is just not right anymore, we shouldn’t shame them. Kids should know that it’s natural to change and grow and that things they used to want may not be relevant to them as they become a different person.

Rather than simply dropping a goal, I highly suggest changing it to a different goal. This way, students are still being held accountable and know that goals are “living” things which can change and evolve with them.

Share with students your own goals and model behaviour

I find that it’s valuable to share my own goals with students and how I’m planning to meet them. For example, one of the goals I recently shared with my students was around completing my Master’s degree. I shared with them my timeline and the steps I was taking to complete my thesis; they got to share in all the ups and downs and the waiting game academia is.

Sharing with your students shows them that goal-setting isn’t just a busy-work thing we do in school; real adults also set goals and take steps to complete them. We go through the same challenges they do, and we overcome them. This really emphasizes that meeting goals is important for creating a purposeful life and is done by people of all ages and stages of life!

Continue to set new goals

Now that students know how to set and meet their goals, it’s important for them to keep that skill up! Emphasize that we need to continually create new goals in order to persist in growing and evolving. This should become a major part of their lives.

Always make sure students pause to celebrate their successes when they meet goals, we don’t want to drive anyone to anxiety! However, when they’ve celebrated, realized how great it feels to succeed, then are feeling ready again, have them create a new goal to strive toward! This helps give them purpose and continue to become the best version of themselves they can be!

What do you think about these tips? Would you change or add anything else? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and thank you so much for reading today!


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