The New Year is frequently a time when adults do some personal goal setting through resolutions of all sorts. This time of year also presents a great opportunity to teach kids this important skill. Setting and working towards goals helps kids to develop self-control, persistence and responsibility, and according to Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal, “a student's ability to set and achieve realistic goals is linked to higher grades, lower college-dropout rates and greater well-being in adulthood” (Shellenbarger, 2011).
The first step in teaching kids goal setting to is to talk about what goals are, and find out what personal goals your child might be interested in achieving. Perhaps they’d like to do well at science fair, learn to ice skate, or receive a blue ribbon on their 4-H project. Whatever the goal, you can help the child articulate it using psychologist Dr. Michele Borba’s goal formula of “I will + what + when” (Borba, 2017). Use this formula to help your kid decide exactly what they want to do, and when they will do it by. Then have them repeat it out loud using “I will” to help empower them to get started.
Though it can be tempting to suggest goals to our children when teaching them about goal setting, it’s very important to let your kid decide their personal goal themselves. Youth, and adults, will pursue a goal with more tenacity if they have ownership of it. You can help give your child ideas of areas in their life where they can set goals, such as school, hobbies, health, finances or friends. But overall, achieving goals takes motivation, and that motivation will be stronger for a self-created goal.
Often goals involved forming new habits, like practicing an instrument each day, or getting up early to take care of an animal. These habits take time to form. According to a 2009 study by the UK Health Behaviour Research Centre it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit (Phillippa Lally, 2009). Getting through that habit-forming period can be a struggle, but once a habit is formed, the behavior becomes automatic and is more likely to succeed in the long term. If a child is passionate about a goal, they’re more likely to stick through this habit building period and make real change.
While it’s important to let kids set their own goals it is essential that those goals are realistic. During the goal setting process, help your child fine-tune their goals to make sure they are achievable. Encourage your child to start with a smaller goal, so they don’t get discouraged, before moving on to more ambitious challenges. For every objective, help your child break it down into smaller targets and tasks, and assist them with identifying resources that are available to help with each step. Working towards smaller steps of a larger goal helps create a sense of progress and can provide regular positive feelings of accomplishment.
Another way to help your child be successful in their goal setting is having them write their goals down. According to a study by Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University, people who write down their goals are 42 percent more likely to achieve them (Matthews, 2007). Have your kid write down their goals and post them somewhere they will see them every day. These steps will help kids develop and maintain motivation in their goal-setting journey, and help them form positive habits.
After goals are set, schedule times to check up on progress towards targets and the overall plan. As kids move towards their goal, make sure you recognize their effort with praise and acknowledgment. Be sure to celebrate milestones along the path to achieving the goal. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a visual tool to help mark progress, such as a calendar or poster you mark with stickers, or a glass jar you fill with a small object, like change or candy, each time you do something. These visual reminders can help boost motivation.
Be prepared for your child to have set-backs on the way towards their goal. When they do, use them as a learning moment. Help kids review why they might be failing to meet their targets or overall goal, and work together to set strategies to improve in the future. Even failing to achieve a goal can be a positive learning experience for kids if you focus on what they did well, as well as what they can do better next time.
The last key to teaching our kids goal setting is modeling the behavior for our children. Watching a parent perform a behavior, then imitating it, is one of the strongest ways that kids learn. Parents can leverage this by showing kids minor and major goal setting on a daily basis. Share a personal goal with your child, no matter how small, and then show them how you are working on achieving it. Use the goal formula (“I will + what + when”) out loud with your child, and share your progress at regular intervals so they can see the process in action. Talk out challenges you encounter and help normalize the fact that people don’t always achieve their goals. Taking time to teach our kids goal setting at this time of year might be the extra push we adults need to persevere with our own resolutions, plus it will help provide our youth with tools they need to succeed in school, work and life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Henschen is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist with University of Illinois Extension. She provides statewide 4-H program leadership in the areas of evaluation and staff development. Amy has previously worked as a 4-H educator in both Illinois and Colorado, developing programs to meet local needs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Spanish from the University of Dayton and a master’s degree in Agricultural Extension Education from Colorado State University. Amy grew up in the Illinois 4-H program and is passionate about creating high quality programs and environments where youth can thrive.
Borba, M. (2017, December 26). How to Teach Kids Goal-Setting and Perseverance. U.S. News & World Report.
Matthews, G. (2007). The impact of commitment, accountability, and written goals on goal achievement. 87th Convention of the Western Psychological Association. Vancouver: Dominican Scholar.
Phillippa Lally, C. H. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology.
Shellenbarger, S. (2011, March 3). Making Kids Work on Goals (And Not Just In Soccer). The Wall Street Journal.