As parents, we want the best for our children.  We want them to be happy and feel loved.  And, when we think of their future, we want them to have the skills and resources that will help them to lead a happy and successful life, whatever that means for them.

One skill we can instil on our children from an early age and help set them up for adulthood is goal setting.

Why goal setting is important for kids

Teaching children to set goals when they’re young establishes a habit they’ll benefit from throughout their life.

Setting goals, working towards them and reflecting on progress teaches children grit and perseverance. Often the things we want to achieve in life take work.  We can help our children develop the skill to know what they want and how to get it by teaching them effective goal setting skills from an early age.

Setting goals teaches children to take responsibility for their own behaviours – they learn that the actions they take, or don’t take, do have an impact on what they achieve.

Goal setting assists with building flexible thinking patterns and problem-solving skills.  It takes children through the process of identifying what they want and then ‘problem-solve’ how to get that.  It builds flexible thinking skills because if what they planned isn’t working, they need to be flexible with their approach and come up with a new way to get there.

Finally, as children work towards a goal it promotes in them a ‘can-do’ attitude.

How to teach your child to set goals?

Goals should also be appropriate to your child’s age.  Goals are meant to be a stretch and a challenge.  You want to push your children out of their comfort zone, so they learn to tolerate discomfort.  This not only makes them grittier and more resilient but also helps build their confidence.  But, too much of a stretch can have a detrimental effect. It could cause them to retreat inward, feel hopeless, become resentful or even develop anxiety about trying new things.  Therefore, make sure the goals are age appropriate and a challenge but not completely out of their reach.

Step one – Ensure the goal is your child’s goal, not yours.

The most important factor when helping your child set goals is to ensure the goal is their goal, not yours.

Motivation and ownership towards achieving the goal will be stronger if your child comes up with the goal themselves, rather than thinking ‘this is something mum or dad want me to do’.

I have seen this a few times with my 10-year-old daughter.  When I’ve suggested or recommended a goal, she has had very little interest or ownership in it. For a while, I’ve wanted her to do a small fun run with me.  She likes the idea and seems keen and will come on a training run a couple of times. She then loses interest and that’s because it was my goal, not hers.

A few weeks ago, she told me about a run she wanted us to do together and has now allocated what day will be our running day together.  Her ownership and motivation is much higher now it’s her goal, not mine.

Questions you can ask to help your child choose their own goals are:

  • What would you like to get better at?
  • What is something that you would be very proud of accomplishing?
  • What’s something you wish you could achieve?
  • What’s a challenge you would feel very proud to overcome?

Another way that can help you child come up with their own goals is work them through the wheel of life and you can find more information on that here.

Step two – Make sure the goal is specific and measurable.

Goals can be short-term focused, action or habit-oriented goals or they can have a longer-term focus. Whatever the focus, the goal for your child needs to be clear and specific.  Avoid vague goals like “I’ll help out more around the house” or ‘I want to learn an instrument’ as there’s no clear way to know when or if the goal has been achieved.

Some examples of more effective goals are:

  • I will make my bed every morning.
  • I will unpack the dishwasher each day.
  • I will vacuum each Saturday morning.
  • I will learn to play chopsticks on the piano by the end of the year.

With each of these examples, it is very clear what needs to be done or what the child is working towards.

Your child needs to be able to recognise their progress toward their goal. So, be sure it’s something specific and measurable.

Step three – Discuss why the goal is important to them.

‘Why’ gives motivation. When individuals have a purpose for what they are doing, they are more willing to take the steps and do the work required in order to reach that goal and it’s no different for children.

Ask questions such as:

  • Why do you want to achieve this goal?  Why is this important to you?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What is the purpose of this goal?

You have this to reflect back on should they start to lose motivation.

Step four – Break the goal into mini-goals or actions.

This step is important for long-term goals.

Children need to understand they may not reach their long-term goal right away and they will need to sustain motivation for an extended period.

One way to help them with this is to break their long-term goal into more manageable short-term actions or steps.  It will help them keep motivated and help them understand their goal is reachable, but it may take time.  Mini-goals or steps also give them something to celebrate along the way, rather than waiting until the end to celebrate.

To help your child break a big, long-term goal into smaller steps, use a  goal ladder.

At the top of the ladder ask them to write down their big goal. Then help them fill in the steps of the ladder by asking them ‘what step do you need to take first, to help you towards that goal’.  Then ask, ‘what’s the next step’ and ‘what’s the next step’, etc.

Once they have identified their steps, ask them to write those steps in the rungs of the ladder.  If relevant, ask them to put times or dates against each rung.

This ladder is a great visual for children to help them understand that although they may not reach the goal right away, if they are making progress and meeting the mini-goals or steps, they are still climbing the “ladder” towards their big goal.

Step five – Discuss obstacles and a way to overcome them.

An obstacle or roadblock can be enough to stop an adult in their tracks when they are pursuing goals.  Don’t let them stop your children.  Instead, prepare them.  Discuss obstacles, and ways to overcome them, before they start working towards the goal.  That way, if or when they come up, they know how to handle them.

To identify the obstacles, ask your child questions such as:

  • ‘What might stop you from getting this goal?’
  • ‘Do you think anything might get in your way of being able to do this?’
  • ‘What do you think will be hard or difficult about this?’

Then, make sure you work through ways to overcome the obstacles:

  • ‘How could you work around that?’
  • ‘What would you do if that happened?’
  • ‘Do you know anyone else that has done this before? How did they overcome that?’

This starts building your child’s problem solving and flexible thinking skills.  It also shows that you can help them work through obstacles if they come up. Also, if they do hit that obstacle, you can remind them they already know the solution because they have discussed it with you before.

Step Six – Measure and reflect on progress.

Measurement should be relevant to the goal and your child’s age.  There are a number of ways you can do this such as:

  • Mark off achievements on the goal ladder.
  • Use an incentive or reward chart.
  • Ask your child to keep a diary.

Measuring and tracking your child’s actions towards their goal will help them see their progress and maintain their motivation.

Reflection on their progress and actions is also important.  You can help your child do this by referring to your tracking charts/measurement tools and asking them how they feel about their progress.  Ask them what they are proud of? Ask them to reflect on how far they have come and if their plan to get to their goal is still relevant.

If they are not on track towards their goal, ask them why.  Why do they think they haven’t reached their goal?  Was it too much of a stretch or have they not taken the actions they said they would?

Give your child the gift of being able to reflect on what went well and worked as well as what didn’t go well and what they could do differently.

It’s OK to discuss the fact that they haven’t met their goal, or their plan didn’t work, as long as the discussion is done with a focus on what they learned, rather than what they failed to achieve.

Help them develop a growth mindset.  Help them believe it’s ok to make mistakes or not get it right because that means they are learning and growing.  They may not have reached their goal but they have learnt what they can do differently next time.

In summary:

Start your children thinking about goals and how they will achieve them.  Help them build the skill of setting goals and planning how to achieve them as the more they do it as a child, the easier they will find this process as an adult.

To work through setting goals with your child, ensure:

  1. Ensure the goal is your child’s goal, not yours
  2. Make sure the goal is specific and measurable
  3. Discuss why the goal is important to them
  4. break the goal into mini-goals or actions
  5. Discuss obstacles and a way to overcome them
  6. Measure and reflect on progress

And, when they do hit their goal, celebrate with them.  Ask them to reflect on what they learned and how proud they are.  And, then encourage them to do it all again.

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