4 Ways to Teach Kids How to Set Effective Goals

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We always tell our kids that anything is possible. We encourage them to shoot for the stars, but there are a relative few that actually equip their children with the tools they need to carry out their dreams. A research study sponsored by the Ford Foundation indicated that 23% of people have no idea what they want out of life, 67% have a general idea of what they want but no goals or plans to achieve it, while only 10% of the population has specific, well-defined goals. Another study from Dominican University suggests that people are 42% more likely to achieve their goals if they write their goals down. An overwhelming majority of people that feel successful, happy and fulfilled utilize the practice of setting and fulfilling goals on a regular basis.

Even though the importance of setting goals to build the kind of life and relationships we want is relatively common knowledge, there is a very small group of people that actually employ SMART, written objectives in their lives. Why is that? How can we be better at setting and fulfilling our goals and how can we teach our kids, not only the rhetorical importance of setting goals, but HOW to create goal directed habits to implement goals effectively?

So, if we know goals are helpful, why do so few people set and follow through with goals?

  • We never learned how: If Mom and Dad don’t teach us the skill of setting effective goals, we generally have to learn it on our own. We have to seek out the education for ourselves.
  • Fear of failure or experience with past failure: We worry that if we put our goals out there and we don’t reach them, that makes us a failure. Maybe we have even had an experience with missing the mark on a personal goal and fear having the same negative experience.
  • Fear of success: I’ve found that sometimes I keep myself from setting goals due to the fear of actually succeeding. Reaching our goals can propel us into new situations that we are not familiar or comfortable with, so we drag our feet because we fear the unknown.
  • We feel overwhelmed already: Sometimes we feel like we have so much going on that we couldn’t possibly fit something new into our life. Feeling the extra accountability of setting a formal goal feels like too much.

Overcome the above obstacles to effective goal setting

  1. Be Aware but not preoccupied with the past
  2. Know Your “Why”
  3. Write down your SMART Goals
  4. Be accountable
  5. Break down goals to simple daily tasks, track and adjust your intensity and progress
  6. Focus on today. Break down larger goals into simple daily tasks
  7. Celebrate and repeat the process
  • Treat each goal as a “success experiment”: When you can look at each goal, each day, each step as an experiment, we can utilize goals to learn and find out what works best for you. You will inevitably make mistakes along the path to reaching your goals but that does not mean you have failed, but rather that you have gathered valuable information about what works and what does not. You can use this information to shift and make positive corrections that help you be successful.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: Growth often requires that we face things that we feel are slightly outside of our comfort zone. That’s okay. That is what stretches us and drives us to step it up. Make it a habit to identify something that is good for you, that is slightly uncomfortable to you and schedule a time for it every day. Do it whether you want to or not. Develop the strength of will to persevere through reasonable discomfort and realize that each time we assert our will, the task becomes easier and we are lifted to new heights.
  • Realize that goal setting does not complicate, it simplifies: Have you ever tried to pick up a huge bundle of items without organizing them first, only to take one step and drop something? Then you bend to get that item and drop something else? You finally decide to put the items down and organize them or find some container to place them in. The same task that you were cursing moments earlier seems simple. Goal setting is similar. All of us at some time feel overwhelmed and frazzled and think goal setting just adds a brick to our load. But in actuality, goal setting helps us to reorganize our load and add leverage to our current load to make it more efficient and easier. It brings order to the chaos we carry.

When you have learned how to set and reach your goals, you can help your children learn and start to set their own goals. Below I’ll share 4 fun activities that can teach each of the steps above and start kids on the path to effective goal setting.

Exercises to do with kids to teach goal setting and fulfillment

1. Do a dream and goal brainstorm: Explore the realm of possibilities without limits. Get out a huge piece of paper or a blank poster and sit down with color crayons or markers and invite your child to help you to create their “perfect world.” Create a picture of that world with them. You can help write and label things while your child colors and answers questions, or if they are old enough, they can write or draw it themselves. Ask questions like…

a. If you went to sleep tonight and a miracle happened and you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect, what would that be like for you?

b. Who would be around you and how would everyone treat each other?

c. Where would you live?

d. What kinds of things would be around you?

e. What would you be doing?

f. What would you know how to do?

g. What would you love most about all of this?

h. For older kids you could ask things like, “what would be your biggest achievement”?

This exercise is fun and can give both you and your child a better idea of what they want and what they would like to change. It helps you and them better understand your child’s “why” behind their dreams and goals. It can then act as a springboard for further learning and goal setting in the future.

2. Model setting a SMART goal and creatively include your child in helping you achieve it: Enlist the help of your child in completing your goal. During a family night or some other connected moment share with them your goal and make them one of your accountability agents. Ask them to help you and maybe even participate in the goal with you. Express how you really want to complete your goal and need their help doing it. Ask them if they will help you by reminding you about it daily or weekly or helping you track your progress on a chart or something. You can get creative with how you ask them to participate, but get them involved. If you want to lose weight, ask them if they will play or exercise with you several days a week. If you want to save money this year, ask them to join you in adding change to a savings jar in the kitchen. Find some way to include them in your regular progress toward your goal.

Jessica Lahey, Author of the forthcoming book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Kids Can Succeed,” shares how she and her husband implement modeling effective goal setting with their kids. She says…

“When I realized how effective short-term, achievable goals were for my middle school student advisees, my husband and I decided to try it out in our home. Every once in a while we take some time at dinner to write down three short-term achievable goals for ourselves. They can’t be too big, because it’s important that when we revisit our goals down the line, we can be able to check them off and feel as if we’ve accomplished something. I always try to pick one that pushes me out of my comfort zone, because I can’t ask my children to do the same if I’m not setting a good example. Finally, it’s important that my kids’ goals are THEIRS, so we try really hard not to butt our noses (or our motives) into their goals. A few weeks later, we check in to see how things have gone. If we did not reach our goals, or if we tried and failed, no big deal; we are accountable only to ourselves. It’s been an effective way to shift our focus off of grades and on to personal ambitions, and the more we can do of that, the better!”

3. Create a goal personal progress chart: Note that this chart is not a “reward chart” in the sense that they are going to use the chart to get some kind of reward from you by performing certain behavior. This chart is their own fun, personal chart for tracking their own actions toward their goal. Once your child has identified a SMART goal they want to work on, have them draw it at the top or right side of a poster board. Identify a sport or other goal directed activity they love and use that as the theme for their chart. For example, if your son loves soccer, invite him to draw a soccer field on the poster with the picture of their goal at the top or end of the chart. Help them to think of simple, daily activities or tasks that will help them get to their goal and write them along the field as progress markers. Create a ball that they can move up the field. Help them identify a goal that is attainable so that you can help set them up to succeed. Post the chart somewhere that they can see it regularly and be prompted on a daily basis to fulfill their daily tasks.

4. Read inspirational stories of perseverance: Use stories as conversation starters about principles of hard work, ingenuity and not giving up. Discuss “failure” vs. “progress” mentality. Resilience and success are built on the back of an understanding that mistakes, setbacks and imperfect progress are all part of growth and achievement. Some wonderful children’s books that teach these concepts include….

  • Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
  • Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson
  • The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
  • Who Moved My Cheese? For Kids by Spencer Johnson
  • Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

One of the most significant dreams and goals of my life is to teach my children to be healthy, happy and to not just reach for the stars, but reach the stars. I want to be intentional about helping them become intentional about life. I want to help them become creators in their lives. My little boys know the importance of vision and goals through their experience building Legos. Their Lego creations are built piece by piece and having a vision of what they want the creation to be and then following a plan helps them reach the outcome they want. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times that we improvise and build creations off the cuff, but the blueprints serve an important purpose nonetheless. We can teach our kids goal setting in fun ways that build our relationship with them and build ourselves as well.

Let us know what your goals are for the New Year. What are some of your child’s dreams and goals? How can you help them set strong goals and fulfill them?

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