7 Steps to Help Kids Set Goals

Setting goals for success

Helping kids set goals builds their resilience, motivation, and executive functioning.  

It’s true. 92 percent of people don’t achieve the goals they set for themselves. However, most don’t know how to create goals effectively. Helping kids set goals is a critical life skill for future success. Especially in this age of instant gratification, where perseverance and determination are lacking.

When kids set goals, they build their resilience, boost their motivation, and strengthen their executive functioning (the skills needed to regulate attention, emotions, and behaviour to build independence).

Goals help create a sense of purpose for what they do.

Having a goal to work towards helps kids learn to take responsibility for their learning and growth, as well as the value of working hard toward that goal.

Working towards goals also promotes delayed gratification, perseverance, and time management. And, taking each step along the way promotes self-efficacy and confidence.

To be most successful, we want to teach our kids how to set S.M.A.R.T. goals.

SMART is an acronym to help kids qualify their goals. For each goal, they can make sure that it is it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Set S.M.A.R.T. goals

With smart goals, kids can identify doable, achievable, observable, and measurable goals and action plans. To be most successful, these goals are very specific and concrete AND, most importantly, relevant, meaningful, and important for them.   

I want to emphasize this last point. It is critical kids create goals that are most meaningful and important to them. When they are genuinely interested in the goal, it is way easier to stay intrinsically motivated, driven, persistent, and successful.

So, how do we teach kids to set their own goals? Here are seven research-based steps to help kids set effective goals, stay on track, and stay motivated in the process.

7 easy steps for kids to set goals that are effective & S.M.A.R.T.

1. Brainstorm

The first step for kids to set goals is to brainstorm all the different things they want to work on. If they’re having trouble, ask questions like:

  • What is something you wish you could learn, do, or achieve?
  • What would you do if you knew you could do anything successfully?
  • What would you want to be the best in the world at?
  • If you had a superpower, what would you do with it?
  • What would make you feel really proud?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What do you like to learn about?
  • If you found magic rock and could ask for three wishes, what would you wish for?

Goals can include anything from learning to ride a bike to making friends to getting into university.

It is important that, when identifying the goal, kids include objectives that are worded positively – what they ARE going to do vs. what they are not going to do.

Goals will depend on the child. If they already excel at something that they want to focus even more on, maybe they want to push their skills even more.  Help brainstorm ideas with them and even come up with your own.

2. Identify and define the most important goals

Have your kids identify the most important goals they want to accomplish and clearly define them. Make sure the goals are specific, concrete, measurable, and trackable. How will they know day-by-day and week-by-week they are on the right track?

They can make goals as big (though realistic) or as little as they want – they will break them down in another step.

Writing these goals down helps clarify the goal and make them more concrete than just thinking about them.

3. Identify the BIG WHY.

Identify the most important goals your kids want to accomplish. Start with one or two and write them down.

To boost their motivation and persistence even more, identify the goal behind the goal – why is this goal important? Knowing their BIG WHY will help keep them motivated. We all tend to perform better when we understand the reason and importance of what we are doing.

Hint for success: Kids do even better if they find a greater purpose for their goal that will benefit others. For example, if they want to write a book, perhaps their BIG WHY is to inspire others. If they want to do well in school, perhaps their BIG WHY is for their own benefit, but also to help them get into university and into a career where they can help others.

(And bonus: when we focus on this bigger purpose, we’re encouraging gratitude, compassion, and kindness – all prosocial emotions that optimize our motivation and success.)

Write the BIG WHY down and keep it in a place your kids can see it daily to keep on track.

If they need help figuring out their BIG WHY, you can ask questions like:

  • What’s the purpose of this goal?
  • What is the benefit of achieving this goal?
  • Why does this goal matter?
  • How will this goal help others?
  • Visualize achieving this goal: How it would look and feel to achieve this goal?

4. Identify the Steps to Accomplish Your Goal

Each goal must be well-defined and perceived as achievable to ensure success. Breaking the goal into small, achievable, manageable, detailed steps is critical for success. With clearly defined, incremental steps, it is much easier to actually take the steps they need to be successful.

In doing so, kids can focus on the process rather than expecting immediate results. Kids will stay motivated as they progress from one step to the next because they will see their progress as they complete each step and have opportunities to celebrate regularly along the way. (Most people fail when goals are too huge and unrealistic. They tend to focus on the end result, failing to recognize the importance of each of the small steps and successes that will get them there.)

Bonus: when kids break goals down, they learn the skills to break any challenging situation down into a small problem with one or two goals.

One way to identify the steps is to work backward. Start with the end goal they are working on and work backward to figure out the steps they need to do to achieve that goal.   

5. Identify potential obstacles and how to overcome them

It is important to also brainstorm all the potential barriers to success. Otherwise, unexpected issues could completely derail kids’ motivation.

What bad habits, negative thoughts, excuses, time robbers, and de-motivators could get in the way? Identify each of these and what you can do to address them.

An important barrier to address is time. Kids must understand that big goals take time, which is why we have lots of little goals and steps in between. The focus needs to be on the process – the steps – and progress with each step rather than the end result. Identify how they can remind themselves of this fact every day so they don’t get discouraged.

Just like writing goals down is important, it is also important to write down all the barriers that could come up and the plan to address them when they do. Like reading our BIG WHY, having the plan written down for them to review when obstacles show up will help them stay on track.

A simple template to use when creating an action plan to overcome obstacles is:

When (this obstacle) shows up, then I will ­­­(do this action to manage and overcome it).

Some days it can be hard to stay motivated. Wanting to give up is one of the biggest obstacles anyone faces when it comes to following through with goals. An important question to ask is, “What will you do to be successful when you feel like giving up?”

Here are some example action plans to help stay on track:

  • Read your BIG WHY
  • Visualize yourself achieving this goal and how it will feel.
  • Remember how things will be different when you reach your goal.
  • Go back to your calendar and re-focus on today’s step. Just focus on that one step for today.
  • Celebrate the steps achieved so far.
  • Look at where things have been hard and focus on what you have learned and what you can continue to work on. Think about what didn’t go great last time that I can do differently next time.
  • Talk back to the giving up trickster part of the brain. Tell it who is boss and why you are working on this goal!
  • Self-coach – repeat a motivating mantra to reignite motivation (e.g., “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take).
  • Discuss famous stories of people who had a lot of setbacks before they were successful. Michael Jordan never made his high school basketball team. What if he gave up and never pursued basketball after that? Thomas Edison “failed” 10,000 times before he finally got the lightbulb to work. What would have happened if he gave up at the 9,000 mark?

6. Plan Your Day, Week, and Month

Take out your calendars! It is helpful to write each step on a small post-it note. Place each step on the calendar, aiming to work on a little bit of the goal daily or weekly. If a step doesn’t get done today, that’s ok! You can move it to tomorrow. Having a visual like this can be helpful to stay on track. And, working a little bit every day on something will have a much bigger impact than working one full day every couple of weeks.

7. Track, Reflect, & Celebrate

It is important too, every day, review that goal. What went well today? What’s one little thing I can do tomorrow to move a little closer to achieving that goal?

Learn from today’s mistakes to help guide what to do tomorrow.  

Similarly, at the end of each week, have your kids review what they have done over the week. Reflect on what they did well, what was hard, what barriers got in the way, what needs to be tweaked, and what they can do next week to continue their success.

It is important to consistently reflect and write down their successes and obstacles to maintain objectivity and stay on track. 

It is also essential to track progress visually. Keep a record of every step achieved. Our brain likes to forget our successes so we need to ensure we have a visual reminder of the progress we have made so far.

And, even more importantly, celebrate every success no matter how big or small each week! Our brain can get stuck on what didn’t work well very easily so it’s important to acknowledge even the smallest of wins.

Be sure to check out this DAILY WORKSHEET for your kids (and one for you too!) you can use to help guide them.

Optimizing your child’s success: Be there for support. Only when they ask.       

In all of this, it is important for parents to take the role of a sherpa. You are there as a guide. It is ultimately up to kids to identify their own goals, take the steps they need to achieve their goal, monitor their progress, and manage obstacles.

While we all want our kids to be successful, any time we step in we minimize their effort and accomplishments. And, worse of all, we send the message they can’t do it, which is the #1 killer of motivation and self-efficacy.

Let them know you are there like a contractor – someone to consult with for ideas if they want support. You can also act like a coach in which you provide encouraging feedback. Ask them though what is most helpful for them.

Want help with having your child successfully set and achieve S.M.A.R.T. goals? Book in with one of our experts at Koru to help!