Encouraging goal-setting in early childhood: Here's what to know

The ability to set goals is a skill that can help your child develop a sense of responsibility and learn time management and priorities.
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

The ability to set goals is a skill that can help your child develop a sense of responsibility and learn time management and priorities. Goal-setting can also build her self-esteem by showing her that she can accomplish what she works for. Setting goals can simply be a way for your child to understand what she wants, or what she wants to happen. It can even be a way to understand routines and schedules. At this age, she may have a hard time understanding how her current behavior affects the future. You can think of goals at a very basic level with your young child. For example, simply asking, “What are you going to do after dinner?” is a goal. While it might not feel like one, at this young age that might be all your child understands as a goal.

Start with small goals that are relevant to your child’s current development and interests. Ask your child specifically what she would like to accomplish in the next week, or simply tomorrow. For example, “What do you want to do, or practice, this weekend?” It could be related to her schoolwork, a hobby, or a sport. You can help her identify an age-appropriate specific goal, like reading a book from beginning to end on her own. Help her work toward this goal by putting the goal on paper, along with the steps to achieving it. For example, before bed each night, she could try to read one page on her own. Have her check off each night that she read. At the end of the week, see if she has reached her goal.

It isn’t always about the accomplishment — goals that kids set might not be accomplished in the time they wanted — and that’s O.K. The process of working toward the goal can be just as important as the accomplishment.

Your child will likely have improved and learned about herself and her abilities along the way, regardless of the outcome. You can show her this by mapping out some of the steps of her goal and how she’s gotten better. Try using posters or drawings with targets or ladders, or using an online tool, to help her see that she is moving forward, regardless of whether she reached the final goal or not.

You can also help your child identify people in her life who can help if she’s struggling to accomplish a goal. If she wants to perform better on spelling tests, ask about friends in class she could talk to, or point out that a family member is a good speller and can help her study if she wants. Let your child know it’s O.K. to ask for help when she needs it. Also, try to highlight times you’ve had to ask for help and how you reached your goal. Giving your child examples will help her understand that struggling is natural.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author, and Educational Psychologist.