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

The ability to set goals and work toward them helps your child learn responsibility and focus.
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

The ability to set goals and work toward them helps your child learn responsibility and focus. By accomplishing goals, your child increases her self-awareness, builds her self-esteem, and sees that she can make a real difference in outcomes by setting a plan of action in motion. For younger children, goals are a way of setting expectations. At this later elementary age, your child will be able to choose goals and know the steps that need to be taken to accomplish them. Instead of focusing solely on today or tomorrow or next week, your child will be at a point where she can start thinking of what she would like to accomplish next month or in the next six weeks. At this age, it’s not just about the goal, but the steps needed to meet the goal.

Children are often asked what they want to “be” when they grow up, and at this age, it is likely for your child to have some thoughts about what she might like to do when she gets older. Talk to your child about the process it would take to reach her dreams. For example, if she wants to be a doctor, encourage her to read stories, and watch movies that involve doctors or medicine. You can tell her how doctors have to go to college and medical school before they actually get to work with patients. By fostering her interest, but also talking about the necessary steps to achieve such a long-term goal, you are helping her understand what it takes while also being supportive of her dreams. At the same time, education consultant Jennifer Miller recommends that parents be prepared for these interests to change often, or even be unrealistic or undesirable. For example, your child might want to be a famous pop star. There’s no need to discourage any career at this young age. The way you can help your child is by showing her that you believe she can reach her goals, however they evolve.

Help your child develop plans to accomplish a more short-term goal and map out how she’ll work toward the goal. This could be related to academics, or other skills involving sports or playing an instrument, for example. Does she want to master Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on her recorder, or on the piano? Or maybe she wants to make 10 free throws in a row to improve her basketball skills. A goal can be about anything she already knows or an entirely new activity. Help her set a practice plan for each day or every other day for the next couple of weeks. Have her check off her practice as she goes. At the end of the time period, check back in with her. Did she accomplish her goal? If not, did she get more consistent or improve? After practicing regularly she is likely to have made some improvements. Draw attention to the improvements as much as possible.

Share your own goals with your child and your plans for accomplishing them. Perhaps you’re saving for a family vacation, or you want to go back to school for a certification or a higher degree. Map out your goals and your plans for accomplishing them and have that visual representation somewhere in the home so your child can see you working on your progress, too. Showing your child that you also have goals and ways to meet them will help her understand goal-setting strategies. You may also want to talk to your child about the times you’ve struggled to meet your goals, but have continued to try. At this age, your child is still greatly influenced by your actions and thoughts, and the more you can share with her, the more you can continue to support her strategies as well.

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.