Goals are like a road map. Setting and achieving goals are important life skills, and people aren’t born knowing how to do it.
Many of the most successful people in the world rely on setting goals as motivation and a way to harness self-direction. Teaching children to set goals, adjust them when necessary, and celebrate each success is one of the most important things you can give your students.
By doing so, you create an environment that builds and encourages intrinsic rewards, the only system guaranteed to motivate students for a lifetime.
Use Your Standards as Whole Group Goals
Where I live, teachers are already required to post daily objectives using our standards. We can rewrite them in language easier for young children to understand, but they must be posted. Full disclosure: this used to be really frustrating for the writer of this article because my students couldn’t even read. It felt like a complete waste of time.
One way to fell less hostile about the ordeal is to tell our young students what our objectives are.
Every Monday, students can have a “goal party” where the teacher explains very briefly what they will be learning in each subject. For example, in kindergarten, your objectives for the 6th week of school could be learning about letters Jj and Nn and reviewing letters we’ve already learned; talk about the number 30; explore rocks and soil; and discussing safety rules in our community.
Throughout the week, return to these learning goals whenever you begin focusing on the subject, or when you introduce a relevant activity. At the end of each day, you can have a few minutes of review time where you and your students discuss how you met your academic goal for the day.
Keeping your standards and objectives as close as possible to your students’ eye level, referring to it frequently, and identifying how each lesson and activity relates truly helps students feel connected to the material. It brings that sense of accomplishment we aim for in our planning.
Individual Goal Setting
Young children do benefit from goals, but we aren’t born with executive functioning skills. They also aren’t usually developmentally able to understand concepts of time very easily, either. For setting personal goals, they are very likely to need your assistance. You can’t just assign them with “goal writing” as an activity and walk away.
Ideally, students should have one goal in each of the four core subject areas, but when beginning, start with a math or language arts goal. Once they have been successful once or twice and understand the concept, you can always branch out to two goals in each of those subjects, or one goal in each of the four subjects.
It’s especially important for young students to be exposed to their written goals frequently (daily if possible) and see a visual representation of goals they’ve already accomplished. Sticker charts are a great way to visualize progress over time, either a class chart or individual charts.
Some teachers are able to use classwide charts in a way that is not difficult for low academic achievers, but for some sensitive children, this may not be a wise choice. You never want a chart to have the opposite effect on any child - making them feel inadequate for not achieving at the same rate as the others may be.
This can be a wonderful conversation starter, though, if the teacher and the students are comfortable with it. Teachers can explain that each child achieves at a different level, and that some things take longer to learn for some than they do for others. Each child has strengths in areas and others in which they struggle.
If, however, you notice that keeping track of goals publicly is causing any distress or discomfort, you can always switch to a private tracking, like individual sticker sheets in a reading or math folders.
If you track things like numbers of sight words or letters memorized, for example, and you have a student who has challenges that keep them from memorization, you can personalize their goal to be number of times they’ve practiced using the information rather than only awarding them once they’ve memorized it.
In addition, should you want to include a student in public displays, but they struggle, you can use the individual “practices” method and allow them to earn the public display sticker just by participating.
Make Goal-Setting Sessions Short and Personal
Goal-setting does not have to be an all-day event. In fact, although you’ll personalize goals to fit the needs of each student, the first half of the year (or even the first full year) students set goals, teachers can offer a “menu” of choices.
An example of that would be the teacher asking students if they’d like their goal to be to learn 15 letters by Christmas, 10 letters by Christmas, or 5 letters by Christmas. When kids first start setting goals, we all know they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. They have no concept of what we’re talking about, but that’s okay!
Goal-setting is like estimation in many ways. When kids first start to estimate, they may think their teacher is 16 (God love them - those are your besties for the rest of the year, aren’t they?) or 97 (no comment). You may have 7 teddy bear counters in a jar, and half of your students guess there are 2 in the jar while several guess 28. Then there’s always that one kid that guesses 5 million! They just don’t have any point of reference in the beginning.
So let them set bigger goals or unusually small goals. The point is the process, not accuracy.
If you’ve got a child that thinks they can only learn 1 letter before Christmas, let them make that their goal and adjust as you go. Chances are pretty good that most children will learn one letter in the first week of school, and if that happens to your “low-goal” kiddos, you’ll be able to make an example of them - “Hey! So-and-so reached their goal! Let’s celebrate!”
With the first few goals your students set and achieve, you’re creating an understanding of the process.
Beware Vague Goals
Goals like “read better” are not what we’re looking for. In order to create excitement about goals, help students to be articulate about the exact thing they’d like to achieve. Goals have to be measurable, attainable, and time-specific.
A good reading goal would be “read a DRA level ___ by ____ (time of the year)”. If you’re using DRA levels, you would show students samples of text at each level. Let them talk with you and other students about what it might take to achieve that goal if it’s what they’re thinking of setting.
Remember that goals are flexible. Anytime you see a goal not fitting well with a student, help them adjust to make the goal more reasonable. Sometimes we need to break goals down into smaller, more attainable pieces. In this way, one goal can become a series of smaller goals.
One more clarification: goals need to be attainable, but not necessarily easy. Adding challenges like a time limit or specific measurements by which students can tell if they’ve been successful will give them the grit they will need to struggle in all the best ways.
When anyone achieves a goal in your classroom, you’ve got to find a few great ways to celebrate. Here are some of our favorite ways to do that.
Ring a Bell
Whether you use a service bell (like those restaurants use to say “order up!”), a handbell, or a dinner bell, kids love using bells to announce their victories.
Just a heads up, though - if you order a dinner bell online rather than a store, just be aware that they are definitely attention-getting, and many of them are heavy. The weight can make them hard to hang, so think through your plan to install one before you order it.
Animal High Five
In any search engine, look for pictures of animal hands (ie: panda paw, gorilla hand, hamster paw, giraffe hoof, etc) that can be printed out and displayed on a classroom wall. When the student reaches their goal, have the class stop what they’re doing and clap for the student while he or she gives their favorite “animal” a high five.
Smell the Success
This is an older idea, but it’s still a fun one. Gather various scented lip glosses and chapsticks and when a student achieves their goal, give them a swipe of the smell-good on their arm or on the back of their hand. Then they can spend the day smelling their success (and allowing their closest friends to take a sniff as well).
The smallest dab of essential oils can work as well, but be careful to learn which oils are ok to apply directly to the skin if that’s your plan.
When offering smell-good rewards, be careful if you have students who have skin allergies or asthma. For those with skin allergies, you can also put a couple of drops of oil on a cotton ball and place the cotton ball in a condiment container for them to carry around with them.
It may be wise to offer students with asthma a different reward.
The same reward can be used with a little smell-good lotion (especially scented baby lotions).
Failure to Achieve a Goal
If you are consciously setting achievable yet slightly challenging goals with students, adjusting those goals as your student progresses, and modifying approaches, goal failure shouldn”t really be an issue. Every once in awhile, though, we miss seeing a student who is struggling silently, or overlook the need to adjust a goal until it is too late.
When that happens, remember that we all operate on a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. There is nothing done in goal-setting that cannot be undone.
Should your student experience failure for one reason or another, it is essential that you address the real issue. Why did the student fail to achieve their goal? Can you extend the time limit? Can you make it slightly less challenging or modify it to better meet your student’s needs?
If a student just quits and won’t even try to meet a goal, something needs to be adjusted.
It can be extremely frustrating for a teacher to have a student who is unwilling to put forth any amount of effort to achieve even the slightest goal. Many teachers agree that they would rather teach an openly defiant child as opposed to a completely apathetic one. In this situation, you may have to set the success “bar” incredibly low - like… low enough for the apathetic student to crawl over while everyone else is leaping over comparatively astronomical bars.
Some students seem absolutely determined not to achieve anything.
These students may have to start with what we call “get out of bed” goals. We’re sure you’ve met people who seem to need applause just for waking up in the morning. Now, we all have days when applause for exiting dreamworld would be nice, but most of us would find that irritating and condescending.
Occasionally, though, we have experienced relationships with students for whom arriving at school is literally the only thing positive they do all day. They aren’t necessarily misbehaving… they just don’t do anything.
For this purpose, we share this advice: make something up if you have to, just so they can feel successful. We know - we hate saying it as much as you probably hate reading it.
The hard truth is that these children are apathetic for a reason, and that reason is probably not you, but you have to deal with the consequences and find some way to motivate that child to do something - anything.
Does the child put their backpack away correctly each day? Walk in the room without hitting anyone occasionally? Speak without spitting on people?
We know it’s ridiculous to have to reward a child for breathing and existing.
Think of it as a means to an end, though. If the child was not achieving because they were blind, or missed a lot of school because they were in the hospital with an illness, we would find a way to accommodate that child.
Is it fair to accommodate a child who might could just use an attitude adjustment at home? Probably not.
But as we are all aware, neither life nor education have a habit of being fair. You have to do what you have to do to make learning happen for each child. It’s that simple.
All behavior is communication, even apathy. Even the capable, yet apathetic student gets your help.
Don’t deny them the opportunity to learn to enjoy learning. Do all you can to make learning accessible, even to students who are difficult to teach.