How to Set Goals for Your Child This School Year

Mother homeschooling daughter and son at table

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Back-to-school is a natural opportunity for your child to set goals for the year. Doing so can help students succeed at school, while also learning the critical life skill of goal-setting.

So, instead of limiting your preparations to stocking up on all the right school supplies, consider helping your child think about what they hope to accomplish academically—and then turn these goals into a plan of action.

Why Set Goals?

Your child may aspire to finish a whole chapter book by themselves, tie their shoes independently, learn to write a five-paragraph essay, or master geometry. They may hope to join a club, make a few new friends, or speak up more in class. Getting to class on-time, perfecting their typing skills, or keeping organized and up-to-date with their work are other worthy goals.

Whatever their intentions are for the year, putting in some thought and planning before school begins can help your child start school on track, with a positive mindset—and set them up to reach their goals.

Below, we breakdown the importance of goal-setting, how to do it, and how to explain the process to children as well as share some tips for helping your kids set their own educational goals.

Learning to set goals (and go after them) helps children gain independence and understand that they can exert control over their lives. When your child begins to decide what they want to accomplish, they're more likely to be motivated to complete things for their own satisfaction and learning, rather than for the satisfaction of others or for tangible rewards.

Setting back-to-school goals is an activity that can help your child become a more self-directed, responsible learner and improve their motivation and independence. It's also a great way to bond with your kids before the new school year starts. Goals also help your child feel engaged in their academic career.

Goal setting helps kids to see beyond the present moment, encouraging them to look toward the future. Even better, your student will learn the critical process of goal setting, including the power of intention, productivity, organization, follow-through, and strategic thinking.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many students will be doing some or all of their learning remotely this year. These kids may naturally feel stressed and less engaged with school and struggle with motivation. Goal-setting can be an especially helpful tool to help your child overcome these obstacles and make the most of distance learning.

Define the Word 'Goal'

First, make sure your child knows what goal-setting is. It will be hard for them to set one if they don’t really understand what a goal is. So, start by explaining the concept. Essentially, a goal is something that a person wants to achieve. A goal is realized after a person puts a plan of action in motion that makes their intention a reality.

Sports can be a helpful analogy. Your child may know that in soccer or hockey, a goal is when a player gets the ball into the net, so that can be a good place to begin the explanation. 

Let your child know that when a player gets a goal, it’s the end result of a lot of hard work. It took a lot of trying and maneuvering for them to reach that goal.

Using that idea as a base, you can help your child understand the process (and point) of formulating a goal and making a plan to realize it. Other examples of goals children may relate to include learning new skills, getting specific grades, or completing all their homework—and remembering to turn it in.

Teach the Language of Goal-Setting

Introduce your child to the relevant language of goal-setting. Beyond simply understanding what a goal is, make sure your child knows other applicable terms (and how they work in the real world process of working toward a goal), such as how to strategize, organize, prioritize, and hard work. Discuss short and long-term goals as well and the value of chunking their goal into smaller pieces.

Knowing how to talk about their goals is key in getting them to understand their goals—and what it may take to achieve them. The language of goal-setting can often be broken down into the following formula:

I want to [do this] by [when]. I already know how to [related skills]. I will follow [these specific steps] to achieve my goal.

Don’t Just Talk, Listen

If you want your child to learn to set their own goals, be sure to let them be in charge of the process. Remind yourself it’s more important to listen than to talk. Ask questions but let them arrive at their own conclusions about what to strive toward.

Your goal in the goal-setting exercise is for your child to decide what they hope to achieve—not for them to just go along with the goals their parents suggest.

Certainly, you can give your child some examples of the goals you’ve set for yourself but let them consider what they'd like to accomplish. You can suggest to them some of the things that they do well and where you see room for improvement, but don't take over the discussion.

Brainstorm Together

While you want your child to come up with their own aims, it can be fruitful to brainstorm together. Be a sounding board and ask questions in order to help your child discover and refine goals that resonate with them.

Questions to Ask

Obviously, you'll want to ask if they already have any goals in mind. Either way, keep asking questions until your child seems to click with a possible goal they want to work toward. Possible questions you might pose to your child include:

  • Are there any new academic skills you want to learn and/or improve?
  • Do you have any school-related strengths and/or weaknesses you'd like to focus on this year?
  • I noticed you’ve learned how to ___________. What would you like to do next with that skill?
  • Is there anything that you want to work at school this year?
  • What's your favorite/least favorite subject?
  • What do you think your teachers or friends might suggest you work on?

Keep the conversation going until a few goal ideas emerge. Plus, it can be helpful to develop both short and long term goals.

Help Refine Goals

Once your child has come up with a general idea for their goal or goals, the next step is narrowing in on what specifically they hope to accomplish—and making sure the goal is feasible. This is when you can help your child refine their goal into something that is doable for them, at their grade level, in one academic year.

For example, if they want to read an entire series, help them pick books at their reading level. If they say they want to join five new clubs, you might recommend they consider how much free time they have and adjust their aim accordingly.

If they have many new skills they want to master, you can suggest they become proficient in one before they move on to the next one.

If necessary, help your child adjust unrealistic goals toward more achievable aims. However, tread lightly so that you don't squash your child's enthusiasm.

Sometimes, your child may have lofty or overly unrealistic goals that you’re not sure they will meet. Instead of telling them that you don’t think they can do it, you can help to refine these goals into smaller, related goals. 

For example, if your child says they're going to learn long division but doesn’t yet know simple multiplication, you may want to suggest they start with mastering their basic math facts. 

Develop a Plan

Once your child has nailed down their goal, guide them through the process of planning how to achieve it. Brainstorming can be helpful with this step as well.

Share that simply setting their intention can put them on the right path. Consider what assistance, if any, they will need. They should think about what steps they will go through as they strive toward making their goal a reality.

Help your child break down their goal into the smaller steps (or skills) that are needed to get to the bigger goal. Making a to-do list and/or schedule can be useful as well.

Create a Visual Reminder

A visual reminder can take many forms. For kids who need to focus on the steps, it can be very helpful to use a worksheet that has a goal on top and a goal ladder on which to list the steps to the goal—each rung of the "ladder" is another step toward reaching the final goal. Breaking down the goal into chunks can make it feel less overwhelming and more achievable.

You can also use other goal-setting tools, such as making a goal board—one that looks like a soccer goal can be a useful visual—or you can simply ask them to write down their goals.

Any way they can document their goal and the process they will use to make it happen can be effective, keeping your child motivated and on track.

Motivational Planning Aids

  • Drawing of goal
  • Goal board
  • Goal ladder
  • Journaling
  • Schedule
  • To-do list
  • Written goal

Celebrate Progress and Success

Help your child keep track of their progress. Periodically, take a look at the goal ladder with them and mark off any steps they've accomplished. Cheer successes as they happen but also be prepared for obstacles—and praise effort and learning as much as tangible achievement.

Offer suggestions if your child experiences any setbacks or frustrations along the way. Also, be sure to give kudos as they meet various benchmarks along the way to help your child keep momentum and understand that progress is as important as the ultimate aim. Once their final goal is achieved, take it off the goal ladder or list—and celebrate their accomplishment.

A Word From Verywell

The experience of back-to-school goal-setting can help your child find greater success and engagement at school—and teach them that they are the engineer of their academic journey.

Remember that while it's wonderful if your child reaches all their school goals, don't worry if some get unfulfilled. They can always re-adjust or set new, more feasible goals.

Plus, your child can learn just as much, such as flexibility, critical thinking, problem solving, and coping with disappointment, from a failed goal as a successful one. And likely, their next go-around of goal-setting will be even more fruitful.

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