Goal-Setting for Kids Made Easy: This Is How to Do It

Updated 05/03/19
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Kim Myers Robertson /Trunk Archive

Every January, many of us make a list of things we want to achieve to make us happier, healthier, and more successful in the New Year. Well, this ability to reach for the stars and meet your own high expectations doesn’t just come out of nowhere—which is why goal-setting for kids is so important. Although you can start introducing your child to this concept as early as you’d like, it’s important to note that they will really start catching on around age 7 since that’s when they will begin to start thinking critically.

The easiest way to proceed is by first explaining to your child what exactly a “goal” is—in simplified terms, of course. Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist and expert in bullying, social-emotional learning, and character development, suggests saying something like this to your little one: “A goal is a target or something you shoot for just like a hockey or soccer player. Goals usually start with ‘I will’ and have two parts—that is, what you want to accomplish and when you hope to accomplish it.” Yes, you will need some patience when it comes to helping children set goals, but this lesson will put them ahead of the pack for years to come. Below, we’ve rounded up the top six tips for goal-setting for kids.

Define a "wish list" of goals

Yes, you can sit there and choose the goal for your little one, but it won’t be half as effective. Did your parents ever ask you to do something you didn’t really want to do, so you did this activity with half the amount of effort as normal (cough, cough, my piano lessons)? Well, this is the same thing. It’s fair to give your child some ideas of goals—cleaning up after playtime, completing a school project, reading for 20 minutes each day—and then leave them to craft their own wish list that you can choose from together.

Start small

It’s too hard to do a layup when you can’t even dribble a basketball. The same goes for goals for children. Don’t push your child to begin with something that seems unattainable. By starting with something that can be reached within a week or two, you’ll be giving your child the confidence to follow through with more sophisticated goals in the future. And remember, every child is different. “Some children need to set even shorter goals: at the end of the hour or a day,” says Borba. “Set the length of the goal according to the time you think your child needs to succeed.”

Write it down

Just as we are more likely to achieve our goals when they are written down, so are our tiny ones. You can actually turn this into a bit of an art project. Grab some construction paper, glitter pens, and stickers from your art stash. Have fun helping your child make a mini poster with their goal on it. Each time they get closer to accomplishing it, they can put a star sticker on it for encouragement. Just simply posting it somewhere prominent like the fridge will keep the goal top of mind.

Discuss the steps in goal-making

Once your child has completed a few tinier goals, it’s time to graduate to a bigger one. By breaking this new larger goal down into mini steps, they will have small victories along the way. Plus, they won’t be so confused as to what their next move should be. Together, make a list of everything they will need to do, what they will need, and whom they may need help from, says Borba.

Lead by example

"Adults have a much greater sense of what it takes to accomplish goals," says Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting. Therefore, the best way for children to really see how it’s done is to watch you successfully reach your own accomplishment. Your child shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines, either. Include them in the process. For example, if you are going to start cooking healthier dinners each week, they can help you choose recipes, grocery shop, and watch you prep.

Celebrate a job well done

“Nothing is more affirming to children than succeeding at goals they’ve worked hard to achieve,” says Borba. “It’s the tangible proof your child interprets as ‘I really did it!’ and a great way to nurture your child’s self-confidence.” Include the whole family in whichever way you choose to acknowledge your child’s success. It can be a dinner out together as a family, a special day that they get to plan, or a victorious photo of them displayed on the mantel.

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