Helping students set goals for their learning and behavior is a big part of my classroom. Goal setting helps students become aware of their strengths, challenges, and learning style, while teaching them accountability and perseverance. And it sends the message that we believe that they can grow! Seems like a no-brainer to have kids come up with some goals!
However, at the elementary level, goal setting can be challenging. It’s something you have to explicitly teach and model and be sure to return to throughout the year as students make progress on their goals. Confession time: I’ve definitely been guilty of having students set goals in September and then never talking about them again! Ummm, not helpful!
It took me some time to figure out how to best help my students set authentic goals and then learn strategies to work toward those goals and reflect on their progress. If you’re interested in having your students set goals, but aren’t quite sure how that might look in your classroom, this post is for you.
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Tip 1. Start with a discussion.
Before we can talk about making goals, students need to begin with some self-reflection. I start by discussing my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Then, we brainstorm examples of academic and personal/behavioral strengths and weaknesses that we might see students displaying at school. I want them to see that school goals are different than goals they might be working on at home (like riding a bike).
Reading aloud a book or two can be really helpful during the goal-setting discussion. Books about growth mindset, following your dreams, and perseverance are great to use to look at the characters’ goals and what they did to achieve them. Here are a few books you might try (click on the titles to see more):
- Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed
- She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton
- Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
- Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan
- Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle
Tip 2. Help students create focused goals.
We want students to come up with specific, attainable goals, but this can be really challenging for kids – and adults, too! Again, I model by choosing one of my own areas of improvement and demonstrating how I can create a goal based on it. I point out that it’s something that will take hard work and time to achieve, so not something that will take me all year long, but not something that will only take me a day to do, either.
I like to have one-on-one chats with students to help them draft their goals. This way, I can give gentle suggestions, if needed, on what areas to focus on. This is also good for kids who are feeling self-conscious about their goals.
You’ll want to watch out for kids who are thinking too broadly or way too specific with their goals. I’ve also found that some students struggle with coming up with a real goal versus a wish. Using sentence frames or sentence starters can be really helpful. Something like “I want to be able to ____” or “I want to improve at ____” or “I want to ___ when I ____.” However you do it, have them write the goal down.
How many goals they come up with is certainly up to you, but my advice is to start small and just have students come up with ONE academic or personal goal to work on at a time.
Tip 3. Have students come up with a plan.
It’s one thing to come up with a goal, but without a plan, how are kids going to reach it? This part of the process can also be tricky. Again, I think out loud by sharing my own examples of realistic strategies I could try in order to meet my goal.
You can make this a little more explicit by using a SMART goal outline, or you can keep it a little simpler and have students come up with 1-3 reasonable, actionable steps for reaching their goal. This might be something they brainstorm in partners or small groups. And again, they should write it down.
I like to point out that the action plan might change over time, especially if we see that something isn’t helping us meet our goals after all. I think it helps students to see that goal-setting is flexible and changes based on our needs and on self-reflection.
Tip 4. Post goals where students will see them.
The first two years I did goal setting in my classroom, my students wrote their goals down in places like their reading notebooks. That’s nice, but then they never looked at them again.
Instead, what worked better for us was to display their goals somewhere really visible – like on a bulletin board in the classroom, or right on their desks. This helps keep the goal front and center for the kids every day. Plus, having it out in the open makes it more likely that you’ll remember to check in with them about it! And that brings to me to the next step.
Tip 5. Check in regularly.
To show our students that we care about their progress and that they should, too, we have to be sure to keep revisiting their goals. You can do this one-on-one whenever you find yourself with a few extra minutes, or you can have students discuss their progress during class meetings. (That’s especially helpful so that students can hear how their peers are doing with their goals.)
When you do goal check-ins, you can work with students to adjust their strategies or even help them figure out that they’ve met their goals and are ready to brainstorm new ones!
If this step tends to slip your mind, you might think about checking in quarterly. That’s sort of a natural time since you’re working on progress reports and thinking about where they are academically and socially anyway.
Tip 6. Celebrate progress!
The most important step! Reaching a goal is obviously what we want, but any forward progress should be acknowledged, especially for some of our students who might need a little more time or who struggle a little more than their peers. Think of small ways that you can recognize students for their hard work!
Some easy ideas include:
- writing students’ names on a bulletin board
- sharing about them during a class morning meeting
- making a positive phone call home
- writing a “proud of you” note to the student
- sharing the good news with one of their other teachers (like the reading teacher or counselor) who can check in with the student, too
As students reach their goals, they can reflect on where they are and where they want to be. And then it’s on to creating the next goal! But that doesn’t mean we just sweep away any evidence of the goals they’ve already worked hard to meet. You can keep their old goal sheets in their portfolios or even just in a file cabinet so they can look back on them at the end of the year!
So that’s it! My biggest tip is that if you’re going to start goal setting with your kids in September, make sure you’re still talking about it in June. And keep sharing progress about your own goals with your students, too!
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