Helping students set personal and learning goals 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!
However, at the elementary level, goal setting can be challenging for kids. It’s something you have to explicitly teach and model and be sure to return to throughout the year. 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 aren’t quite sure how this might look in your classroom, this post is for you.
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Tip 1. Start by discussing what goals are.
Where do we start? With self-reflection. I begin by sharing some of 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).
Read-alouds can be really helpful during the goal-setting discussion. Books about growth mindset and perseverance help students see characters’ goals and what they did to achieve them. Here are a few books I like:
- 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 goals that they can realistically meet during the school year. Again, I model by creating a SMART goal based on one of my own areas of improvement.
I prefer to start small and just have students come up with ONE learning or personal goal to work on at a time. I find that 2 or 3 feel overwhelming and less attainable.
Sometimes, kids think too broadly or go 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 can be really helpful, like “I want to be able to ____” or “I want to improve at ____” or “I want to ___ when I ____” or “I will ____”.
Another thing that’s helped is to meet with students one-on-one as they draft their goals. This way, I can help them narrow down areas to focus on. It’s also good for kids who feel self-conscious about their goals.
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?
Using a SMART goal outline can be a helpful way for students to come up with strategies. Sharing different SMART goals examples with them really helps them to see that setting a goal isn’t just saying something will happen on its own.
A less-intense option is to ask students to come up with 1-3 reasonable, actionable steps for reaching their goal. This might be something they brainstorm in partners or small groups.
I like to point out that the strategies 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 progress.
Tip 4. Post students’ goals where they will see them.
The first two years I did goal setting in my classroom, my students wrote their goals down in their notebooks. That made sense, but then they never looked at them again.
What worked better for us was to display 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.
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, one option is to check 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 I like to celebrate any forward progress!
Here are some small ways to recognize students for their hard work:
- 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 now and what new goal should come next. 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!
Helping students set behavioral and/or academic goals is one of my favorite things to do. If you’re ready to explore goal setting for students in September, just make sure you’re still talking about it in June!