Honing the ability to set and pursue realistic goals is an important life skill that all young people need to develop - and it’s never too early (or too late) to get started.
Whether the goal setting is prompted by a new calendar year, a new school year, or just an important talk you’re having with your student in the middle of March, here are some tips that can help you better serve as an effective goal-setting “coach” for your child or teen:
The energy and optimism of youth are wonderful qualities that should be encouraged to flourish, but sometimes they’re also the reasons that children and teens experience difficulty narrowing their focus. If you notice that your child’s goal list is getting a little epic, you might try asking some positive but probing questions that help her identify which goals are truly important and which can come off the list, at least for now. For example:
“I think it’s great that you want to start guitar lessons, but you’ve already got a lot going on with church choir next year, and I know that choir is really important to you. Maybe we should put guitar to the side right now and revisit that goal later this year.”
“Doubling your babysitting business over the summer sounds like a good way to earn money, but you’ve also said you want to do a few camps and take a summer class, too. Why don’t you think about what’s most important to you over the next few days, and then we can take another pass at your list?”
Begin with a vision, end with tactics.
Here’s how this process works: Let’s say your teenage son wants to pursue a career in rock music. His stated long-term goal might be to book full-time work for his band, or to win a solo-artist contract with a record label. You explain to him that his goal of booking gigs or landing a record label is actually more of a big-picture vision, as opposed to a specific goal, then follow up by asking him to think about which goals he needs to set in order for him to have a shot of realizing that vision.
In response, he might tell you that he believes he needs to become a better guitar player or increase his song repertoire. Now we’re getting somewhere, because he’s just added critical structure to his big-picture vision. You can then encourage him to add even more detail by asking him what tactics he can employ to become a better guitarist or build his song catalog. He might determine that he needs to practice for an hour each day, for example, or take additional lessons or complete a summer guitar intensive. At this point, he now has a specific, measurable, tactical goal to pursue that supports the long-term vision or dream he has for his future.
Separate goals from desires.
A common misstep that people tend to make when setting goals is to target ambitions that are ultimately beyond their ability to control, like gaining entrance into a specific college or winning a certain scholarship. While worthy, these ambitions aren’t goals so much as they are desires, because it’s up to someone else (like an admission or scholarship committee) to actually make them happen.
So instead of putting “get accepted into XYZ University” on the goals list, encourage your student to instead set her sights on objectives that will support her desire to get into XYZ University, but that are also within her ability to actually achieve. These objectives might take the form of taking an SAT prep class, for example, or completing a resume-enhancing job internship or improving her scores in AP English.
Offer a gentle but firm voice of reality.
It’s always gratifying to watch your child develop passions and special interests, but as parents, you know that sometimes students let their excitement about “fun stuff” distract them from priorities.
If you notice that happening with your child or teen’s goal list, you might try a little negotiation: “I think it’s great that you want to enter so many art contests, but I also know that you need to work on improving your math grades. How about taking a few of these contests off the list in favor of spending more time on math tutorials? Once your grades come up, we can see about entering additional contests.”
Whether you’re building a two-bedroom cottage or a 10-bedroom mansion, they’re both going to be completed one brick at a time. In similar fashion, you can help your child learn how to create a realistic plan for achieving big goals by breaking the plan down into manageable “chunks”, or daily/weekly/monthly tasks that make the goal seem less overwhelming, more “doable”, and more likely to be achieved.
Set up a system of regular evaluation.
As you and your student work on a goals list, talk about the best ways to evaluate progress. How often should he “check in”, either with you or with himself, to determine whether or not he’s moving forward at the right pace? What milestones are favorable indicators for success? What indicators may be signs that the plan isn’t going well, or needs to be re-tooled? And so forth. Going through this exercise will not only help your child learn to think about his goals in realistic terms, it will help him develop a sense of accountability with himself (and with you) that can motivate him as he works towards turning his goals into accomplishments.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Kaye Rogers received her Ph.D. in Educational Administration with a minor in Statistics from the University of North Texas. She earned her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Tarleton State University. A life-long Texan, she has taught math and science in public schools and also in Spain. She has worked in public education for over 18 years, where she is committed to innovation and choice for families. She has opened three choice schools and is currently the Director of Virtual Learning at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, where she oversees their state-wide virtual school and blended schools program.
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