Goal setting is touted as one of the best ways to increase motivation and performance in children. But there are pitfalls and myths parents must recognize when helping their kids set one.
What is goal setting for kids
Goal setting is committing to achieve a target result in an activity. According to the goal-setting theory, a goal is the aim of an action. Conscious goals can affect one’s action, motivation and ultimately their performance.
Benefits of goal setting include:
- It teaches your child about goals.
- It teaches planning skills to children.
- It creates a blueprint to meet objectives and working towards them teaches children perseverance.
How to set effective goals
Effective goal setting possesses the following critical properties.
1. Let them set their own goals
The first step in goal-setting is to get your child to commit to doing this.
People who are committed to their personal goals perform better1, especially when the goals are difficult2.
The reason is that difficult goals are harder to attain. They require greater effort backed up by commitment3.
That means children must be motivated to begin with for this goal-setting practice to work.
It doesn’t matter how many goals you set, if your child is not motivated to complete them. Their motivation must exist first.
Children are more likely to develop motivation if they set their own goals rather than having it assigned to them.
2. Discuss why their goals are important
To be truly motivated, your child needs to understand why they want to achieve their goals and the purpose of them.
Understanding the purpose of what they do helps children internalize the reason and become self-regulated. They find learning meaningful and meet the needs of gaining competence, connecting with others, and expressing themselves4. They are more likely to work harder to achieve their goal5.
3. Help them choose the right goal
All goals are not created equal. A successful goal tends to contain the following elements.
Specific – concrete goals are more likely to improve performance than vague goals such as “try your best”. They also provide a clear measure to track progress. Specific measurable goals are actionable goals because they specify the effort and the amounts of time required for success6.
Learning – learning goals focus on mastering skills and acquiring new knowledge while achievement goals emphasize results or grades7. In younger children, high learning goals improve their self-regulation and performance; however, high achievement goals are more effective in high school students8.
Challenging but attainable – Overly easy goals do not motivate, neither do overly ambitious goals9. One of the three innate human motivators is a sense of competence. It can be derived from achieving challenging goals while stretching one’s ability. But audacious goals must also be realistic in order to be achievable. Help your child choose one that they believe they have the ability to achieve.
4. Break it up into mini-goals
Short-term goals are achieved more quickly, providing a sense of competence. They are therefore more motivating than longer-term ones10.
Help your child attain a larger goal by breaking it down into achievable goals containing smaller action steps.
Your child should understand they may not reach their long-term goal immediately. Do not be discouraged if they fail to meet a short-term goal for the time being. Progress and heading in the right direction are important accomplishments in themselves.
5. Provide autonomy support, feedback, and help
A parent’s autonomy support is crucial to the effectiveness of goal setting4.
It is important for children to be able to carry out their action plan, monitor progress, and solve problems on their own.
Micromanaging is tempting for parents, but controlling a child’s activities in such a way is counterproductive.
But providing constructive feedback on a regular basis can help them achieve their goals. It allows children to see how they are progressing against their current goal11.
Give feedback in an encouraging, rather than critical manner. Encouragement from parents can foster hidden potential in children and become a driving force to their success. It can be in the form of guidance, concern, care, and approval12.
Help them identify the reason they are not meeting their milestones and come up with effective learning strategies to fix the problem.
Pitfalls to avoid when goal setting
It’s not a panacea
While goal-setting can be an effective tool to improve motivation and outcomes, it is not a panacea.
For a goal to affect motivation and performance, your child must make a commitment to attain it.
If a child is unmotivated or amotivated, simply making them set a goal without real commitment will not lead to motivation13.
Writing it down doesn’t help
It has been claimed around the Internet that a psychology professor at Harvard or Yale University conducted a study to show that college students who wrote down their goals were more likely to achieve it.
One group of researchers set out to find this famous study. They interviewed administrators at Harvard and Yale, as well as graduate students who studied there. The conclusion was no such study could be found.
There is no credible research that supports this claim, and one study actually contradicts it14.
(Note: this study did not meet our criteria for inclusion as a credible source. However, this is the only study we found that attempted to verify the result of the mythical research.)
“Writing down your goals will help you achieve them” is a very attractive claim. For parents, it gives their children something tangible to do. Perhaps that’s why this myth has become so popular.
Sadly, there are so many parenting myths on the Internet that it is sometimes hard to figure out what is true when everyone seems to believe it.
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