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Goal Setting For Kids: 5 Simple Steps and Pitfalls to Avoid

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.
boy shows father his approach to goal setting

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 better​1​, especially when the goals are difficult​2​.

The reason is that difficult goals are harder to attain. They require greater effort backed up by commitment​3​.

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 themselves​4​. They are more likely to work harder to achieve their goal​5​.

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 success​6​.

Learning – learning goals focus on mastering skills and acquiring new knowledge while achievement goals emphasize results or grades​7​. In younger children, high learning goals improve their self-regulation and performance; however, high achievement goals are more effective in high school students​8​.

Challenging but attainable – Overly easy goals do not motivate, neither do overly ambitious goals​9​. 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 ones​10​.

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 setting​4​

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 goal​11​.

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 approval​12​.

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 motivation​13​.

Therefore, if you are looking for ways to motivate your child, help them develop intrinsic goals.

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 it​14​.

(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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    Klein HJ, Wesson MJ, Hollenbeck JR, Alge BJ. Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Conceptual clarification and empirical synthesis. Journal of Applied Psychology. Published online 1999:885-896. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.84.6.885
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    Erez M, Zidon I. Effect of goal acceptance on the relationship of goal difficulty to performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. Published online February 1984:69-78. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.69.1.69
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    Bouffard T, Vezeau C, Bordeleau L. A developmental study of the relation between combined learning and performance goals and students’ self-regulated learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online September 1998:309-319. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8279.1998.tb01293.x
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    Schunk DH. Self-efficacy, motivation, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Published online September 1995:112-137. doi:10.1080/10413209508406961
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    Narad A, Abdullah B. Academic Performance of Senior Secondary School Students: Influence of Parental Encouragement and School Environment. rupkatha. Published online May 30, 2016:12-19. doi:10.21659/rupkatha.v8n2.02
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    Weinberg R, Morrison D, Loftin M, et al. Writing Down Goals: Does It Actually Improve Performance? The Sport Psychologist. Published online March 2019:35-41. doi:10.1123/tsp.2018-0064


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