Helping Kids Set & Achieve Goals

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Take a hands-on approach with your child, teaching him how to identify and go after what he wants.

Ever since Taylor Hollingsworth was little, she had the goal of becoming a professional singer, her mom says.

“By the time Taylor was in fifth grade she had gotten a lot of positive feedback with different performances. So, by year’s end she was ready to step it up a notch,” says the mother of her now 12-year-old. “We decided a good next step was to enroll her in a performing arts school so she could major in voice and minor in theater.”

When children set and achieve personal goals, it can affect the way they view themselves, their academics and their activities, both now and in the future. But for many, goal setting doesn’t just happen. Often it’s an acquired skill that requires the guidance, support and encouragement of a parent or mentor. Once learned, children can turn today’s dreams into tomorrow’s reality.

Stephen R. Sutton, director of 4-H Youth Development for Tennessee, believes it’s never too early to start children on the goal-setting track. 4-H is the youth development program for University of Tennessee Extension that teaches leadership, citizenship and other life skills to more than 184,000 Tennessee youths.

“A goal needs to be realistic and specific,” Sutton says. “And it should have three parts,” he adds. Here’s what he’s talking about, for example.

GOAL: I want to train my dog to sit and lay down before the county dog show.
ACTION: How you are going to do it.
RESULT: What you will do and how it turns out.
TIMETABLE: When it will be achieved.

From the time Dave Resler’s daughter, Stephanie, was in fourth grade, she had run short distances in track. Upon entering high school, she joined cross country and so increased her distance from one-quarter to more than three miles. But her biggest running goal came at the end of her freshman year.

“One day Stephanie came to me and said she wanted to join the 300-mile club at school that summer,” says the father of his now 16-year-old. “I knew it was a realistic goal, so together we sat down and did the math — how often she would have to run over the course of three months.”

“When children formulate a goal, it’s a good idea if they write it down,” says Linda Sullivan, local 4-H organizational leader. “This creates a clear picture in their minds of what they want to achieve, gives permanency to the goal and provides the drive and motivation to move forward.”

In doing so, they should outline steps that need to be taken along the way and set up a time frame.

“Be sure to set a deadline,” Sutton says. “Most of us are procrastinators. When you have a deadline to accomplish your goal, you’re less likely to postpone working on it. By writing down the goal and the end date, you help your dream become a reality. What’s appropriate for your timeline will depend on your goal,” he adds.

Hollingsworth did this.

“Once Taylor was at the performing arts school, she started taking private voice lessons.” She found out about opportunities at the local children’s theater so she auditioned for two plays there and was given a part each time. On both occasions she watched the related movies and learned the songs.”

While outlining specific steps, have your child consider potential roadblocks that may hinder goal attainment and create a plan to overcome them.

“Roadblocks don’t mean failure,” Sutton says. “It may take a few tries to reach a goal. That’s OK. It’s normal to mess up or give up a few times. Just remind yourself to get back on track. You may need some help to reach your goal. Check with an adult to see if he has any ideas if you’re running into trouble,” he suggests.

“One thing Stephanie and I discussed was how she was going to get her miles in when it was 95 degrees outside. I told her, ‘You need to know and plan for times when it will be difficult to run,’” says Resler. “We also talked about her progress along the way. When August rolled around, she was a little behind so she increased her weekly distances. And by summer’s end she had officially run 300 miles.”

Taylor has made progress with her singing goal, too.

“She gleaned a lot of experience from her time at performing arts school, but the following year she returned to her former academic setting,” says Hollingsworth. “Soon after we re-applied, we learned they were doing a production of Oliver! and Taylor started preparing right away. When audition time came, she got the leading role. Right now we’re looking at moving to the next level — getting an agent who can possibly take her outside the community to some larger cities.”

Experts agree the best thing parents can do to help their children set and achieve goals is to guide them in understanding what their strengths are, help them create a feasible plan and then become their cheerleader. But ultimately attaining the goal is up to them.

Goal-Setting Resources

Goal Setting 101: How to Set and Achieve a Goal!
by Gary R. Blair

Making Every Day Count: Daily Readings for Young People on Solving Problems, Setting Goals and Feeling Good About Yourself
by Pamela Espeland and Elizabeth Verdick

What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens
by Beverly K. Bachel

What Teens Need to Succeed: Proven, Practical Ways to Shape Your Own Future
by Peter L. Benson, Pamela Espeland and Judy Galbraith

Steps to Help Your Child Set & Achieve Goals

  • Start early. Provide structure for goal setting by having your child save for a special toy, work toward a specific grade in school or master a song on the piano.
  • Make sure the goal is child directed. Parents may give input but it needs to be the child’s idea for him to truly embrace it.
  • Write it down. Make sure it’s clear and sensible. Have him include why it’s important to him. Hang it in his bedroom, on the refrigerator or the bathroom mirror so he can see it. Or get a binder to chart progress and let him decorate the front of it.
  • Outline specific steps to attaining the goal. Break it down into smaller steps or goals so he will feel a sense of accomplishment along the way.
  • Take advantage of resources. Utilize books, DVDs, the Internet, lessons and third-party influences to help your child increase his understanding and hone his skills.
  • Consider hurdles and ways to overcome them in advance. If children know there will be road bumps along the way, it can ward off discouragement. Remind your child that obstacles are opportunities to strengthen his resolve.
  • Set a time frame for attaining the goal. Have your child write down an approximate deadline for achieving the goal to provide a sense of urgency and keep him on track.
  • Monitor and chart progress tangibly. Have your child chart progress he has made with pictures, medals, report cards, etc., and add to his notebook for continued encouragement.
  • Re-adjust time frame, if necessary. Remind your child that there may be unforeseen circumstances that have kept him from attaining his goal in the allotted time. Encourage him to re-adjust the time frame and continue on.
  • Be his cheerleader. Provide support and encouragement. Take an interest in his goal, attend his activities and look for other ways to support your child without taking charge of the goal.
  • Be a mentor. Talk about your own personal goals — the trials you faced in trying to achieve them. Demonstrate perseverance and discipline, and continue to set personal goals for yourself.



Denise Morrison Yearian is a former parenting magazine editor and the mother of three children.

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