Teaching Young Kids About Goal Setting


As the new year begins in earnest, I am sitting down mapping out my year in terms of goals for several different life areas in which I want to improve from last year. You’re probably making similar goals yourself. As I began setting these goals, my eight year old came to me and said he had a goal of his own. That’s when we started setting life goals together. Here are five strategies we used to help my son set his first new year goal.

One :: Let the child instigate the goal setting.

Without telling you a long story, we worried if my son would ever read. So when he came to me and said, “Mom, I want to read 100 books this year,” I cried from joy. I wanted to help him reach this goal, so we sat down to map out how we could accomplish that goal together. I don’t know why he picked 100, and I didn’t ask him. If it mattered to him, it mattered to me. That’s the first point to make in goal setting with kids: It has to matter to them first. When helping kids set goals, don’t make it a chore or a punishment. If your child’s not already verbally expressing an interest in goal setting, don’t make it a big deal. Skip it until they come to you and say, “Hey, I have this big thing I want to accomplish.” Then teach them about setting goals, establishing action steps, and how to track their own progress. 

Two :: Model the goal setting behavior for the child to see.

I’m an entrepreneur, so in my house there are tons of books on goal setting, action planning, and strategy. Each year I do an end-of-year review and a new year planning session that takes up two tables and about two weeks of planning in my house. My son is just now old enough that he sees all of this going on and wants to do what “grown ups” do. By modeling the behavior we want our kids to use, we are setting an example that’s more powerful than any instruction we could give them verbally. Whether it’s eating right, using good language, reading books, or setting goals, they’ll learn what you do, not what you say.

My oldest son E (8) reading with his little brother T (3) looking on

Three :: Make the goal visual.

When my son said he wanted to read 100 books, his very next thought was to feel overwhelmed at how many books that really was for someone who just started reading in earnest a few months ago. To help him get over that anxiety, I reminded him that 100 books is just under two books per week. I also explained that in order to achieve that goal, it meant he would need to set aside time to read every single day so that he could complete two books in a week and not have to read an entire book in any one day. He felt much better about that idea.

My son is very tactile in his learning, so we did two things to help him mark his progress. First, we made a reading chart. I took a standard piece of printer paper and drew 100 boxes with the title “Elliot’s Reading Goal” across the top. Every time he completes a book, he marks off a box. Second, we made a stack of “Books You’ve Finished” at the foot of his bed in his room. It leans against a wall, and we pinned the paper above it. So now, as he reads, the stack gets bigger. He’s looking forward to taking a picture of a “really tall” stack of books by the end of the year.

Four :: Institute rewards along the way.

Each week, if he completes his two books for that week, we have a reward in place for him. Now, my son has severe allergies, so our rewards are things like cool new pencils to draw with, a new book to read, a trip to the library, the zoo, or getting to pick the movie on movie night. If your family is into snacks as rewards, you might also pick a piece of candy, going out for a milkshake, or whatever will motivate your child — something they don’t normally get to enjoy but would look forward to and be inspired by to take the necessary actions each day to reach their goal. 

Five :: Be willing to do the heavy lifting.

As an eight year old, my son isn’t great at remembering he needs to get something done. He’s incredibly responsible if he knows he needs to do something, but for the first two weeks of this particular goal, he was forming a new personal habit. That means it was me who needed to remind him as he was headed off to play legos for the fifth time that day that if he wanted to reach his reading goal, he needed to take some time to read. I never told him how long to read, or even what to read; I just made sure he remembered to read each day. We have a section of books blocked off as “his” books and he gets to choose from those what to read. If he runs out, we go get more, but I am the one who has to keep the goal in the center of thought and encourage him to take the actions he needs to achieve what he wants. Now, two weeks in, when I called upstairs to ask him what he was doing, he replied, “I’m reading a book!” all by himself. 

As you are setting goals with your children, remember that modeling good behavior is the first best step. Also, make them the achievers by setting them up to succeed through reminders (set yourself reminder pings on your phone if you need to!)

Knowing how to achieve something you want through consistent action and a solid plan is a true life skill that’s not only really fun, but it’s an incredible self-esteem booster to know you did something big. 

Happy New Year!

Do you have experience teaching your kids to set goals? Share your tips in the comments!