Visit Goldfish Kids Site

Setting and Reaching Goals (Ages 3-5, 6+)

Positive Parenting by Dr. Karen Reivich

I'm writing this on a Tuesday. Last Thursday I announced to my husband and my kids that "Starting tomorrow I'm back to going to the gym. I'm going every day." I said it with a great deal of enthusiasm. I was convinced. I felt more fit already. Guess how many times I've been to the gym since my proclamation? Yep. You got it: Zippo. I thought about it many times. And I really wanted to go. I enjoy going to the gym. It's not something that falls under my "have to do" list; it tops my "want to do" list. Yet despite all of that, it's Tuesday and I still haven't gone.


Given this introduction, you might wonder what you could possibly learn from me about goal-setting. Well, although I haven't achieved that goal, I have achieved many. And this, in fact, is the first important lesson in goal-setting: Learn from your past successes and failures. Every one of us has achieved goals—many goals. And every one of us has not achieved goals—many goals. So, before I suggest a simple goal-setting process that both you and your child can use, I suggest that you first reflect on your past successes and failures with goal-setting and use those experiences for all they are worth.


Personal Reflection:
Here are some questions to consider:
Think about a recent goal that you set for yourself that you achieved and one that you didn't achieve. Jot down your thoughts on the following questions for both, and then spend some time reflecting on how the answers differ when focusing on the goal you met versus the goal you didn't meet.


  1. How important was the goal to you? How did your goal fit with what you value in your life?
  2. How realistic was the goal? How did the goal match up with your talents, skills and strengths?
  3. How specific was the goal? Was the goal clearly defined? Or was the goal vague and hard to succinctly describe?
  4. What steps did you mentally outline to help yourself reach the goal? Did you have a clear step-by-step plan in mind? How realistic were each of the steps?
  5. What obstacles did you foresee encountering on the way to reaching your goal? What plan did you have in place for getting around those obstacles?
  6. What obstacles did you actually encounter along the way? How did you feel and what did you say to yourself when you hit an obstacle? What did you do when you hit an obstacle?
  7. Who helped you reach your goal? How did you let this person know that you wanted help? How did you react when this person offered help?
  8. How did you feel when you reached the goal?
  9. How did you feel when you didn't reach the goal?
  10. What are the most important lessons you learned from answering these questions?
  11. How can you apply these lessons to your own experiences so that you are more likely to reach your next goal?


When I asked myself these questions, I discovered two important things.


Lesson 1:
The goal and the plan for reaching that goal have to be realistic. Despite wanting to go to the gym, enjoying working out and valuing feeling healthy, I did not make a realistic plan for getting to the gym. My plan was to go to the gym at 8pm—once dinner was finished, homework had been completed, and the kids were entertaining themselves with educational activities. Here's the problem: That rarely happens in my house. With four kids, when it does happen, I'm lucky if it's 9:30, not 8pm. And, even if it did happen by 8pm, by that point, what I really want to do is to crawl into bed and watch my favorite cooking show.


Lesson Learned:
The goal and the plan for reaching the goal have to be realistic and workable given the conditions of my life; 8:00pm is not a realistic time to go to the gym consistently.


Lesson 2:
The family will survive without me for an hour. This one was a tougher pill to swallow. As I reflected on the questions I realized that a good part of the problem in getting to the gym were my beliefs about what would happen if I actually went. When I took a moment to think about it, it became clear to me that I was fairly certain that if I left the house at 8pm, when I returned at 9pm I would find the children downing cans of soda; scarfing fistfuls of chocolate while watching an R-rated movie; and ordering anything and everything that can be purchased over the internet. Funny how that image makes it hard for me to leave. Now, to be fair to myself, the house doesn't run quite as smoothly when I'm not there, but to be fair to my husband and children, I've never returned to mayhem, and packages have not appeared on our doorstep. The truth is that my husband and kids are happy for me to go to the gym, and had I shared my image with them, they would have nodded, smiled, assured me that they'd all survive—and then promptly kicked me out the door, gym bag in hand.


Lesson Learned:
I have to get out of my own way and ask others to support me in my goals. I recommend that you take a moment to write down your lessons learned and post them somewhere that you'll see them often. Once you have reflected on your own goal setting history, it will be easier for you to put into the place the straight forward goal setting plan I describe below.


Types of Goals

There are many different kinds of goals you and your child can set. I am going to highlight three different categories for simplicity: Achievement Goals, Process Goals, and Strength Goals.


Achievement goals are goals we set regarding something we'd like to attain: getting a higher grade on a test, making the soccer team, eating less junk food. Process goals are goals around how we want the method to unfold, and the manner in which we'd like to do whatever it is we are doing: studying persistently for 20 minutes, thanking people politely, waiting patiently for one's turn. Process goals focus on the how (studying persistently), rather than the outcome (getting an A). Strength goals are goals we set for ourselves that highlight character assets that we'd like to develop more fully: feeling more confident when speaking in class, being kind to one's sister, being more grateful for the good things in one's life are examples of strength goals.


Goal-setting in each of these categories, and I recommend that you work on setting at least one goal in each area—but not necessarily at the same time. For example, my current goals are: Going to the gym four times a week (achievement); writing continuously for an hour a day (process), being more generous (character strength). With your children, it's important to keep things simple at first, so help them to pick one goal to work on at a time.


Steps for Setting and Reaching Goals


There are lots of different approaches to goal-setting. Most approaches, however, highlight similar steps, and I have found in my work with parents and children that the steps reviewed below are the most critical.


1. Set Specific and Measurable Goals:
When goals are vague, you are destined to fall short of achieving them. Work with your child to set a goal that is specific and measurable. Specific goals are clear and help your child to know exactly what he or she wants to improve or do differently. Measurable goals are critical because they enable your child to evaluate how he or she is doing—and to change behaviors as necessary. "Do better in school" is vague. "Turn in my History paper by Friday" is specific and measurable. "Be nicer" is vague. "Say three kind things to my sister each day" is specific and measurable. As the parent, it's important that you help your child craft the goal so that it is specific and can be measured. Many children have a hard time doing this (at least initially). You can help turn a vague goal into a specific and measurable goal with these questions. Below is an example of how your questions can guide your child from moving from a vague goal to a specific and measurable goal. Lydia is in seventh grade and her mom is helping her with goal-setting.


Mom: What is it that you want to accomplish?

Lydia: I want to do better in school.

Mom: Why is doing better in school important to you?

Lydia: Because I feel badly when my grades aren't good, and I feel a lot better about myself when I'm doing better in school.

Mom: What's one example of "doing better in school"?

Lydia: Well, I have a big paper in Language Arts class due next week and I want to get at least a B on it.

Mom: How will you know if you are doing the things you need to do to be in the running for at least a B?

Lydia: Well, Mrs. Wicks gives out a sheet that describes the points she gives for each section—introduction, writing style, resources, that kind of thing—and what she's looking for in each of those sections. I guess I can use that to help me figure out how good each section is.

Mom: Great, so how would you summarize what you just said into a goal?

Lydia: I want to follow Mrs. Wicks' steps for writing a good paper for Language Arts.

Mom: Great!


Once your child has a specific and measurable goal, write it down! You'll want to help her to develop the plan for reaching her goal, and the best way to do this is to put it on paper.


2. Set Goldilocks Goals (not too hard, not too easy, but just right):
It's important to set goals that are realistic and attainable—but not too easy. Goals that are too hard can undercut motivation, and goals that are too easy can do the same. You want to help your child set a goal that makes him or her stretch—and that with some stretching your child can grasp the prize.


Sometimes kids set goals that are unrealistically high because they feel pressure from their parents, peers, even the media. Alternatively, they might set goals that are too low because they lack self-confidence and optimism, and worry about how their parents or friends will respond if they fail to achieve the goal. So it's important to talk with your child about any pressures he/she feels from others and any fears he has about his own abilities. Help your child to set a goal that is slightly beyond their immediate grasp, but not so far above their current skills and abilities that they believe they have no chance of succeeding.


You can help your child to develop the skill of setting "Goldilocks goals"—goals that are just right—through a series of simple questions. Jake is in sixth grade and his father is helping him think through whether his goal requires the right amount of stretch:


Dad: Tell me about the goal you've set.

Jake: I want to be the editor of the school newspaper.

Dad: Editor. Wow. Why do you want to be the editor?

Jake: Well, I love to write, and writing for the paper is cool, and the editor is the person in charge so I thought I should go for the best position.

Dad: Do you think it's realistic to become the editor without first writing for the paper for a while?

Jake: Hmmm.I'm not sure.Susan is the editor now. I think she's been writing for the paper for two years. I think she started as a sixth-grader.

Dad: So maybe your long-term goal can be to become the editor. Can you think of a goal that you can set now that will put you in a good place to become editor down the road?

Jake: Well, I guess I could make it my goal to write for the paper this year.

Dad: Is that too easy a goal? Don't they accept everyone who wants to write?

Jake: No, it's not too easy. You have to be selected—not everyone gets to do it. You have to show them that you're a good writer and that you have ideas about articles you'd write. You even have to submit stuff and have an interview with Mr. Crane—he's the teacher in charge. Mike wanted to write for the paper and he didn't make it.

Dad: So it sounds like the goal of writing for the paper will take some hard work on your part, but it's realistic.

Jake: Yeah. I guess it's more realistic than becoming editor this year.


3. Make a Step-by-Step Plan:
After you've made a specific, measurable and realistic goal, you are ready to work with your child to map out the steps he or she will take to reach the goal. Younger children can complete the Goal Road Map activity. Older children can simply list the steps on the same piece of paper on which he or she recorded the goal. When listing the steps, it's important to consider the specific actions your child will need to take in order to reach the goal. Just like the goal itself, if the steps are vague, it will become much too easy for your child to get sidetracked. Whenever possible, it's also a good idea to put a date showing when each step needs to be completed—that will help your child to plan his or her time accordingly (and will help you keep track of the process!). Below are some questions you can ask your child to help him or her identify the specific steps needed to reach the goal. The objective is to help your child think through the various components of the goal and to end up with a list of specific steps that he or she can begin to take. You'll notice that some of the questions are geared toward helping your child name which steps to take, and others are directed toward helping your child identify the skills (e.g., writing) and strengths (determination) he or she can draw on to reach the goal.


  • What is the first thing you need to do to get started on reaching your goal? When do you need to do this by in order to complete your goal by your deadline?
  • What information do you need to get started?
  • What help do you need to reach your goal? Who will you need to talk with?
  • Which of your skills or strengths will you use to help you reach your goal? How can you use these skills and strengths to get started?
  • What are the other steps you'll need to take to reach your goal? When will you need to complete each of these steps so that you can reach your goal by your deadline?
  • Who will you need help from as you work through the steps? How will you let this person know that you need help?


Building in appropriate rewards as your child works through each step is an important motivator. Notice that I used the word "appropriate." I am not suggesting that each time your child completes a step that he or she be rewarded, let alone rewarded with something big or expensive. A key part of reaching goals is staying encouraged throughout the process. Rewards for completing a step will be more effective in maintaining motivation than punishments for not reaching a step. Ideally, the rewards will be intrinsic—a sense of pride and accomplishment when a step is completed. Realistically, if your children are at all like mine, fundamental motivation won't always cut it. Each child is different and will require various amounts and types of rewards. Talk openly with your child about how she will keep herself motivated, and to identify reasonable rewards to both acknowledge the successes along the way, as well as to maintain enthusiasm for the process. Some children will only need rewards after completing a few steps; others might need rewards after carrying out each step. Here are some rewards I've used with my children and my clients have found effective with their own children: throwing around the football with a parent, baking cookies (and eating a couple), playing a video game for 15 minutes, riding bikes, earning points towards a toy, picking the restaurant for dinner, picking the movie to rent, getting half an hour of "private time" with mom or dad, making milkshakes, getting to stay up an extra half hour on the weekend.


4. Anticipate Obstacles and Plan "Walk-Arounds":
Wouldn't it be lovely if achieving our goals only required that they were specific and that we took the time to map out the steps? Then, all we'd have to do is to follow the plan and presto! Goal attained! Yeah, right. I can't remember a time when that happened. I can remember lots and lots of times when I was merrily followed my plan and something seemingly unexpected happened and I was knocked off course. Once off course, I often floundered around, became less motivated by the moment and ended up either wasting a great deal of time, or slowly gave up on the goal altogether. In fact, that's what happened with my goal to go to the gym. Remember, my plan was to go at night after the kids had finished their homework and were ready for bed. Inevitably—big surprise—something unexpected would happen and I would find myself dealing with that occurrence, and therefore wouldn't make it to the gym. Of course, if I'm being honest with myself, the obstacles I typically encounter are not the least bit surprising. They are totally expected and completely foreseeable. Had I taken the time to think through the likely barriers, I could have either planned a way around them, or altered the steps I would take to meet my goal—like picking a more workable time to go to the gym. Identifying potential obstacles and planning what I call "Walk-Arounds" —ways to walk around those obstructions—is necessary if you are going to achieve a goal.


Sit down with your child and talk about the obstacles that she will encounter. Obstacles can be real-world (I have two other reports due this week), emotional (I feel too overwhelmed), mental (I don't think I can pull it off), and physical (I'm tired), among others. Spend time listing out each of the hurdles your child will face, and then generate the suitable Walk-Arounds. The Walk-Arounds are the strategies, skills and strengths your child will use to get past the barrier and continue with the steps toward the goal. Here's an example of obstacles and Walk-Arounds that Lydia identified with the help of her mom as she was working on her goal of writing a strong paper for Language Arts class.


Obstacle: I have a History project due at the same time.
Walk-Around: Mom will help me map out a schedule so that I can do small parts of each assignment and don't get stuck having to do one project at the very end.


Obstacle: I stink at writing so there's no way this paper is going to be any good.
Walk-Around: When I think this way, I will remind myself that I have gotten Bs on papers before, and that I have been working on my writing a lot this year so it's realistic for me to write a good paper, particularly if I follow the guidelines our teacher handed out.


Obstacle: It's so noisy in our house. I won't be able to concentrate. My little brothers always come in my room and make noise.
Walk-Around: If it gets too noisy and I can't concentrate, Mom will keep Joey and Tommy out of my room. I just need to tell her and she'll take care of the keeping them away.


First, let your child identify the obstacles, and then guide them in designing the Walk-Arounds. Then, point out any obstacles that your child didn't anticipate. Ask your child directly how you can be of help to them in reaching their goal. Parental support is important, and giving support in a way that feels supportive to your child is critical. There is no single way to support your child as he works toward a goal—what matters most is that you do your best to offer your encouragement and guidance in a manner that works for him or her. One of my children, for example, feels supported when I offer frequent reminders and encourage him to check the steps he's outlined, whereas his brother feels supported when I take a backseat and only make suggestions if I see that he's veering far from the plan or becoming derailed by an obstacle.


5. Talk About It!:
The last step in goal-setting is to talk together about the experience of meeting or not meeting the goal. If your child didn't reach their goal, be open about it. Ask them to share their feelings, and rather than trying to cheer them up, give them the opportunity to be upset without feeling pressured to "get over it" or "look on the bright side". When the time feels right, help your child to evaluate what they did well in their quest to reach the goal, and how they can build on that next time. It's also important to take an honest look at what didn't work well and to help your child to derive their "lessons learned," just like you did.


When your child successfully meets their goal, help them to acknowledge their success. Ask how they feel, tell them how you feel seeing them meet their goal, encourage them to take ownership of it and to celebrate their achievement. You can help your child build on their success by exploring with them what skills, strengths and strategies worked best, and to think about how they can use them more in the future. All too often we rush by our successes and don't spend time with our children (and in our own life) thinking about and savoring our successes. To counteract this tendency, ask your child to describe the two or three most important lessons they learned about themselves through the process of reaching the goal, and share with your child what you noticed, too.


Finally, you can help your children by sharing with them your own successes and failures in attaining goals. When you talk about your experiences, your children will learn helpful strategies, but even more importantly, you are teaching them that goal-setting is a life skill that we all benefit from. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the gym!