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4 Steps for Helping Your Child Set Effective Goals (Plus a Bonus Tip)

Posted: September 13, 2021

4 Steps for Helping Your Child Set Effective Goals (Plus a Bonus Tip)

Science says 92 percent of people don’t achieve their goals. Perhaps, most of them have never learned how to effectively set goals.

You can help your child learn the skill of goal-setting, which is critical for developing grit and just simply getting what you want out of life.

Other reasons WHY your child should learn goal-setting include:
• it teaches them to take responsibility for their own behaviors and learning
• it promotes a “can-do” attitude
• it forms a powerful lifelong habit

So how do you teach your kids to set their own goals?

Below, I’ll share four research-based steps for helping your child set effective goals, track progress, and stay motivated in the process.


If your child has a genuine desire to reach their goal, they’re far more likely to be intrinsically motivated, driven, and ultimately successful.

Instead of pushing your child to set a goal that you want them to reach, help them consider what they truly want to accomplish or achieve this year.

Ask questions like:
• What’s something you wish you could achieve?
• What’s a challenge you would feel very proud to overcome?
• What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Then, help your child brainstorm ONE major goal they would like to achieve this year. Make sure the goal is specific, measurable and trackable.

For instance, avoid vague goals like, “I’ll pay more attention in class this year.” There’s no clear way to know when or if this goal has been achieved.

Here are examples of measurable goals which are much more effective:
• “I’ll take daily notes this year and review them each week.”
“• I’ll score ten points higher in math this year.”

Your child needs to be able to realize their progress toward the goal, so be sure it’s something specific and measurable.


In order for your child to be truly motivated to reach their goal, they must understand their “WHY.”
Why do they want to achieve this goal? Why does it matter? What is their purpose?

In education, it’s long been clear that when students see a purpose for what they’re learning, they tend to “buy-in” and perform better.
Four 2014 studies found that this is especially true when students have a self-transcendent purpose for learning. This means that students are more successful when they understand that their learning can also benefit others.

This same rule can apply to your child’s goal-setting. For instance, if your child’s goal is to earn an “A” in Science, a purpose like, “I want to have better grades,” or, “I want a career in science,” can be helpful to some extent.

But it will be even more helpful if your child can find a self-transcendent purpose like:
“I want to do better in Science so I can make discoveries or inventions that help people.”

Help your child find their purpose by asking questions like, “What do you think is the greatest benefit to you doing well in this class? How can that help others?”

In the above example, you can also discuss:
• Advances made by other scientists
• How science has helped or does help people
• Future needs science can address

If your child can find a greater purpose behind their academic goals, you’re likely to see greater results. Plus, you’re encouraging critical thinking and kindness.


An effective goal must be reasonably within reach. It should be neither too challenging nor too easy. And your child must be able to sustain their motivation for an extended period of time.

One way to achieve this is to help your child break their big, long-term goal into more manageable short-term steps.
Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy explains that people often fail to reach their goals because the goals they have set are too massive and unrealistic. These people focus too much on the outcome and not enough on the process.

Instead, it can be helpful to set a string of small, incrementally more challenging goals.

Incremental goals can help your child stay motivated, continue improving and practicing the skills needed to reach their “big goal,” and give them more opportunities to celebrate success along the way.

To help your child visualize this step-by-step process, offer to fill out a “goal ladder.” At the top of the ladder, write down the big goal, then work your way through the steps it would take to achieve it.

Let’s say your child’s big goal is to learn to ride a bike over the summer. The first step on the goal ladder might be watching Mom or Dad ride a bike. The second step might be learning to ride a bike with training wheels. A step up from that could be pedaling the bike while Mom or Dad holds on. And finally, practice riding on your own.

It’s important for your child to understand that they may not reach their long-term goal right away. As long as they’re making progress and completing short-term goals, they’re still climbing the “ladder” to success and shouldn’t get discouraged.


If you don’t plan in advance for potential obstacles, an unforeseen challenge or difficulty could derail your child’s motivation.
Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen set out to study the success rates of people who had optimistic beliefs about their future goals vs. the success rates of people who had pessimistic beliefs.

The surprising results?

Neither group of people was particularly successful at achieving their goals. Optimists ignored or glossed over obstacles, while self-defeating pessimists didn’t believe in their own capabilities.

Oettingen found that the KEY to successfully reaching goals lies in two cognitive strategies:
(1) Mental Contrasting (visualizing achieving a goal and understanding what obstacles currently stand in the way) and
(2) Implementation Intentions (planning a method for overcoming these obstacles beforehand).

From this research, the acronym WOOP was born:
• Wish – Think about something you want to achieve.
• Outcome – Visualize how it would look and feel to achieve this goal.
• Obstacles – Picture the things that have held, do hold, or could hold you back from reaching this goal.
• Plan – If and when these obstacles occur, how can you respond? If [insert obstacle] occurs, then I will [insert behavior or action] .

As you plan for potential obstacles, talk to your child about bad habits or negative thoughts, including a desire to give up.

You can ask, “If you feel like giving up, what will you do instead?”

Planning for potential obstacles in advance can help your child stay motivated and succeed even in the face of challenges.


Here’s a very simple way to help your child follow through with their goals:
• Write them down.

Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews found that by simply writing down your goals, you’re 42% more likely to achieve them. (Telling a friend—or perhaps a parent—increases this rate to 72%.)

This can help your child clarify their goals and feel more motivated to reach them. If you post their goals somewhere prominent, it’ll be easier for your child to see and celebrate their progress.


We’ve all seen it before: Our child begs for a new toy and is over the moon excited when they finally get it. They’re going to play with it every day and love it forever. Less than a week later, we find the neglected toy in a corner of the room, gathering dust.

How can you keep your child’s shiny new goal from this same fate?

Here are a few ideas:
• Remind your child of their purpose.
• Remind them of the plan they developed for confronting this particular obstacle, and help them follow it.
• Recognize and celebrate small steps toward achieving your child’s goal, including climbing the steps on their “goal ladder.”

Instead of focusing on the perceived failure, focus on how they can continue improving. Why do you think it didn’t go so well this time?

What could you try next time to keep getting better?

Celebrate your child’s effort, determination, and persistence. For example, even if they don’t do well on a test, acknowledge the amount of time they spent studying.

Teach your child to have positive self-talk by talking positively about both yourself and your child. Teach statements like, “I can do this,” or, “I’m working hard to reach my goals.”

If they experience setbacks or failures, help them put them in perspective. Give examples of your own struggles at their age, or turn to examples of famous people like Thomas Edison, who reportedly tested 10,000 different materials for his electric lightbulb before finding the one that worked. What if Edison had given up on the 9,999th attempt?


This week, spend time with your child reflecting on the current remaining or even upcoming school year and what they would like to accomplish.

Follow these four steps to help your child set an effective and meaningful goal:

Step 1: Let your child choose their “big goal.”

Step 2: Discuss the purpose of your child’s goal.

Step 3: Break the big goal into smaller steps (and fill out a goal ladder!).

Step 4: Brainstorm potential obstacles, and make a plan for how you will address them.

And remember to put all of it in writing!

60 school days from now, you may be very pleased by both your child’s achievements and the life skills they’ve developed by setting their goal and sticking to it.

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