Blog Goal-setting

Goal-setting for kids: A 5-step guide

Remember when you were young and your whole life stretched out ahead of you? For many of us, it seemed so big and boundless that it was almost overwhelming. At the same time, it was hard enough to think about tomorrow, let alone next week, next month or next Summer. 

Published Feb 20th, 2023

This is what people mean when they call youth “carefree”, right? But, #realtalk, it’s not that carefree for many. In fact, plenty of kids have big dreams, and that’s where goal-setting starts: wanting to save your pocket money to buy candy, or dreaming of riding a bike without the training wheels.  

If you’re a big sister or brother, a parent, guardian or educator, you can do a solid for the small people in your life by showing them how to set their own goals — and reach them. Why? Setting goals and working towards them is an excellent way for kids to challenge themselves, track progress and build confidence in their abilities. 

The benefits of effective goal setting for kids

Goals: the social media antidote 

Social media can overwhelm younger children right as their tender brains are sponging up information and trying to make sense of the big, wide world. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of bullying and harassment on social media — problems that really undermine the sense of self in kids as well as high school students.  

Goal-setting can help counter this in two ways. First, a great short-term goal that kids can set for themselves might be to limit screen time or time on social media each week. But also, by setting and achieving goals, that little human can also feel a sense of accomplishment, develop self-worth, and know that they can rely on themselves. And that, friend, is a gift no one can take from them. 

A child's future can improve just by writing down goals

We’ve talked before about how writing down your own goals literally helps you achieve them. Well, surprise! That applies to kids, too. 

This Harvard MBA business study on goal setting from 1979 is proof: 10 years after the study, the 13% of the class that had set written goals — but had not created actual plans — were making twice as much money as the 84% of the class that had set no goals at all. It seems a bit like the phenomenon of positive self-talk: even the act of goal setting — without even making a plan to achieve it — can make a difference in life. Woo!

It’s a chance to learn about failure

Along with goal-setting comes the "risk” of not achieving those goals. And learning that “failure” is not a disaster while we’re still in our formative years is crucial. When we fail — and of course we all do — while young, we can learn early what feelings come with that, and get experience managing them. We can learn to look back over what happened and learn from that. We also learn to keep the “failure” in perspective, and to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. 

To hold off goal-setting practice until your children are teens or older is to deny them the chance to learn from a young age how they can manage and conquer goals that, yes, they might first fail to achieve. 

Goal setting improves executive function skills for kids

Executive function skills govern our ability to control our behavior. Like when you’re dying for a sweet treat, but instead you remember that you binged on candy yesterday and decide to grab an apple instead.  

It's not just that, though. Executive function also covers our ability to focus and tune out trivialities, and allows us to think about multiple concepts at once. Cool, huh? And complex! Executive function skills come in pretty handy, so it's important to help the small people in your life develop them. 

Some of the habits that improve executive function skills are: 

  • Note-taking 

  • Expressive writing (and writing in general) 

  • Organizing and planning, whether on hard copy planners and notebooks or digitally. 

And of course, all these habits come into play when you start talking about the goal setting process. So, let’s talk about it!

A person in a green top breakdances

The 5 key steps of successful goal setting for kids

In a plot twist you may already have expected, helping kids set goals is pretty similar to goal-setting for us bigger people. The general process we explained for goal-setting with FutureMe applies, but with a few important tweaks.  

1. Find a goal

Perhaps your young one loves dancing, and spends hours practicing moves in front of the bedroom mirror. As they're showing you their latest version of the moonwalk, after high-fives and hugs you might suggest more challenging goals, like learning the routine from Thriller’s graveyard scene. (Sidenote: don’t underestimate the power of genuine desire to achieve goals; pushing a goal your kid’s not that into just won’t work.) Once they’re keen it’s time to get out a pencil or tablet and write it down!

Spoiler alert: goals are always better when they’re SMART goals. You know: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound? It’s a framework that’s used to avoid vague goals and improve planning skills and critical thinking. It will also help your child visualize their goal, and (all-importantly) measure progress toward it. 

So, ask the young one to choose a goal, then ask if it is:

  • Specific: Simple and clearly defined 

  • Measurable: Can be tracked, motivating, metric-driven 

  • Achievable: Realistic and attainable 

  • Relevant: Aligned with their likes, interests and direction 

  • Time-bound: Limited to a realistic time frame. 

That last one? Work out the date when your young human wants to perform the whole dance scene for the family, their friends, or the neighbourhood kids. Now, your child's goal might look something like: 

"Perform the graveyard dance scene from Thriller for the whole family three weeks from today." 

A tip for first-timers: make sure the goal is achievable in a relatively short time-frame, otherwise your little goal-setter may lose interest. As they get more confident with setting and getting their goals (not to mention slightly older) you can extend those timeframes, but to start, keep it short and manageable. 

2. Break down the steps to accomplish that goal

If you haven’t heard of backward design goal setting, it’s basically just another goal-setting  process, and it goes hand-in-hand with SMART goals. In it, you work backward from the big goal to define the steps you’ll need to take to get there. 

The young person you’re helping probably won’t be able to do that alone, so help them work out what steps they need to take to reach the goal they just set, and write down each one. For the Thriller graveyard scene, you could break the dance up by time (try 10-second or 4-bar segments) or by key moves that mark various stages of the performance. Make a list of these steps under the goal you two just wrote. 

3. Dedicate time to each step

Okay, so you and I know that to practise something, we need to make time for it. But the little person in your life may not exactly have access to Google Calendar. Again, make it manageable: have them agree to practice the dance every night after school, or every second night — you see where we’re going with this. Break down the duration of the dance into nights of practice.  

The steps should all fit between now and the deadline you wrote into the original goal; if not, then it's safe to say it's probably not a realistic time frame. Extend that deadline so your small, aspirational human actually has time to take each step toward the goal. Then, mark the practice times and goals on a wall planner, so (you and!) your child can always know where they’re at.

4. Send your kid’s goals to the future with FutureMe

It’s one thing to set a goal, make plans to achieve it, and work through them. It’s another to wake up one day to a letter from past-you reminding you to stay on track and keep going, or congratulating you for nailing what seemed like an impossible dream! 

The delight that thought brings to mind will be turned up to 11 in your young goal-setter each time they receive letters from their past selves as they progress toward that goal. 

Now, you can do this in either of two ways. You can sit down with your youngster and schedule a few encouraging FutureMe letters to hit at milestone steps on their way to their goal. Or, you can write those letters yourself, without them knowing, in which case the messages will come as a big surprise. Whatever you do, don’t forget to schedule a FutureMe letter to congratulate your small person on achieving their goal, too. 

But wait! What if your kid doesn’t have an email address? No problem: send the emails to your own address, then either show them to the goal-setter as they arrive, or print them out and hand them over.  

And if you’re an educator looking for effective learning strategies? You can have your students practice goal-setting with FutureMe en masse (plus quite a bit more!) with FutureMe Education.

5. Review and reflect

Last but not least, a key part of this whole goal-setting adventure is to sit down with the small person to review what they've accomplished at the end of every week. 

Get out the goal you wrote together, and the steps, and your planner, and work out where they’re at. This will give them a bird's eye view of where they’re at, and can set the stage for a good talk about what’s going well, what they struggled with, and what they want to accomplish the next week. It’s a crucial part of the goal-setting process that teaches children perseverance.

You can — and we think should! — do this after each of your milestone FutureMe letters arrives, but you can also do it on the reg to help that small person with big dreams develop a solid habit of reflection that will serve them for life. It will also help them build confidence to see their goals coming to fruition as time passes and they work hard at them. Win!