Five research-based ways to help children and teens attain their goals.

By Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D.
Courtesy of Psychology Today

If you are an employed adult, you know that most organizations have written goals and objectives. That’s because goal-setting is a common practice in the workplace; and for good reasons. Written goals provide a road map by which employees can measure their efforts and see how they contribute to the success of work teams and ultimately, to their companies.

In the same way, goal-setting helps motivate athletes, entrepreneurs, and individuals to achieve at higher levels of difficulty.

But goal-setting isn’t just for adults. In fact, being goal-oriented is a critical part of how children learn to become resourceful, one’s ability to find and use available resources to solve problems and shape the future.

“Goal setters see future possibilities and the big picture,” says Rick McDaniel in a Huffington Post article. He discusses the important difference between being a goal setter and problem solver, the latter often getting bogged down in road blocks. “Goal setters,” he says, “are comfortable with risk, prefer innovation and are energized by change.”

Research has uncovered many key aspects of goal setting theory and its link to success (Kleingeld, et al, 2011). Setting goals is linked with self-confidence, motivation, and autonomy (Locke & Lathan, 2006). A 2015 studyby psychologist Gail Matthews showed when people wrote down their goals, they were 33% more successful in achieving them than those who formulated outcomes in their heads.

Children learn to be resourceful through the practice of being goal-directed. In an article at Edutopia, teachers learn that fostering resourcefulness involves encouraging students to plan, strategize, prioritize, set goals, seek resources, and monitor their progress.

In similar ways, parents teach resourcefulness when they walk beside children through the everyday practice of being goal-directed rather than attempting to set objectives and problem-solving for kids.

The common approach that applies to both parents and educators is to involve children in their own goal-setting and decision-making. This promotes independence and collaboration with adults simultaneously.

The following strategies apply the research on goal-setting at home, in the classroom, or on the sports field.

Five Ways to Help Children Set and Achieve Goals

Children and teens become effective goal setters when they understand and develop five action-oriented behaviors and incorporate these actions with each goal set.

1. Put goals in writing.

Goals that are written are concrete and motivational. Making progress toward written goals increases feelings of success and well-being. Using a goal-setting template can help children track their successes. A goal-setting smartphone app may motivate tech-savvy children even more. Some apps have gaming features that make goal-setting a fun way to achieve results and build new habits.

2. Self-commit.

For a goal to be motivating to a child, it must give meaning to a mental or physical action to which a child feels committed. This self commitment becomes a key element in self-regulation, a child’s ability to monitor, control, and alter his own behaviors. This doesn’t mean that parents or teachers should not be involved in goal-setting. In fact, adults can serve as goal facilitators—helping kids see options, asking core questions, and providing supportive feedback.

3. Be specific.

Goals must be much more specific than raising a grade or improving performance on the soccer field. Here’s a simple formula. 1) I will [raise my grade in algebra from a C to a B]; 2) By doing what? [regular homework, and spending time with an online algebra program or game]; 3) When? How? With Whom? [increase daily algebra homework by 15 minutes to include a fun online interactive algebra practice; spend 15 fewer minutes on social media; get support from teacher/tutor for things that are not understood]; 4) Measured by [increased time spent; improved weekly test scores].

4. Stretch for difficulty.

Goals should always be challenging enough to be attainable, but not so challenging that they become sources of major setbacks. When working with a child on goal-setting, listen to what they think they can achieve rather than what you want them to achieve.

5. Seek feedback and support.

Part of the fun and motivation of setting goals is working on them in a supportive group environment. Even though goals are often individual in nature, children should be able to recognize how their goal is tied to their family values, the aspirations of a sports team, or the aim of a specific curriculum. When they understand this connection, they feel more open to seeking feedback and receiving support from adults. When goals are achieved, it’s time to celebrate with others!


Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289-1304.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.

Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. Paper presented at the 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), Athens, Greece.