It’s not enough to simply have your kids write goals on pieces of paper and hang them up for parents’ night. In fact, by only doing this, you are undermining goal-setting and forming bad habits that will be very hard to fix later on.

I know this to be true because I’ve done goal-setting poorly before, only to be disappointed when my students are no more mindful or goal-oriented at the end of the school year. This was just one of the things that motivated me to come up with this goal-setting process. It’s far from perfect, but I do find it has helped me build cultures of goal-setting in my classrooms in recent years. Read through the process, and find the printables towards the end!

But before you actually start the process, you need to know a few things.

First and foremost, make a plan to do this over the course of the whole school year. I do this four times per year, once for each quarter. This works out nicely for me, because it allows each child to have a personal goal for about 6-8 weeks before we evaluate them and make new ones. You might have different time frames in mind, but if it’s truly a good goal, I would say they need at least 4-6 weeks to work on it.

Next, know that the goals will not be perfect. Some of our students will write poor goals. Some of the goals you’ll disagree with. This is okay and to be expected. This doesn’t necessarily mean you avoid giving them any feedback at all, but if push comes to shove, let them try it their way. The worst case scenario is that they get to the end of the goal period to find that you knew what you were talking about all along. Still a win for learning about goal-setting, in my opinion.

Finally, I recommend modeling the process with a goal that’s authentic and relevant to you first. I’ve modeled a number of different goals for my students. I’ve talked about wanting to make more time for small groups during reading and writing workshop; I’ve also made personal goals around keeping track of things in the classroom or even ending class on time to get us to specials. As long as its authentic, meaningful, and within their reach, you should be able to model the process for them.

And now for the goal-setting process.

1. Identify Strengths

This is really important to do. Like, really important. And not just because we want them to feel good about themselves, but because it allows us an opportunity to tell them that mindful goal-setters use their assets to help them overcome their obstacles. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but more often than not, you can use a child’s assets to help them find an access point for overcoming an obstacle.

I do this in two ways. Sometimes, I use a Circle Map to have them brainstorm strengths, and other times, I have them simply write them out in paragraph form. The picture below is a sample from one of the Goal Reflections (also linked to the end of the this post).

While the students are doing this, I’m usually walking around the classroom thinking aloud. I’ll brainstorm some of my own strengths and even ask students to share theirs as their writing them. This gets the juices flowing and allows students to be inspired by their peers’ ideas.

Figure 4.3b
© Paul Emerich France, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, 2019

2. Identify Obstacles

After we’ve identified strengths, we take time to identify obstacles. Again, while they’re doing this in their Circle Maps, I take time to think aloud and allow those who feel comfortable to share their obstacles with the class. We will eventually use these obstacles to create a personal goal, so it’s important to give feedback and push children towards obstacles that are specific. If necessary, it may even be helpful to make a list on the board of goals that are specific and vague. Doing so will refine their language.

Figure 4.3c
Circle Map adapted from Thinking Maps, © Paul Emerich France, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, 2019

In the example above, you’ll see that this student has starred certain obstacles. They’ve done this to show which obstacles they are considering for their personal goal, bringing us to our next step in the process.

3. Identify Causes and Consequences

In order to overcome their obstacle with a reasonable degree of autonomy, they must identify both the causes and consequences of the obstacle. This helps cultivate awareness around where obstacles come from and what is within their locus of control. It also provides purpose for the activity, allowing them to see that overcoming their obstacles will relieve some of the uncomfortable consequences they might be experiencing.

Figure 4.3d.JPG
Mutli-Flow Map adapted from Thinking Maps, © Paul Emerich France, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, 2019

We start by putting the obstacle in the center box, and then we talk through what the causes of the obstacle could be. Generally speaking, obstacles are caused by:

  • Unproductive Thinking Patterns (i.e., I want to be perfect.)
  • Emotional Barriers (i.e., I get frustrated or nervous when ____.)
  • Unproductive or Mindless Habits (i.e., I tend to look around the classroom instead of at my work.)
  • Physical Barriers (i.e., I get really wiggly in my desk.)

I like to share some of these categories with the students through discussion and model how I might think about each of these categories in the context of my goal. I’ll say things like: “I think I misplace things because I’m doing too many things at once,” or “I get really overwhelmed during the school day because I’m thinking about so many things, and I think it might cause me to forget where I put things.”

Talking about these causes helps us get to the root causes of our obstacles. It’s not necessarily just “misplacing things” that’s an obstacle; it’s the emotional patterns and poor habits that are cause our obstacles to happen. In my case, it’s the fact that I’m doing too many things at once. This, in turn, becomes one of my action steps.

4. Identify Action Steps and Consequences

After we’ve completed the red side, we move to the green side. We very easily turn the obstacle into a specific goal statement. I try to move away from phrases like “get better at ____” or “be a good ____” because these are not specific. Goals that are specific and observable are usually best. I tell the kids, “I should be able to observe you working towards your goal in some way over the next month or so.”

Figure 4.3e.JPG
© Paul Emerich France, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, 2019

After we’ve come up with the goal statement, then we start to take some of the causes of the obstacle and we turn them into action steps. You’ll see “getting stressed” and “take mindful breaths” relate to one another. And in fact, I saw this student using this strategy quite bit when overcoming their stress in the classroom. When the process has been completed with specificity, it will be very clear how the causes of the obstacle and action steps to achieve the goal complement one another.

It’s also important to talk about the positive consequences of achieving our goals. Why? Because it supports intrinsic motivation. Goals are pointless if students don’t see how it will contribute to their well-being and the well-being of the entire class.

So what happens next?

How you display these goals is up to you. I encourage displaying them publicly because it builds resilience and creates a way for students to practice being vulnerable.

“It’s good for our friends to be able to see our personal goals,” I say, “because if your friends know your goal, they can help you achieve it.”

Over the next 6-8 weeks, I like to find ways to check in on the goals. This can be done at closing circle, morning meeting, or even in conferences that you conduct over the course of the school day. Sometimes I see a nice connection to a specific content area and find that I can address the personal goal there. Make it work with your conferencing routines.

At the end of the 6-8 weeks, we complete a Goal Reflection. This allows them to evaluate their goals and begin the process of setting a new one. Sometimes, kids meet their goals and want to set a completely different goal. Other times, kids don’t meet their goals and simply tweak their old one. Remember that the most important part is to invest them in the process. It’s not about the goal itself, but the process of learning how to set goals.

If we are building classrooms where we personalize learning through student autonomy, then we must set them up for autonomous goal-setting. Autonomous goal-setting lies at the foundation for productive autonomous decision-making.

All you’ll need to print is linked below.

While these are free, I would ask that you kindly take a second to head over to David’s and my adoption fund and donate a few dollars!

I recognize this is not possible for everyone, but as you can see, we have a long way to go towards reaching our goal. We can use all the help we can get!

Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?

Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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