Goal setting, planning, and prioritizing are critically important executive function processes in school and in life. In my work as an educational specialist at the Institute for Learning and Development and Director of the SMARTS Executive Function program, I often ask students, “What goals do you have?”
I typically hear two types of goals, and both worry me.
“I want to be famous.”
I have had students who wanted to become professional athletes, Hollywood actors, and even a famous pirate. I have nothing against a student who wants to be famous per se. In fact, if they do become famous, I can brag to all my friends that I knew them in their early days. But “being famous” goals are notoriously skimpy on details, and students struggle to understand how their desire to make it big someday relates to their day-to-day lives in the present.
“I want to do better in school.”
Likewise, it is commendable that a student has a goal of doing better in school. In fact, I also want them to do better in school! But “doing better” is too vague. What does “better” look like for this individual student? Are straight A’s appropriate for a student who may be failing some of her classes? And what will happen if the student hits a setback on her path to improved academic achievement?
These goals are dangerous because they do not promote self-awareness nor do they promote detailed thinking or planning.
Effective goals are based on an awareness of personal strengths and limitations as well as a vision of the final result and a plan for achieving it. In order to meet a goal, a student needs to carefully organize his or her approach by considering both the “big picture” and the smaller steps involved. A systematic approach to goal setting helps students create clearly defined goals by ensuring that the goal is appropriate, identifying the steps they must take to obtain their goals, and brainstorming ways that they can overcome potential obstacles before they happen.
It is also important to specifically ask students what obstacles might stand in the way of achieving their goals. When students anticipate obstacles before they happen, they can think of possible solutions.
Remember, every student is unique; therefore, every student may come up with their own unique goal. However, it is important to teach goal setting using a systematic approach that guides students through the process of creating clearly defined goals that are realistic and anticipate obstacles. Consider using the CANDO goal setting strategy, found in Unit 2 of the SMARTS Curriculum.
You can also learn more about executive function strategies for teaching goal setting by checking out the SMARTS Unit Overview video.
- Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Program Director