What Should We Do When Students Set Unrealistic Goals?

What Should We Do When Students Set Unrealistic Goals?

Many times the goals that matter most to students are not academic in nature. I have had students tell me that their dream is to become an actor, a musician, or a professional athlete. Of course the old stodgy adult in me wants to tell them that this is very unlikely, and that they should be more realistic. As an adult with the big picture in mind, I want them to be prepared for a successful future, and I don’t think learning how to slam dunk is really necessary for a professional career in accounting or management.

Despite this ‘mature’ perspective, we should never tell our students that they cannot achieve their personal goals. Instead, we should help them understand how to turn dreams into a plan of action. Executive function is all about setting goals and breaking down the steps, so engaging with supposedly unrealistic goals presents an opportunity to build a students’ ability to be successful in life, no matter what they end up doing.

What’s more, if we do nothing to help our students engage with their goals, then these goals truly are unrealistic and potentially unmotivating. If a student says they want to be a famous actor, and they clearly are not a famous actor yet, that can feed feelings of worthlessness.

Using the CANDO goal setting strategy (unit 2, lesson 1) to develop students’ goals is a powerful way to help students connect their dreams to their everyday lives. The student learns to set a clear and appropriate short-term goal that addresses the big picture goal. “I want to be a famous actor” becomes “I want to be in two school plays this year.” With this short-term goal, they are getting the experience and training they’ll need to become an actor someday. And, by tying the goal into their day-to-day life, they have set a goal that they can achieve, and they will be proud of their achievement.

Any big picture goal can be broken down into clearly defined short-term goals.

“I want to be rich” becomes “I want to take classes and join clubs that will help me learn more about business.”

“I want to be skinny” becomes “I want to try to exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes.”

“I want to have friends” becomes “I will try to plan one fun thing with a friend every week.”

In every single case, it is important to clearly define an appropriately challenging goal and build the steps (and anticipate obstacles) around that.

This action-oriented goal setting will come in handy in their professional lives. And, if your student does end up becoming a famous actor, maybe he or she will thank you when they accept their Oscar.

Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Program Director