Goal setting for teens can be daunting: teens have big ideas and big dreams but don’t yet have the experience of breaking down and organizing a goal into steps. Goals like “Get an A-plus in all of my classes” or “Save enough money for a car” can end in disappointment or abandonment.
If done without planning and intention, a goal could inadvertently hurt a growth mindset. Teens might fail with a vague or lofty goal and then think, “See? I can’t do it anyway.”
As a high school principal myself, I’ve seen teens make great accomplishments but feel disappointed because their initial goals were too vague or unrealistic.
On the flip side, I’ve seen teens accomplish remarkable things and feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. For example, some teens have dramatically increased a grade, while others have organized school-wide events or clubs.
In these cases, the goals were well-defined and included a support plan. This kind of structured goal setting can support a growth mindset by helping teens experience their own abilities and leadership.What are the main benefits of effective goal setting?
Besides helping develop a growth mindset, effective goal setting creates other benefits for teens.
- It teaches teens to organize time and tasks
- It can increase motivation, self-efficacy, and sense of achievement
- It shows teens how to use others for accountability and inspiration
- It gives parents, teachers, and other adults an opportunity to partner with teens and supports teens’ passions and interests
So how do you help your teen (or students) set effective goals?
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1. Make sure it’s their goal not yours
Teens can easily reject any attempt to be controlled. They have a deep need to feel independence and autonomy. A goal cannot be forced upon them. It’s important we allow our teens to set the goal and that we don’t manipulate them into fulfilling our goals for them.
In the Big Life Journal - Teen Edition, your teen can work through the pages which help them define their own version of success.
2. Partner with them and support their interests
If we look closely, our teens accomplish many unwritten goals on their own without much effort: learning how to do new hair or makeup styles, memorizing song lyrics and mastering video games.
If a teen indicates a desire to accomplish a goal or a new challenge, you can partner with them on goal-setting.
But what should you do if your teen is interested in a goal that does not interest you? This is a great opportunity to show you are supportive of their interests.
They may be interested in increasing a social media following, earning money to save for something they care about, learning how to do a certain hairstyle (or color!), getting fitter, or making more friends.
If what your teen wants to do is safe and reasonable, then you have an opportunity to show interest in their passion and partner with them.
3. Introduce goal setting as a tool to support their dreams
It’s better NOT to force teens to do goal setting or introduce it as a “should” or “must.”
For example, an effective invitation to goal setting could be, “Sounds like you're interested in improving your Spanish so you can get selected for the school trip to Spain this summer. What a great idea. Would you like me to support you in creating a plan to move up one level in Spanish?”
On the other hand, a less effective invitation could drive your teen away, “I agree, you should improve your Spanish. I wish I had learned Spanish. We need to get your grades higher.”
4. Know when conversation about goal setting is appropriate
If a teen is complaining about a task, like having to take out the garbage or complete homework, don’t initially try a conversation about goal-setting. It’s more effective to skillfully address their complaint. Using any of the strategies to address complaint could be all it takes to help them move forward.
However, if the task is daunting for your teen and she indicates she’d like to do it better, goal-setting could be a great move.
5. Demonstrate they’re in control
What if your teen is complaining about a situation they see as outside of their control, like a bad grade? This is a great opportunity to partner with your teen by empathizing, “Sounds like you’re frustrated with your score in maths.”
Then, point out how they have accomplished other goals on their own, “I was impressed by how you were able to accomplish your new skateboarding trick in such a short time.”
Think of things that matter to your teen: maybe they boosted Instagram followers, saved enough money for new sneakers, or helped their friend organize a party.
Finally, name what your teen specifically did in order to accomplish this goal. For example, maybe your teen allocated time well. Maybe they showed self-restraint. Maybe they took feedback and learned from their mistakes. This is important in building your teen’s awareness of how effective they already are.
6. Help your teen revise their goal to be specific and measurable
Sometimes a goal involves someone else’s decision: for example, getting onto a sports team, being accepted into a specific program or university, or winning a contest. Arguably, even grades involve a teacher’s decision, although this decision should be based on the students’ work.
For example, “I want to make the track team” is admirable but may ultimately depend on a coach’s decision.
Instead, help your teen identify the qualities and skills it would take for them to get onto the team, be accepted into the university, win the contest, or get the grade.
“I want to run 100 meters in X seconds” is a goal that is specific and measurable. It might lead to the student being able to join the track team, but even if it doesn’t, the teen will have accomplished his or her goal.
7. Explain it’s about the journey, not the destination
Many goal-setting books and articles connect goals to happiness. However, we don’t want to teach our teens they can’t be happy or satisfied NOW, and that they’ll only be happy once they reach their goals.
We can explain to our teens they can be satisfied in all aspects of the goal-setting process: goal-seeking, goal-planning, goal-revising, goal achieving, and even responsible goal abandoning. It is the process that can ultimately build a growth mindset.
8. Help them see a deeper value and benefit to their goal
Goals are more likely to be achieved if one considers the “why” or purpose behind the goal. However, if we simply ask teens, “Why do you want to set this goal?” they might become defensive or stuck.
If we say to teens, “Clearly that’s important to you. Tell me more about it,” teens are more likely to open up.
It’s important for us to hear WHY something is important to our teens. Initially, a teen may have a reason that is grounded in resistance or upset, “I want to improve my maths grade so you and my math teacher stop bothering me.” “I want to save enough money for a car so I don’t have to be so bored around here all the time.”
You can validate your teen’s initial reason while helping them see a deeper value and a benefit to their goal.
In Roadmap to Responsibility, behavioral expert Larry Thompson encourages adults to establish “core values” as an anchor to talk to kids. Core values could include “respect,” “responsibility,” “perseverance,” etc. Thompson also encourages adults to help children see the benefit to themselves by changing their behavior.
The same ideas of referencing a value and a benefit can apply to goal setting.
For example, “I want to improve my math grade so you and my math teacher stop bothering me” could be reframed by following these steps:
Note: Many goals might be tied to a teen's deep desire to be accepted by their peers. In fact, from an adolescent’s perspective, “quality of life” is most strongly tied to having and being accepted by friends. While your teen might not be willing to admit it, their goal may be tied to being accepted by their peers, which is that’s normal. However, it’s important to help your teen identify a deeper “why” of their goal.Which goals are better for teens: short-term or long-term?
A goal can be anything from a short-term, one-step goal to a longer-term, multi-step goal. Whether your teen sets a long-term or short-term goal depends on the goal itself, as well as your teen.
Some teens need a single-step goal that would allow them to see success within a day. For example, “Tomorrow I’m going to get to school on time by choosing my outfit the night before and not hitting the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm” might be appropriate for a teen struggling with punctuality. The one-day goal would allow them to prove to themselves they are capable.
Another example of a simple goal can be to learn and repeat one positive affirmation every morning. This would be a great goal for a teen who is struggling with negative self-talk or low self-esteem.
Other teens are highly ambitious and organized. These teens can handle a goal with multiple steps and a longer timeline. A highly-driven teen could benefit from a goal-setting book for teens such as Doable: The Girls Guide to Accomplishing Just about Anything, which includes ideas and inspiration as well as helpful templates. (Doable is also appropriate for boys.)
Teens’ relationships to the goal topic also matter. A teen who is passionate about soccer could probably handle a multi-step soccer goal with a longer timeline. If that same teen has trouble doing maths homework, then a very simple goal would be more suitable. For example, “Tomorrow call my classmate at 7:00 p.m. to do math homework together on the phone.”
Be aware of how many goals your teen sets. Too many goals could overwhelm anyone, especially a teen who is driven to be self-critical.
If you need some tips on how to encourage a growth mindset in your child, don't forget to download our FREE Your Words Matter Kit Vol. 2.
5 Steps for effective goal-setting for teens
Share these steps with your teen (you can print out the infographic included) to get them started on the path of effective goal setting.
Step 1: Encourage your teen to write down their goal
Studies have shown goals are achieved at a significantly higher rate when they are written down. A teen might initially be resistant to the idea of writing down their goal: “I know I’ll do it!” or “Don’t you trust me?”
You can share with your teen that people are 33% more likely to achieve their goals if they write them down-- it’s not about your teen, it’s about how all humans successfully achieve goals.
If your teen is motivated visually, encourage them to find images or photos that could accompany their written goal. If your teen enjoys using apps and technology, you could encourage them to track their goal on an app.
Step 2: Support them in making the goal specific and measurable
Lots of research around SMART goals [Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely] has shown if one takes the time to define a goal, the goal will have a higher rate of success. Even more intriguing, SMART goal setting is linked to higher achievement overall.
Your teen might initially express a goal that is too ambitious or lofty: for example, “I’m going to get 100% on all of my math tests.”
Rather than criticizing the goal, praise the intent of the goal, “It’s great you want to get 100% on your math tests. It shows a real sense of responsibility and wanting to set the bar high for yourself.”
After you’ve praised the intent, you can share, “I’ve learned from others it’s easier to accomplish goals like that if I put it into an action I can measure.”
Here is an example of turning a vague or lofty goal into a SMART goal:
1. Starting goal: “I’ll get an A-plus on my next English essay.”
Help your child define exactly what they want to improve on their essay. For example, your teen may have simply turned in her essay late and lost points for that. A SMART-er goal would be to hand the essay in on time.
2. Use this simple template to help a teen turn a vague goal into a SMART goal:
I will ________
When and with whom? _________
I will write an essay for English class that is handed in on time
By scheduling time to write it and asking my classmate Angela to proofread my essay
When: Saturday, 1:00-3:00 p.m. write the first draft, send to Angela
Sunday, talk with Angela at 2:00 p.m. for feedback
Sunday, write the 2nd draft from 3:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.
Chunking the goal into steps is the key to success. You can have your teen practice breaking down big goals or dreams into smaller steps by using the goal ladder technique described in the Big Life Journal - Teen Edition.
Step 3: Have your teen identify a person or persons as a “goal buddy”
In the same study identifying the power of writing goals, the other major factor was sharing the goal with someone else and then creating check-ins to communicate progress on goals.
Those who had an accountability partner with weekly check-ins achieved their goals significantly more than those who didn’t.
Have your teen identify a “goal buddy”. It can be you or another family member. Don’t be offended if you are not the chosen “goal buddy”-- it’s actually a great sign if your teen has identified other people they can count on.
Of course, you may be concerned if your child has chosen an unreliable or unsupportive friend. If a child is choosing a peer who might be a negative influence, consider approaching it this way, “Person X has a lot of great qualities. I’d be honored if you’d choose me/another person as a second goal buddy.”
This may be received better than saying, “Are you sure friend X is reliable/ kind/ supportive?”
Step 4: Help them name potential setbacks and challenges
It’s important for teens to think of potential challenges and setbacks and here you can help them think of a plan. In fact, some studies show that imagining roadblocks can increase productivity and engagement, improve time management, and reduce stress.
Ask your teen, “What are some things that could get in the way of this goal?” and “What might make you feel like giving up on this goal? Let’s talk about it so you can have a plan in case that happens.”
Here are some examples of possible challenges and how a teen could address them. You can share these examples with your teen to help them generate their own ideas:Challenge: “I might be too tired to do my homework after softball practice.”
Solution: “I’ll go to the library in the 40 minutes between school and softball practice and do my homework then.”
Challenge: “My friends might want me to hang out with them after school instead of practicing gymnastics.”
Solution: “Tell my friends ahead of time the days I need to practice and the days I’m free to hang out.”
Step 5: Schedule revisiting and revising dates
If your teen is looking at a long-term goal, schedule revisiting and revising dates. Consider having your teen create an online calendar invite with you and their “goal buddy,” or marking the “revisit and revise” dates on a visible calendar in the kitchen.
When you revisit goals with your teen, be sure to follow these three tips:
- Celebrate specific actions they have taken along the way. Don’t simply praise for the sake of praising, but name processes your teen has taken in the past. Naming processes that are successful have been shown to be more effective for teens than praising.
Not specific praise:
“Great job on math!” or “Great job on your goal!”
“You followed your plan to do your math homework every night at 6:00. This shows you were able to keep to your schedule. You also called your friends if you got stuck, showing that you can collaborate to solve problems.”
- Give teens an opportunity to see if their goal is still really what they want. For example, a teen might initially have set a goal to master a skill in maths class. After a month, the teen might find they’re doing fine in math but struggling in science. In this case, it might be smarter to celebrate the success and set a new goal.
- Teach teens that abandoning a goal because it’s no longer appropriate is not a failure but is actually responsible. For example, a teen may want to save money for a car but then finds their part-time job is interfering with sleep and schoolwork. The teen could postpone the goal until summer, when they can engage in a part-time job, or talk to their boss about only working on weekends.
Goal setting in the classroom
The use of SMART goals and a “goal buddy” can be an excellent way for students to increase engagement and own their work in a classroom. Students could set weekly or bi-weekly goals and be paired with a “goal buddy” for check-ins.
Use goal-setting as a way to build students ownership of learning and ability to self-manage. Do not use classroom goal setting to put pressure on students to do things a certain way or raise test scores.
In fact, one study showed no correlation in test score achievement when students did a weekly partner-goal check-in with peers. However, partner check-in did show a marked improvement in classroom cohesiveness, community, and empathy.
If you're looking for a supportive growth mindset resource for your pre-teen or teen, our beautifully designed, science-based, Big Life Journal for Teens, helps them develop a resilient, growth mindset so they can grow into confident adults.
Julie Nariman is the founding principal of the High School of Language and Innovation, a high school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners in the Bronx which began in 2011. Julie has been an educator in New York City since 2000. She writes about leading, teaching, and learning in her blog, Classroom325.nyc.