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Ask The Learning Lab: All About Helping Kids Set Goals

goals setting

Just like grown-ups, children need goals to help them focus.

Goals don’t have to be defined at the beginning of the year, but the right goals can provide incentive for children to strive for school success. Poorly set goals, however, can be demoralising and counterproductive.

What are the learning goals that can help children to approach their work with positivity and a sense of purpose? Dr. Lubna Alsagoff, currently the director of curriculum at The Learning Lab and a lifelong educator, has some advice below. 

How should parents begin the process of goal setting with their kids?

The first step is helping your child think about what he or she wants to achieve in the year ahead, be it academic goals or personal goals. This begins with getting him or her to reflect on areas of strengths and weaknesses. Next, identify age-appropriate goals that are geared towards honing his or her strengths and working on areas of weakness. Finally, work together with your child to plan attainable goals, and help him or her work out how to go about achieving them, and have milestones or shorter-term targets to measure and track progress. (Find out how to set attainable and measurable goals here.)

What are some meaningful goals that children about to enter Primary 1 can set?

School can be exciting, but it can bring with it many challenges, especially in relation to the social aspects of the school environment, where there are so many more children, and children much older than themselves. Children also need to be independent in terms of looking after themselves and their belongings, as well as learning with much less supervision—both in school and after school.

Some goals that you can discuss with your child include:

  1. Being independent and responsible, which entails:
  • waking up on time to get ready for school
  • learning how to look after their belongings
  • knowing how to handle money and buy food from the canteen
  • knowing where the important places in school are, including the hall, the toilets, where to wait for the bus, fire safety areas, and exits
  • behaving well in school, which includes knowing the school rules
  1. Making sure they do their best to learn, such as:
  • paying attention in class
  • taking good notes so they know what homework to complete
  • ensuring that they do their homework after school
  • reading books
  • learning from their mistakes
  • knowing how to ask for help

What is a goal that a young child might find stressful?

Goals that are set well beyond the reach of your child would certainly be stressful. If your child is just beginning to read, asking him or her to read a book meant for an older child might be discouraging. For the same reason, I would not recommend using specific grades as goals. It is important to bear in mind that goal setting should be a means of motivating your child to do better.

For parents with older children, what is a positive way to plan for the new school year, especially if grades in the previous year have fallen short of targets?

Affirm your child’s achievement and effort. At the same time, find out how your child feels about how well he or she has done.

If you had set the target in collaboration with your child—a good practice—then find out what obstacles he or she faced in meeting that target. Work towards improvement, look to the future, and don’t work to place blame. Find out how your child can overcome his or her challenges, and how you can help.

Encourage your child to see that there will be times when things don’t go according to plan, and that such setbacks are a natural part of learning.

What should parents consider when working with older children to set goals?

First, focus on the learning, not the grades. Try not to look only at the grades or compare your child’s results with that of his or her peers. Using this sort of motivation is what researchers refer to as external motivation­—this is not an effective or sustainable way to keep your child motivated to learn.

Every child is unique and learns in his or her own ways. Focus on your child’s learning styles, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. When your child gets a test back, you can:

  • Examine what your child has done and read the teacher’s feedback, if there is any. Encourage your child to view feedback as a gift (rather than as criticism), and treat corrections as an essential part of the path to academic success.
  • Make a plan together with your child as to how he or she can do better. Look specifically at what needs improvement. Most of the tests in school, especially at the lower primary levels, are formative tests, designed to help identify areas of weakness for the children to learn from.

Second, skills and mindsets are as important as knowledge. To help your child continue to do better in school, take a holistic approach to his or her education. Don’t simply focus on the list of words in a spelling test, or have your child finish homework just to be done with it. Try to understand what is being tested and what skills are being developed. Help your child to master these skills. 

Finally, help your child to develop good learning habits and attitudes. This includes eating well and being active in sports or getting regular exercise. A child who loves to learn is a child who will do well in school, and in life.

What are some signs that children may need external support to achieve their learning goals?

Talk with your child to know how your child feels about his or her learning. If your child is finding it difficult to understand what is being taught in class, or if your child has trouble completing homework or shows little or no improvement even after getting help from you or the school, then these may be signs that your child needs additional help.  

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