How to Set Goals with Young Children

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.
— Brian Tracy

A few years ago I read How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. At the time, I was teaching at an all girls school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and had a newborn at home. I focused on aspects of the book that helped to improve my teaching and my understanding of students and families. My personal life was full of sleep schedules and baby-lead weaning. Fast forward three and a half years, and my life is full of a new set of parenthood learning-curves: potty-training, daily schedules and lots of caring discipline. As I revisit the book, I'm hearing an entirely new set of great points and perspecitive that apply to my role as a parent. Tough writes,

What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.

My oldest daughter, Vera, enjoys books and imaginary play. She loves telling stories and going to the park. She also loves running around and jumping until she passes out but she sometimes shies away from new physical activities. So this new year we are setting goals together.

Vera's goal is to attend a gymnastics class and jump in the ball pit. She has attended a few gymnastics birthday parties and loved each one. She often asks if she can go back to the gym. But during each party there are a few activities that she won't try.  She doesn't jump in the ballpit or go underneath the large rainbow parachute tent and after a year and a half of eyeing the trampoline, she finally gave it a go recently.

Her behavior shows that she doesn't feel comfortable trying something new, not that she doesn't want to participate. She wants to jump into the ballpit but runs all the way towards it and then stops right before jumping in. At home we looked at pictures and when I showed her a picture of the ball pit she said, "I want you to help me go in there." To help her reach this goal of actually jumping in, we are supporting her through the following steps: 

1. Write the goal down. 

Clearly, my three year old can't read or write. But that doesn't mean she isn't highly influced by messages, pictures and books. She often wants to "read" books and signs and make sense of symbols. She keeps a calendar of pictures on our fridge that she is able to read and organize on her own.

Clinical psychologist and child-rearing expert, Fitzhugh Dodson, wrote, "Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination." So instead of taking her to her next gymnastics birthday party and hoping that she might try the ballpit or encouraging her to feel more comfortable this time we will write the goal with images to help her visualize the end result and place it on our refrigerator next to her schedule so that she may see it each day.

2. Start small.

I don't expect that my daughter will want to jump in the ballpit during the first gymnastics class or even the third. She wants to jump into the pit and we've explained to her that the pit is only available to us during the five gym sessions we purchased. So she will jump into the pit by the last session. 

3. Monitor progress on a chart. 

All kids love stickers. It's like they still haven't caught on that they are cheap and have no sugar content. They are the perfect bribe for parents (and teachers) and the greatest reward for children. We will set up a sticker chart and go to the store to pick out the stickers together so that she is a part of the process.

I went to gynmasitcs today. Check + Sticker. 

I got in line to play in the ballpit. Check + Sticker.

I ran towards the ballpit. Check + Sticker

I ran towards the ballpit and jumped in the air. Check + Sticker

I ran and jumped IN the ballpit! …leads to step 5. 

 Vera will keep checking her steps until she jumps into the ballpit! I will keep checking my steps until I can run three miles.

4. Model behavior.

Kids learn best by watching parents, teachers, and caregivers model behavior. I don't love running and have little stamina but I like the effects of exercise. I enjoy being outside more than exercising in a gym. So I'm setting my own goal of running a 5K because I want to try something new. I'm sharing this goal with my daughter by practicing and taking her with me in the stroller on each run. I'll show her my progress on a chart next to hers on the fridge. 

5. Celebrate!

I fully intend on treating myself to a dinner at a fun restaurant if I reach my goal of running three miles. My daughter wants to celebrate in the same way. So when we jump into the ballpit we will celebrate by buying a special gymnastics bag she's been wanting. She is working towards that goal and wants to celebrate with a reward. 

How do you help children set goals? I've seen it done in so many different ways in a school setting and am learning more about setting goals at home with kids. I've seen strong effects when teachers and parents work together to help students reach goals. I would love to hear your ideas and experiences!