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Goal Setting With Children

By Rhonda Tournay


Goal setting for children is best done with the child. No different than you and I, we like things done with us not to us and the same goes for our children. Their age will determine their level of participation. Goal setting is a wonderful skill for children to learn at an early age, so here are some pointers to get you started.

There are three main reasons for goal setting with children. The first is based on wanting to acquire a new skill. The second reason is to assist a child in learning a new skill or behaviour to replace an undesired behaviour. The third is to learn a new skill that is to contribute to a family principle or value (what is important to your family?) The key to setting goals is to ensure that they are worded positively and that they are: achievable, measureable, and chunked down into small pieces. Very often we spend our time telling children what not to do without ever telling them what to do. Think about this when you set your goals.

Example #1

Skill Desired: to learn to make lunches independently

Goal: I will make a healthy lunch the night before by 7:00pm on school nights by myself.

This goal has a positive tone, it says what will be done, when it will be done and how it will be done, all of these items are used to measure success with the goal. We can measure this goal by going into the kitchen at 7pm and find a healthy lunch packed, ready to go and made independently. If so, then the goal for that day is met.

Suggestions for parents to help their child succeed: What are healthy lunch choices to choose from? Create an approved list that can be kept on the fridge for your child to see when they are making their lunch. This will avoid arguments about what can be taken to school and what can't. It also helps to increase the sense of accomplishment! Determine ahead of time what items need to be packed and keep that on your list for the fridge. You may want them to ensure that they have packed: a sandwich, a fruit, a snack and a drink.

Example #2

What is the undesirable behaviour? Look at the flip side, what is the desirable behaviour? If the undesirable behaviour is: ignore you when they are asked to do something then the desirable behaviour is: to do what they have been asked to do the first time they are asked.

Goal: I will do as I am asked the first time I am asked to do something by my parent(s).

Suggestions for parents to help their child succeed: Positively reinforce by identifying when they responded appropriately to your request and congratulating them on remembering and following through. This helps to increase their sense of accomplishment and it reinforces that the goal they are working on is important. If there is no response when they have met expectation, some children may declare it not important enough to bother trying.

Example #3

What is the family principle or value that you want to promote? Some examples of family principles and values are: contributing by doing which enhances a sense of belonging, cleanliness, honesty, respect for self and others etc.

Goal: I will clean up my toys and put them back where they belong when I am done with them. (This goal combines many family values and principles: contributing by doing, cleanliness, respect for: others, home and belongings)

Suggestions for parents to help their child succeed: Positively reinforce by providing encouraging feedback when they follow through with their goal, support by providing a reminder if necessary (usually necessary if they have already gotten into the habit of play with it and drop it to go do something else), Use encouraging statements, role model and make comment when you do the same " see, when mom/dad is finished using something we have to put it back where it belongs too" and thank them for respecting the family value or principle. Charting is an important step to ensure that the goal is objective and helps to determine when a goal has been met. Sometimes we base success or failure on our feelings and not fact. Charting helps to eliminate this from happening. For example your child may have had a terrible evening with goal two, however because we marked the morning and afternoon we realize that it was not the whole day but rather a portion. This allows our children to get the acknowledgement they deserve and not be penalized for one difficult evening.

Create a chart to track current daily goals. Use or make a weekly calendar so you can track one week at a time. The first row would state: goal and the days of the week. The next row would state the actual goal and in each box under the appropriate day should be split into three sections: am, noon and pm so that all three areas get marked. Be sure that at any one time there are no more than three goals being worked on. You can use stickers, stars, check marks or anything you and your child choose to mark the chart for success. If they did not meet their daily goal, then just put your initial (so it is clear that you didn't forget to mark it)

Determine what it means for a goal to be met. For example with the first goal, once the child has successfully made their lunch for 14 consecutive days it is safe to consider the goal met. Determine what success means to you and your child. In no way should we expect perfection from our children, however if the goal is realistic and you have taken into consideration the child's age and ability it is not unheard of for them to be able to demonstrate success consistently. In some cases depending on the goal you may consider the goal met if they can achieve success 25 out of 30 days. What ever you and your child are comfortable with. You may wish to continue to use the chart as a reminder of responsibilities but it is no longer considered an active goal.

A good rule of thumb is to expect your child to achieve 50% in the first week, 75% in the second week etc. Set a review date with your child where you will look at one or two week's worth of charts to see how things are doing. If the child is not achieving the level of success they desire, then re-evaluate the level of support required to achieve success. It might be as simple as your child needing a reminder. Then try again for a week and review to see if that has provided improvement. Continue fine tuning this process until the goal has been achieved.

Depending on how you have set up your chart it can be a very useful tool for determining patterns to behavior. Upon reviewing a week or two worth of charts it can become clear when and where there are consistent difficulties. If mornings and afternoons are successful but consistent problems appear in the evenings then you can look at what is different during that time. As above continue to fine tune until success is achieved.

When success with a goal is not achieved it is very rarely anything to do with the goal. However, it can happen if the goal is not specific enough. For example if an adult were to set a goal to lose 100lbs. this goal can feel overwhelming and quickly they resort to past eating patterns because they have given up and don't feel that they are capable. It is no different with children sometimes we need to break it down into manageable chunks for them. In the case of the adult we would set a weekly goal of losing 2-3lbs that has a whole different feel to it. No matter what the goal the way we reach every destination is one step at a time!

Another critical point for parents to remember is to be encouraging. Use statements like "You must be so proud of yourself, I knew you could do it!, I know you don't feel that you have met your goal yet, but look at how far you have come, look at the progress you have made" These types of statements help to: increase your child's self esteem, and unlike praise (which is reward) encouragement is a gift that acknowledges effort and improvement, they also help to create a sense of belonging as does setting value and principle based goals. It helps children to appreciate: their own special qualities, feel capable and loved for who they are. Another benefit is that it teaches the value of pride and self satisfaction rather than having to rely on external acknowledgement.

Goal setting for all children is important. Using a structured formula as outlined above is can be very successful for children with Learning Disabilities, ADD/ADHD, Autism, and Developmental Delays and for children with other or similar challenges. The only difference is the level of expectation and the amount of time needed to accomplish the goal. For example for a child with autism the goal may start as being done together hand over hand. Once success has been made in that area we revise the goal to be done with verbal prompts. Once success has been made there we might revise the goal to be done independently with visual reminders (taped to the wall, mirror etc.) posted where ever the activity might take place.

Remember success comes in all forms, celebrate the small steps along the way, be consistent, offer encouragement and be patient. Working together you and your child can achieve more than you might think! Most Importantly HAVE FUN!



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