Set Goals with Students in the New Year 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Set goals in school counseling to increase your effectiveness, teacher skills, collect data, and engage students in their progress.

You have students on your caseload and you want to make sure they are making progress and you are being effective. Social and emotional skills aren't always the easiest skills to measure though.

I found at least one solution to my problem though. I explicitly set goals with students. This allowed me to have data for measurable, observable goals for all the students on my caseload. Plus, did you know that goal setting is a core social-emotional skill? In the process of setting goals, I teach students how to do this independently.

Teaching skills, collecting data, and intervening? Woot woot! So, let me break down my process and how I make it feasible given all the other demands. I'm looking at you lunch duty.

Baseline Data

When you set goals, it is important to start in the right place. If you make it too hard, you are either going to be bending the rules to get student buy-in or the student is going to feel like a failure right away. To find the Goldilocks zone, you need to collect a wee bit of data.

There are a couple ways to collect baseline data to help inform your goals.

If you are going to be working on observable behaviors, you can do a comprehensive classroom observation. I like to do a few short multiple 15-20 minutes observations in different settings. I also find this helps inform my suggestions for how teachers can carryover skills in the classroom. My observations sometimes focus on just the student, but often I include a peer comparison to make sure the context of the classroom is considered.

starting line setting goals

If you are working on something less observable, start with some rating scales in combination with observations of behaviors you would expect to change. For example, teachers are reporting a student has low academic motivation in class. You may have the student, teachers, and parents complete the Student Motivation and Learning Strategies Inventory (warning, not cheap), and then pick observable behaviors/outcomes you would expect to change if you saw a change in the student's motivation. I might pick work completion and latency to begin assignments.

Other (cheaper) tools: Measuring Student Engagment: Review of 21 Tools

This gives you a simple starting point when talking through attainable goals with students. If they are currently completing 50% of their work, then shooting for 100% in 2 weeks might be lofty and counterproductive.

Tracking Data

Keep it simple. As soon as I can get a student responsible for tracking their data, the better. Often, I check in each day to help the student fill out a data sheet that is in their binder or in a folder. After 1-2 weeks, I pull my support away and move the check-in responsibility to the teacher. Mostly they are just monitoring a student recording their own data. I will regularly include a column on the tracking sheet where a teacher signs off to ensure honesty.

pin setting goals colorful pencils

For behaviors like latency to start a task, I ask teachers to track this. I know you think this is nuts, but I'll tell you how I have gotten them to do it.

I teach them the simple rubberband tracking method. Teachers start with five rubber bands on their wrist (or five paperclips in their pocket). If a student begins work, they move a rubber band to the other wrist. If the student doesn't begin within an expected amount of time, they don't move a rubber band over. At the end of the day, they know that 3/5 times the student began work within the expected time.

Each week or month, I send a summary of the student's progress with their goals. It is important for parents and teachers to see and to celebrate the small steps towards improvement.

Increase the Goal

Okay, so we set goals that are attainable and we track them. But in the long run, our goal is to get to 100%. So as students progress, we need to increase the threshold for success. This could mean completing more work or starting quicker or starting on time more often. It may be simple to slowly inch the goal up as you go, but I find it is helpful to break this into benchmarks from the beginning.

girl stepping up books

Say I have a student who has 50% work completion. I would consider creating benchmarks for every 10% increase in work completion. Students could attach a reward for hitting the next benchmark. Students often respond to comparing it to leveling up in video games. If a student gets stuck at a “level”, we brainstorm about changes we need to make.

Make it Visual

I love making goals visual. It makes them less overwhelming and shows the incremental progress. I find this super helpful for my negative thinkers who don't readily see their improvement.

I love this resource for elementary students. It obviously is great for students who like football, but I find that it works for almost any student. I create a player for all students, set up the bulletin board in my office, and the students have their own personal sheets with their End Zone goal and different yard lines correspond to steps on the way to their final goal.

You could also use posters and direct lessons to help talk about SMART goals and how you set them.

Download a set of SMART goal posters to get started.

Another favorite is using individual counseling notebooks or lapbooks for students to track their progress visually in the same way as the bulletin board.

Make it Fun

girl excitedMaking improvements on something that is challenging is incredibly hard work. Part of our planning has to focus on making it fun and engaging.

Use themes that are relevant and liked by the student. Keep it positive and student-focused. I've had students work to change the color of their players uniform. Seriously. One student had me come to his physical education class to play dodgeball. He worked on a goal for 3 weeks for this to happen.

Start this new year with a focus on observable, attainable goals broken down into chunks that maintain student motivation. Set goals.


Check out my post over on Confident Counselors for Why You Need to be Using SMART Goals in Counseling as an intervention with students.


Setting Goals Pin Starting line

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.
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