Set Goals with Students in the New Year 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Collect the data, track them, keep them moving forward.

You have students on your caseload and you want to make sure they are making progress. Social and emotional skills aren't the most accessible skills to measure, though. There is a solution to this problem. Explicitly set goals with students. It will allow you to easily collect data and see how student's are improving.

Plus, did you know that goal setting is a core social-emotional skill? While setting goals, I teach students how to do this independently.

Teaching skills, collecting data, and intervening? Woot Woot! Given all the other demands, let me break down the process and how to make it feasible. 

Baseline Data

When you set goals, you have to start in the right place. If you make it too hard, you will either be bending the rules to get student buy-in, or the student will feel like a failure right away. To find the Goldilocks zone, you need to collect some data.

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

You can do a comprehensive classroom observation if you are working on observable behaviors. Do a few short 15-minute observations in different settings. This will help inform your suggestions for how teachers can support students in the classroom. Observations can focus on the student, but you can also include a peer comparison to ensure the classroom context is considered.

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'd pick work completion and latency to begin assignments.

Other tools: Measuring Student Engagement: Review of 21 Tools

This will give you a simple starting point when discussing attainable goals. If they are completing 50% of their work, shooting for 100% in 2 weeks might be lofty and counterproductive.

One of the most important skills we can teach students is how to set goals and keep working on them. When children feel confident that they can make progress, they

11 Simple Strategies to Help Elementary Students Achieve Goals

Tracking Data

Keep it simple. The sooner you can get students to track their data, the better. At first, check in daily to help the student fill out their data sheet. After 1-2 weeks, remove your support and move the check-in responsibility to the teacher. Mostly, they are just monitoring a student recording their data. You can include a column on the tracking sheet where a teacher signs off to ensure honesty.

For behaviors like latency to start a task, 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 wrists (or five paper clips in their pockets). If the student begins work, they move a rubber band to the other wrist. If the student doesn't 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, send a summary of the student's progress with their goals. 

Increase the Goal

Okay, so we set attainable goals and we track them. But in the long run, we aim to get to 100%. So, as students progress, we need to increase the threshold for success.

This could mean completing more work, starting quicker, or starting on time more often. It may be simple to inch the goal up as you go slowly, but I find it helpful to break this into benchmarks from the beginning.

Say you have a student with 50% work completion. Create benchmarks for every 10% increase in work completion. Students could attach a reward for hitting the next bar. Students often respond by comparing it to leveling up in video games. If a student gets stuck at a "level," then brainstorm about changes they need to make.

Make it Visual

Make goals visual. It will make them less overwhelming and show incremental progress. This will be helpful for your negative thinkers who have a hard time acknowledging improvement

football goal setting resource

I love this resource for elementary students. It is excellent for students who like football, but it works for almost anyone. You can create a football field bulletin board in your office with player tokens for each student. The students have their personal End Zone goals, and different yard lines correspond to steps on the way to their final destination.

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.

Make it Fun

Making improvements on something challenging is tough 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 tokens. Seriously. One student had me come to his physical education class to play dodgeball. He worked on a goal for three weeks for this to happen.

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

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


Resources In This Post


SMART Goal Lessons

Five 15-minute lessons in print and digital that break down the SMART goal setting process into manageable chunks.

Football Goal Setting

This football themed resource visually shows their progress on their goals as their football moves down the field to the end zone.

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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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