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Goal Setting in the Primary Years

An essential part of learners being independent and self directed is their ability to set and reflect on goals for their success. At each age and stage of schooling there are several suggested key ideas and strategies that will scaffold the learning for learners to be able to be highly efficient and proficient goal setters further up the school. Ensuring the foundations are strong will facilitate success later.

The first year…

When students enter school they may be filled with hopes and dreams of learning to read, write and do maths all on day one! A great place to start is with an understanding of how the brain learns and grows. You can find many resources and videos on YouTube. Below is one of my favourites – Ned the Neuron.

Understanding the importance of challenges being key to brain growth and the ‘everything is hard before it is easy’ philosophy are fundamental foundation stones which need to be embedded at the start of the school journey.

School is often ‘sold’ to children as being fun and exciting – and it should be – however, learning is not always a comfortable, joyful experience. I believe it is important to have open and frank conversations about the role of hard and difficult and how it makes us stronger. The analogy of helping a butterfly out of the cocoon can be linked to the science life cycles. If you help a butterfly out of the cocoon it will die, because it is the struggle that makes it strong. It is also our role as educators to allow learners to struggle, to give them progressively challenging content to allow them to strengthen their learning muscles and grow. This, of course must be tempered with a balance of success, wins and achievement.

In these early years it is crucial for learners to recognise that what one person finds easy, another will find hard. We are all at different stages of our development and the acceptance of this will facilitate a more supportive and empathic classroom.

Goals at this level need to be achievable within a short time frame of perhaps 1-2 weeks. Learners should know their next steps and see the benefits in the learning. Celebration of not just the end result, but also the effort is essential here –  as this is the ‘muscle’ that we want to develop.

Examples of short achievable goals at this level may include:

  • finger spaces between words
  • attempting words not used before, for example, big – gigantic,
  • follow 3 instructions accurately
  • continue sequential patterns
  • give clear directions so others can follow correctly

The key at this level is RESPONSIBLE RISK TAKING – being able to attempt something new, even if they are not sure if they can. As a teacher, when you hear students say, “this is hard” remind them it is supposed to be and encourage them to give it a go. Applaud the effort of risk taking and the mistakes which allow learning to happen.

Years 2 and 3

Once the foundational stone has been set, the next years are about reinforcing these by adding levels of understanding. Ideas include to relate the ‘hard to easy’ concept to prior experiences such as learning to ride their bike, learning to swim or identifying progress in their reading or writing from the start of the year. The idea here is to give concrete evidence of the concepts. Discussions of what it feels like to work through hard to get to easy will expand learners awareness.

At this level start with class goals and move towards learners setting, in conjunction with the teacher, individual goals. These are likely to still be academic goals and may also include social goals. A longer timeframe might be offered from 2-5 weeks and more complex goals may require milestones along the way.

The key here is PRACTICE. The ongoing practice and effort learners take will drive them faster towards success. Of course, practice is often fraught with mistakes, inconsistency, failure, frustration and wanting to quit or give up. Here the disposition of PERSISTENCE is employed. Explicitly teach and discuss this with your learners, the ability to keep going, persevere, look for another way to solve the challenges, use grit and stick to it.

Year 4

With the foundation of goal setting firmly set, you can now add more complexity. At this level, introduce a goal setting structure such as SMART goals. Smart stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound.

Conversations might centre around learners learning what they don’t know, rather than going over what they can already do. At this level, discuss avoidance strategies and what your learners do to avoid or get out of doing the hard learning. Bringing this behaviour out in the open helps reduce it. Provide the big picture to enable learners to see the next steps required to meet their goals and encourage the recording of both academic and social goals. Self evaluation and reflections can also be introduced at this level.

Modelling of the goal setting process is important here. Ensure the goals are stated in a positive manner, rather than what they don’t want. Avoid the words ‘don’t’ or ‘not’ and focus on what the learner wants to happen.

The key at this level is being SPECIFIC. The more specific the goal is, the easier it is to achieve. For example; the goal of learning to play the clarinet is not specific, however learning to accurately finger and play the first octave is.  A goal of learning the periodic table is too broad so refine it to learning the 37 elements they don’t know.

Social goals may include dispositions a learner wishes to develop, such as Striving for Accuracy by checking their work or Managing Impulsivity by stoping to think before blurting out an answer, and/or a behaviour they wish to develop such as being able to work with a new partner, give more contributions during group work or let others contribute more.

The 16 Habits of Mind Chart (Dispositional thinking/behaviours)

Academic goals may be unpacked through a thinking disposition. What thinking strategies or habits might assist in being able to meet a goal? These may include Prof Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick’s Habits of Mind; being able to think about their thinking, use past knowledge, persisting, taking responsible risks or thinking flexibly, for example. Download a copy of the Habits of Mind chart here.

Year 5

Goals can be 5-10 weeks long with clear specific outcomes at this level. Learners may be working on 2-3 goals simultaneously. The more complex the goals, the more the conversation of ‘hard to easy’ and ‘avoidance’ becomes relevant.

Steps for Successful Goal Setting

At this stage the key is embedding the Dispositional Behaviours plus planning the STEPS involved to complete a goal. These may be milestones along the way or mini goals toward a bigger target.

Encourage learners to self-reflect by journaling and remember to celebrate the effort and results.

Once again, being SPECIFIC is to be emphasised. A goal of learning to speak French requires further unpacking with questions such as; How will you know you can speak French? Do you need all the words in the French dictionary to speak French? When will you be using the French Language? Are there specific phrases you need/want to learn? This may narrow the goal to more achievable and specifically focused; My goal is to be able to introduce myself and have a short conversation with my French neighbour. Add to this the steps and the Dispositional thinking which may include thinking & communicating with clarity & precision, applying past knowledge and persistence, and the goal is far more likely to be achieved.

Year 6 and beyond

With all of the above established and firmly embedded, it is time to add the icing on the cake to enhance the effectiveness of the goals. A new framework of Set, Plan, Monitor, Achieve may be introduced.

Perhaps at all stages of goal setting development, and especially at this level it is paramount that learners know where they are at in their learning, where they are going and the next steps to get there. Understanding the ‘gap’ is a significant part of successful goal setting.

Goal setting by its nature can be a messy business with ups and downs along the journey. Here are two ideas to introduce which may help – the iceberg illusion and the spaceship analogy.

The Iceberg Illusion is all about what you don’t see. Learners often perceive success is easy for others while they are struggling. Of course what we don’t see is everything that happens below the surface. Silvia Duckworth has illustrated this superbly below.

The Iceberg Illusion

The Spaceship analogy is the idea that a spaceship heading towards the moon is not on target 100% of the time, nor 50%. The analogy explains that the spaceship was only on target 3% of the time – so what was it doing the other 97% of the time? Correcting. There is a navigator constantly doing small course corrections to put the spaceship back on track. This is a useful analogy for when learners feel they are not succeeding.

Both these models help develop awareness that success is not instant and the struggle or challenges are a natural part of the process. They also highlight the self-discipline to put themselves back on track and the need to avoid negative self talk.

If you are working towards your learners being fully self directed and independent you need to consider how to encourage learners to be self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying within their goal setting.

You may choose to share a coaching model to enable learners to coach each other and deepen the goal setting experience and success. This requires teaching students how to question with intent and to be able to listen with understanding and empathy. It involves modelling this constantly with your learners and explicitly unpacking and teaching the skills of effective listening and questioning.

Written reflections of the journey may also be a key part of success, as this allows the the learner to self-evaluate throughout the process and correct when off course.

One of my favourite quotes on goal setting is from Napoleon Hill. “Your attitude determines your direction.” Throughout this process, at every age and stage, consider relevant and meaningful celebration of both the effort and the goal achieved. Success breeds success.

Happy goal setting with your students.

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