Ready, Set, Go! Setting Goals for a Successful School Year at Every Age
Alexandra Kondos and her partner John Calvert have a son, Callister, who is entering kindergarten at Carnegie Elementary this year. “Cal’s biggest expectation is reading a lot of stories,” Alexandra said.
Callister wants to read on his own, so Alexandra encourages that goal by telling Callister that they’ll read lots of stories together in school, and they will also work on learning letters and words so that he can learn to read on his own.
Callister went to preschool at Carnegie, which is also their neighborhood school, so Alexandra feels that the familiarity will make the transition easier. “He knows there’s a wall of lockers,” she said, “and he’ll have his own locker again. He knows he’ll get to do older kid things like play more games in the gym. He knows the librarian, the art teacher and the gym teacher.”
Besides working on literacy skills, one of Alexandra’s goals for Callister is to help him become more independent at school and at home. Alexandra and John will support this at home by giving Callister increased responsibilities for things such as getting himself ready in the morning.
They look forward to meeting his teacher a couple of days before schools starts. “He’s going to get to know his teachers and make new friends,” Alexandra said. “He’ll learn school rules and classroom rules.”
Alexandra says she plans to maintain good communication with his teacher and to attend parent/teacher conferences to make sure that Callister is on track with his goals. She also wants to find ways to support the teacher. “We’re hoping to be more involved like we were in the spring semester,” she said. Covid kept parents out of the classroom in the fall. “I look forward to chaperoning field trips.”
“He enjoyed last year,” Alexandra said. “I’m excited for him to have another good year!”
Even though Callister is only 5 years old, he and his parents have specific and positive expectations for kindergarten. They have a plan for staying supportive, involved and on track at home, which will make it easier to head off any potential problems.
The Importance of Goal-Setting
An important part of planning for the new school year is setting goals. For kids, the process of making goals and knowing their parents’ expectations can be just the kick start they need to begin a successful school year.
Setting goals gives kids independence and a sense of autonomy over their academic and social lives when it comes to school. Plotting the school year will look different depending on the ages of your kids. But it’s a great way to begin the year, no matter a child’s age or whether they go to a school building or are home schooled.
Planning and goal setting can be as simple as a conversation around the dinner table or while driving to soccer practice. Or make it fun with popcorn and lemonade and giant sticky notes attached to the kitchen wall. Children from preschool to high school can write those goals – sometimes amended with parents’ expectations – on paper and then check back in with them after the first nine weeks of school.
Whether the goal is learning to tie shoes, memorizing multiplication facts, finding college scholarship opportunities or making a new friend, when kids and parents are on the same page, parents can encourage and support kids’ goals.
Setting Goals with Kids: Q&A with Dr. Bea Keller-Dupree
We talked to Dr. Bea Keller-Dupree, professor of psychology and counseling at Northeastern State University, to ask how families can plan for a successful school year. Keller-Dupree is a licensed professional counselor who owns Enrichment Counseling and Consultation in Tulsa. She is also a certified preK-12 school counselor and the mom of a 2-year-old.
Q: How does setting goals prepare kids for a good school year?
A: Goals give direction and focus toward desired outcomes. In many ways, well-crafted goals can also make large expectations achievable through small, concrete behaviors. When individuals pursue a goal, they promote opportunities for self-mastery, improvements to self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment, all of which can impact well-being and academic outcomes.
Q: Should parents set expectations for their children before the school year begins? Or should they let their children set them themselves? For instance, “Last year you got a C in English. This year we would like you to work for an A or B.” Is that a reasonable thing for a parent to ask?
A: Parents can show enthusiasm and support for children and teens academically, socially and beyond the school scene by participating in conversations with their kids about their child’s self-defined goal(s). Notice the word selection of “participating” versus “leading” in these conversations. Achievements and accomplishments are often personally defined, meaning what feels like success to one person may not to another.
It’s not uncommon for children and teens to have goals that differ from their parents, and the last thing we want in these conversations is for goal-setting discussions – which can be an opportunity to explore change, hope, values and positive outcomes – to become a tug-of-war about priorities. I often encourage parents to enter these conversations with more of a listening ear (participating) and less of a talking mouth (leading).
Q: Can you give an example?
A: Begin with an open-ended question like “What excites you about this school year?” or “What do you think may be extra challenging this school year?”, and then listen – truly listen. With SMART* goals in mind, parents can participate through open-ended questions that also assist with concreteness. Questions may sound like “How would you know if you were successful with X?” or “What’s a reasonable timeline for meeting that goal?” This conversational participation shows the child that their goal matters and that their parent is invested in their success toward their goal.
Q: What are other ways parents and children can plan for a successful school year?
A: There are many ways that parents can help kids plan for a successful school year. But one less talked about way puts the onus of responsibility directly on the parent. Parents can benefit by paying attention to how they (the parent) talk about challenges, struggles and even failures within their own lives and their kids’ lives. Failure is a really unattractive F word for most people, and because of this, we tend to create family cultures where conversations of failure do not exist or are entirely explosive.
But healthy and productive conversations about failure, challenge and missed opportunities are the birthplace for resilience and grit. Dr. Carol Dweck has changed the landscape of resiliency conversations by pioneering a concept called Growth Mindset. In brief, growth mindset is a belief that hard work and dedication toward goals can improve achievement and abilities. Conversely, fixed mindset is a belief that abilities are stable/set traits and hard work will not likely measurably improve an outcome. People with fixed mindsets shy away from challenges out of fear of failure and detriments to their self-concept when an experience does not come “naturally” to them.
If a person has a fixed mindset, they will often see challenge and struggle as failure, and ultimately an extension of their own limited abilities. But if a person can begin to see challenge and struggle as an opportunity to review the goal, assess what worked and what didn’t, and then make changes to try again, failure no longer feels threatening or shame-inducing. Parents can help support both their child’s successes and struggles by checking their language around failure.
Q: Should parents make a point of meeting the school counselor at the beginning of the year? In general, what resources can a school counselor provide for parents who are concerned about the school year?
A: Meeting school staff is always a great way to participate in a child’s school experience, and these greetings can be in-person or through email/phone call. Particularly if a child is new to a school community or has experienced academic/social challenges previously, brokering those relationships with the school counselor and teachers early can help create pathways for future conversations that may be needed.
School counselors are a great resource for children. They are uniquely trained to promote the academic, career and social/emotional well-being of children. They are also helpful allies to children who may need referrals to mental health support within or outside of the school setting, special education services or other resources that help support the overall betterment and success of all students that they serve.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: As a therapist, I often sit across from kids and teens who appear checked-out or jaded, but in hearing about their academic struggles, I almost always hear tangential concerns that bear similar weight. I hear about friendships that are shifting (and not always for the better). I hear about family stressors. I hear about anxiety due to incomplete college and career plans. I hear about low self-esteem. I hear a little bit about a lot of things. And when we listen really closely to why kids and teens are struggling, we also often hear exactly what is needed to help them recalibrate toward success. It may be making and establishing one new friendship in a class that feels intimidating. It may be getting a tutor instead of (or in addition to) a mental health therapist when a specific grade is lower than ideal.
In essence, every challenge is an opportunity for insight, growth, and change. I encourage parents to not become discouraged, even if their child seems to be.
*Setting SMART Goals
Dr. Bea Keller-Dupree says the SMART acronym can help goals become better actualized. SMART goals are: