Social and Emotional Learning

Developing a Sense of Purpose in School

An essay prompt can help your students explore what drives them, showing them a reason to take on challenges in learning.

High school students sitting at a table, writing and talking
©iStock/Steve Debenport

When students enter the schoolhouse without a sense of positive purpose, it is difficult for them to connect their varied learning experiences and other opportunities into a coherent whole that shapes their lives. Without a purpose, they may lack a strong reason to learn, to take on challenges, or to behave well. An enduring sense of purpose typically emerges in adulthood, but having a primary goal or a focus on something other than, and larger than, oneself and acting in alignment with these beliefs start to become particularly important in middle school.

Stanford University psychologist William Damon views purpose as a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of positive consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Not surprisingly, positive purpose is connected to social and emotional learning (SEL) skills:  

  • You recognize your feelings and use them as a guide to your actions.
  • You find your special task—what it is that allows you to excel.
  • You recognize your achievements and those of others, both large and small, as they contribute to a positive purpose.

Getting Started With a Positive Purpose Essay

Writing an essay about positive purpose is an important way to build social awareness, as well as to provide direction and energy for learning. But students usually can’t just start writing such an essay on their own—you need to help them build up to it:

  1. Look at the positive purpose of well-known individuals. Use nonfiction books, biographies, documentaries, social studies texts, and news reports to get students thinking.
  2. Have them learn about, reflect on, and write about the positive purpose of someone they know, or know of, by interviewing a local hero, community leader, member of the clergy, first responder, family member, educator, or other staff member in the school.
  3. Have them write about their own positive purpose.

Use a Prompt to Guide Writing

You can use a grade-level-appropriate writing prompt suited to your students’ ability, and adapt it so a positive purpose is the subject of the essay. Here is a prompt example from a middle school in Jersey City, New Jersey:

In your classes and in your life, you may have learned about and encountered people with a strong sense of purpose. Similarly, you might feel your own sense of purpose. In a five-paragraph essay that includes an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, please respond to the following: What is your definition of purpose? What might be your purpose? Why? How would someone know that is your purpose in life?

The following are excerpts from an essay written by an eighth grader based on the prompt above. (The student’s school is located in a high-poverty area of Jersey City, and the school has been deemed low achieving by the state.) 

Here is her introduction and definition of purpose:

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others,” said Albert Schweitzer. I believe I was made to entertain, inspire creativity, and guide others.

I think the definition of purpose means reason to do something, like when you say what’s your purpose for choosing a certain career, and you state your reasons. This is why I strongly am convinced that I was made to guide and entertain others because, having a strong passion for art and Broadway plays.... A purpose of doing something can lead you into realizing what you want to grow up to be, as you recognize what you like to do.

In the same essay, she responded to the prompt question, “How would someone know that is your purpose in life?”

Others would realize what my purpose in life is by knowing what my career and life goals are or, who I admire to be one day. I admire to be like Steve Jobs because I believe without mistakes you can never grow to be an exemplary person and, even though Steve Jobs failed many times he became one of the most successful men in our generation.

Try It With Your Students

The student’s essay opened her teacher’s eyes to the depth of her thinking, aspirations, and abilities. The teacher reported that many of the student’s classmates also produced insightful essays. 

Aside from an essay, there are also other way in which your students can communicate their positive purpose. Consider how they might do this through artistic renderings other than writing—with visual art or music, for example.

If you decide to embark with your students on the essay assignment, I recommend that as they write, you provide a space for them to share early drafts of their essays with classmates to get several rounds of feedback, and then practice reading aloud in small groups. And then take a powerful next step: Provide them an opportunity to share in front of the class, or at an assembly, or at a parent or community gathering. Making public their positive purpose is a wonderful way to celebrate the inspirations and aspirations of your students.