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Back to School: Goal Setting With Your Students

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Dara Feldman, in her inspiring new book, The Heart of Education, makes a strong point that every child -- indeed, every person -- is endowed with the capacity to live a happy, principled life. What is needed is some direction and support to make this happen, and the start of school is an ideal time to set this in motion.

Feldman's book draws on her career as an award-winning educator (and is a natural complement to Rachael Kessler's The Soul of Education). Feldman is guided by the work of The Virtues Project with which she is affiliated, and her book illuminates the principles believed essential for virtuous learning in schools.

Framing Goals

With all that is being written now about "mindset," it is an excellent idea to begin school by having our students set positive goals. One way to frame those goals, Feldman notes, is as virtues. Here is a procedure you can use in your middle-upper elementary school classes and beyond (with appropriate developmental modifications), to get your students started in the right direction (more details can be found in chapter four of Feldman's book).

Step 1: Let your students know that at the start of the school year, it's important to set goals. Ask, What are some things you want to have happen over the course of this year at school?

Step 2: It's also important to set goals for ourselves, to become better as individuals. This is known as improving our character. We all have the ability to act in what can be referred to as "virtuous ways." Acting in these ways most of the time is good for us and good for those around us. Here is a list of 12 "virtues" (at this point, you can choose to discuss each one, ask students to add to the list, etc., as your time and interest allow): caring, confidence, kindness, courage, perseverance, courtesy, respect, enthusiasm, responsibility, generosity, and truthfulness.

Step 3: Have students pair up and interview each other (outline to follow).

Step 4: Make a list of the student pairs and the virtues they are working on. You may choose to share these with your class or not.

Step 5: At the end of each week, have the pair check in with one-another about how they are progressing on their chosen virtue. Encourage them to problem solve any difficulties. Consider having them join with other pairs working on one of the same virtues to expand the problem-solving pool. You can also assist as needed.

Step 6: At the end of each marking period, encourage students to self-evaluate their progress on enacting their virtue, seek feedback from their partner, you can provide feedback as well. Perhaps this can be integrated into the report card process.

Step 7: Provide direction for the next marking period. You can change pairs, allow for additional virtues to be adopted, or other creative adaptations that might occur to you.

Student Interview Outline

Adapt to your students' ages and circumstances; you may have to explain about the importance of trust in sharing this information in class. Here are steps for students interviewing each other:

  1. Who is someone you admire, either in your life or in history, and what is the core virtue that you think they have followed?
  2. What is one of your own virtues from the list and say a few words about how you try to live this virtue.
  3. What is a virtue that you would like to work on, to improve in your life?
  4. What are some ways you can show this virtue?
  5. How can I help you be successful in doing this?
  6. Reverse roles in the interview.

In considering your students and your school, how might you use the goal-setting framework described in this post? Please share with us.

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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Hansen's picture
Rebecca Hansen
Third grade teacher, eastern Washington state

I've been trying to wrap my head around student goal setting, and I appreciate this article's emphasis on virtues. This is an excellent place to start!

Jed's picture

I just used this exercise with 8th graders on our 8th grade retreat. Our school is a preschool-8th school, and this served very well as a leadership/goal setting/"mindsetting" exercise for this class, as we are trying to promote them as "leaders" of the MS and a model for others to follow.
I did modify this in the following ways, which might be useful to others: adding a school culture/community strengthening component - which of these virtues do we want to see and promote in the MS? How might we go about doing this? What are individual roles for this, and how might the 8th grade as a whole promote these virtues for the MS? What virtues do they want to focus on as a class, and for the community at large?
After many hours of running around and screaming their heads off and getting their energy out, we were finally able to make some headway on these questions (in addition to the individual short term and long term individual goals the students set for themselves) towards the end of the night while sitting around the campfire. It was a meaningful exchange, and one that I hope the students will remember and hold onto. We will check in with them in a couple weeks and see how things are progressing! Even if little headway is made, however, at least we got them this far... we are thinking marathon, not sprint, especially with this age group. Thank you for a great exercise! We will be having our entire MS go on a 3 day retreat this week, and I will be modifying this a bit for larger groups and diverse ages. Ideally, the 8th graders will be able to steer these conversations and interviews, as they have already gone through this as a class. Wish me luck!

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Goal setting is very important. In band class, I would create a spreadsheet where students could set goals like 'how fast I will play the Bb scale" or "how many hours I will practice a week'. The trickiest part was always the peer assessment AND the self assessment. I found that I had to practice how to do both in a safe and constructive environment. Has anyone else had issues with peer assessment and self assessment? I'm not sure I ever really tackled this issue fully when I was in the classroom.

Ben Silvermintz's picture
Ben Silvermintz
choir director / deployed Soldier

I think what I like most about this post is the idea of setting a goal related to something that is "ongoing" rather than a "check the block." It's one thing for me to assess my students with standards that are very tightly defined. It's another to allow students to assess themselves and each other using something more nebulous. It encourages discussion, perhaps even disagreement, but all in an effort to further their conceptions of what it means to be a good citizen in our society.

The challenge, of course, is how to allocate time to this sort of goal-setting. It's easy to say, "Oh yeah, we'll make it part of the curriculum by doing X, Y, & Z." It's just as easy to say, "Well, we don't have time for this." Somewhere in the middle is the happy medium and it takes a skilled educator with excellent classroom management skills to enact a program such as this one.

Sarah's picture
Future Educator, Ventura County, California

One of my dreams is to have my own school and create my own curriculum. I wanted to include virtues in my teaching program. This gave me good ideas.

Whitefield's picture

Having students participate in the goal setting process can only increase student buy-in and engagement. Teaching students how to create SMART goals in the classroom and expanding their application to their lives outside of school can be a critical lesson in and of itself. Students can become more empowered if their goal-setting for their performance in the class can be incorporated into how the classroom runs or how they progress through the course standards.

DTallent's picture

This article addresses the importance of not only having academic SMART goals for students but also other types of goals like character traits, excutive funtion, health, etc. All of these types of goals are important to produce a well-rounded student.

Aldolesence is a time of discovering what principles will guide your life and lead your decisions. Taking the time to teach this principles to students and what the principles look like in every day actions is an imprtant part of an education. If we want students to master something, even charater traits, then we must invest in explicitedly teaching it.

This type of goal-setting is not a distraction from academic work but one of several types of goals that teachers can help students learn to plan for and tackle. Teachers could incorporate these types of goals when talking about group/team work, classroom environment, and positive interactions between people in the class.

Ajackson's picture

This is a great article to share with teachers in the building where I serve. SMART goals give students power to make a personal impact with a proactive approach to learning. These goals not only have measurable actions, but it gives students ownership and accountability.

Thomas's picture

This article not only addresses the importance of goals but also how to implement goal setting in the classroom. I will share this article with my teachers as we work toward implementing goal setting in the classrooms.

G. Laoo's picture

I agree that students need academic goals and character goals. Having students pair up is a great intrinsic motivating activity. I think student goal setting forces student to focus on personal goals rather than performance goals. Simply put, students are not just trying to obtain the grade, but obtain and retain the knowledge.

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