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

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.

JBowser's picture

The article addresses the importance of setting character goals. As a school, we work to help a student become well rounded and a person who can positively contribute to society. In high school when we are working on academic goals in each subject, character goals can be placed on the back burned. This article is a good reminder to make time to set character goals and the importance of letting students track their progress on meeting them.

Teresa Thomas's picture

This year we started doing Character Lessons through homeroom classes. I feel like this type of activity/interview could enhance what we are currently doing with Goal setting. We could incorporate SMART as an extension and revisit these goals throughout the year. Most of our goal setting however were more academic. Adding a character goal would help extend what we are currently doing.

Churchwell's picture

I love Dara Feldman's insight 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."
Yes, students are looking for that direction and support from educators which they are often missing at home. So, how do we accomplish this?
We've all seen it; the beginning of the year freshness, the drive to be successful, the excitement for learning. We can capitalize on this time by implementing goal setting and helping students realize the tools they have and steps they need to help them obtain those goals. Also, it's not just about the data talks and the academic goals, but goals should also include steps to helping students become life-long learners and productive citizens. After all Moliere once said, "If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless." Improving character creates positivity which leads to self-efficacy and increased learning.

tms's picture

In classrooms today, we of course focus on academics, but to assist children in becoming a well-rounded member of society, I feel we need to also focus on the virtues listed in the article. Students as well as teachers should take the time to choose a virtue that could be improved in their own lives and set short attainable goals that can help achieve a broader long-term goal.

K. Millsaps's picture

I think the renewed emphasis on goal-setting is crucial in today's educational world. Through our desire to want students to have a high self esteem, we have created students who are content to just go through the motions and be recognized for minimal effort. Focusing them on setting specific goals can increase their self-belief as well as encourage them to work hard to achieve those goals.

PJ's picture

The beginning of the year (or of a unit, or of a grading period) is such a great time to set goals with students. Doing this regularly will help them develop the habits of goal-setting, self evaluation, and reflection. I especially like the concept of including character development into this goal-setting activity.

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