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Helping Students Set Goals and Find Success

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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The idea of New Year's Resolutions is very appealing but their success rate is low. Cognitive psychologists know why: Resolutions tend to be too big (like losing 20 pounds), too vague (like getting more sleep), very hard to control (like having less stress), or something the person is ambivalent about (like becoming a healthier eater).

When students come back for the second half of the school year, we often want them to "turn over a new leaf," or address particular difficulties they faced in the prior weeks.

Focus on Short-Term Success

So let's travel back to my blog in August and revisit the idea of the End-of-Year Legacy. But let's do it in a way that is likely to generate some short-term success. This activity is best done in home room/advisory/morning meetings, or some time other than a particular academic class, because you want the students to be able to select the area of their focus.

For fourth to twelfth grade, ask each of your students to pick two things that it is important for them to learn, or to improve on, in the next three weeks. Have them write one on one side of an index card, and the other on the other side. Go around and have some students share their goals so that you can be sure students are picking things that are reasonable and within their control (e.g., getting an A is not appropriate; studying more regularly, handing in assignments, completing an upcoming project are all appropriate).

Then, have them share with a classmate and have the classmate help them write a plan for how they will be successful. Have them help one another, and then share the plans with another pair of classmates who will give feedback. Then, have them write up their revised goal and plans on a new index card and submit it to you, along with the name of the student who helped them initially. (Note that it is perfectly acceptable for students to choose character/behavior goals.)

Once you get the cards, your task is to help make what they wrote more realistic and attainable and to inform others who are involved about the students' goal and plans. For example, if a student in your advisory class is most interested in an art project, then you would so inform the art teacher. Of course, students will need a copy of their plans.

Each week, ask them for a progress report and whether they need some help and/or need to refine their plan. In case of the former, consider pairing the student with a classmate who has strength in the area where the student needs support.

Is It Worth It?

Why is this worth the trouble? You are banking on the well-documented contagious effect of success. Akin to Malcolm Gladwell's concept of the "tipping point," at some point specific goal achievement allows students to try tackling other goals using the same approach, and the supports available from peers and adults in the school.

Too often, we ask students to tackle their areas of greatest deficit prematurely. First, we need to have them build skills and confidence in an area that is genuinely important to them, and then they need to have a success experience. From small successes, larger successes can be built. There is no other social-emotionally responsible way to expect students (or just about anyone, for that matter), to improve.

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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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Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

On the (sort of) flip side of this, I ask students to identify their "goalbusters" -- those are their personal habits, behaviors and attitudes that often defeat attainment of their goal. Then we organize into "goalbuster clusters." Kids with the same or similar goalbusters get together to make a plan to control their goalbuster, and support each other to achieve their goal. For example, procrastinators create a study group and work together on a creating study plan for a test. They can arrange to study together, share resources,enter dates in their planner text reminders, split up the work and hold each other accountable, etc. -- like an academic skills peer support group. You can do all sorts of things like create teams, compete for most improved, best overall performance on a test...

Ashley White's picture
Ashley White
Seventh Grade Reading Teacher from Mississippi

I love this idea! I will spend my last nine weeks reviewing my students on the competencies they've already (hopefully) mastered during the first twenty-seven weeks of school. Because my students range in skills and mastery, I would like to have them each choose two areas or competencies in which they will concentrate. I think I can even do some of my groupings for the last nine weeks of school based on the areas in which they hope to improve. Thanks for this great idea!

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