How to Develop Realistic Goals With Children

How to Develop Realistic Goals With Children



goal settingAll children with Isms are different, so it’s important that goals set for them be different as well.  Unfortunately, even the best of schools using the best Individualised Education Plans (IEPs) fall into the trap of providing a singular stream of education.

It’s not laziness on their part, simply the difficulty of maintaining a classroom, even a smaller, special needs focused one, at multiple levels of need.

That’s why the real work of goal setting and goal achievement needs to happen at home.  Let’s take a look at how to develop realistic goals with children.

Why Set Goals?

Goals not only provide a great way to measure progress but they also give your child something to strive for.  Kids with goals generally achieve more than kids without. For example, compare the difference between these two scenarios.

  1. A child is constantly harassed at the dinner table about eating with his mouth shut while eating.
  2. A child is given a first goal of eating a meal with his mouth shut and then later goals of doing this for three, then five meals in a row.

Which of these techniques is more likely to succeed?

Setting Goals

When setting goals, keep in mind that they need to be realistic and achievable but not so easy that no work is required to achieve them.  It’s best to have a small mix of goals at multiple levels with at least one being very easily achievable and one requiring considerably more effort. Short term goals are also better than long term goals as children tend to work better with more frequent recognition of their achievements.

Goals do not need to be academic in nature. They can be social or physical depending upon the child’s areas of weakness or need.

It’s best to discuss goals with your child in an open family setting (unless the goal is personal and/or embarrassing). This helps to ensure that the rest of the family is on the same page and can commit to helping the child to achieve their goal. This is particularly important when goals are behavioural.

Sometimes it helps to give other members of the family goals too. This is particularly important if the child feels like they are being singled out.

It’s also very important that the child agrees with the goal. There’s not going to be a lot of motivation to achieve a goal if the child does not consider it to be important, or worthwhile. With older children, the goal should be treated as a form of “contract” where the child agrees to the goal in exchange for a specific reward if it is achieved.

It’s a good idea to put the goal somewhere prominently visible, such as on a kitchen or family room notice board as a reminder of the commitment.  You should probably also write the agreed upon “prize” next to the goal.  Again, if the reward is personal or embarrassing, resist the temptation to do this. Your child does not need to be embarrassed during play dates.

Setting Measurable Goals

Goals need to be closed-ended and very specific in nature, for example; “three nights in a row without wetting the bed” rather than “no more wetting the bed”.  When setting the goal, you need to think carefully;

  • How will I measure it?
  • How will I know when the goal has been achieved?

In the case of “no more wetting the bed” how would you know when to give the reward?

If you’re trying to change a behaviour, start small and work your way up to larger/longer goals.  For example if your child has an issue with reversing letters, you might set goals such as “complete today’s homework with no reversed b’s and d’s”.  This puts the emphasis on a specific reversal and caps it at a single day’s homework.  From there you could add letters, S for example or you could add days, two days homework for example.

Keep Setting New Goals

Once a goal has been achieved, you’ll want to set another.  Make sure that if the new goal is in the same area as the old one, that it is an increase in challenge.  For example, don’t set a daily goal to simply get homework completed.  This makes the goal boring and also stops challenging your child to do better.

Include Prior Goals in Next Goals where Appropriate

Remember that you’re trying to change overall behaviours, not simply hit a specific target. For this reason, you need to continue including old goals in your new goals.  If your old goal was to have the bedroom tidied once per week and your new goal is to have your child bring their dirty wash to the laundry each week, then phrase it as;  “Tidy your room each week including bringing your washing to the laundry”. Unless you do this, your child may drop an old achievement in favour of a new one with a reward.

Be Forgiving of Slip-ups

Everyone has moments where they slip up and children with Isms will often “beat themselves up about it”.  It’s important not to focus on failure but to move onward with goal achievement. Don’t give in and reward failure but if you believe that your child has genuinely been trying you might consider half of the promised reward.

It’s important to treat goal-failure conversations lightly. Don’t shout at or punish your child for lack of achievement. They’re already being “punished” by missing out on their promised reward and it’s likely that they’re even more upset by the failure than you are.

Be Aware of Limitations

Sometimes a goal that seems simple to you will be completely beyond your child’s ability.  Some children have actual physical difficulty controlling their bladders at night, some have dyslexia which may make letter correction impossible.

If you find that you’ve set a very difficult goal, revise it down, for example from “all letters correct” in their homework to no more than three mistakes.  In fact, you might want to set an increasing scale of reward such as one jelly bean for each line that is written without any letter reversals.

If you lower the goal considerably and your child is still unable to achieve it, then you may have set “an impossible goal”.  In this case you need to make a note of this to discuss with your child’s doctor and teachers and change to a different goal entirely.

Most of all, make sure that the goals are your own. They need to be “personal goals between you and your child”, not the goals of the classroom.  They need to be individual, regular, achievable, measurable and fun.