May 18, 2015

Are you trying to help your child set goals but unsure where to start? I often hear parents complain about the struggles with homework or getting children to do their chores at home. Parents report that they have to remind their child over and over and over again in order to get just a small bit of compliance with instructions. The child, it seems, does not care about what is going on around him and would rather play video games or watch television.

Defining the Problem

Parents often come to therapy with a long list of goals for the child to work on. Parents will report that their goal is for the child to follow directions without as much prompting, to improve their grades and homework, to get along better with siblings or to help more with chores. On the other hand, children are often brought to therapy and usually cannot tell me why they are here. A typical response from a child is “I don’t know” or “My mom told me I had to come.”

Part of my job is to help the parent determine what is a realistic goal of therapy for children. The other part is helping children to identify some goals for themselves and then get help achieving them. Here are some tips to help you work with your child to set achievable goals.

Use SMART Goals

This is an acronym that stands for

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Bound.

So, a goal to “do better in school” does not meet the SMART goal test. But a goal to “Study spelling words by writing them down and then getting quizzed for 15 minutes each night after dinner for the next month” does meet the test.

Identify Short and Long Term Goals

If your long term goal is to get A/B Honor Roll, your short term goal will be to improve the worst grade on the child’s report card. Or, maybe start with the class that the child will have the easiest time improving.  You need to have a short term goal that will build momentum.  So, even break it down further to turn in all homework each day.  Just meeting that daily short term goal will get you one step closer to your ultimate goal.

Extra Tip: Write the goals down

Your child is more likely to achieve goals if you write them down and they are accountable to someone else. Post the goal on the fridge or on the child’s bedroom door or bathroom mirror. Put checkmarks on the calendar for every night that you completed the task.

Review and Track Your Progress

 Each week, you can discuss with your child what they are doing to achieve their goal and what barriers are in their way. Maybe the plan sounded great at the time, but you quickly realize that the child’s favorite TV show comes on right after dinner so he doesn’t actually study his spelling words. Move the study time to in the car on the way to school and now you have compliance.

Once the habit of studying spelling words has taken hold (about a month), then you can discuss the creation of another short-term goal. Maybe now you add completing math homework with 100% accuracy each night. You pick at time and a place to measure that goal and add it to the habit of studying for spelling tests.

One Final Note

The mistake that many people make is they overestimate their ability to meet the initial goal. When your child that is struggling in school and getting F’s sets a goal to make A/B Honor Roll and then doesn’t get it, he gets discouraged and believes that he is not that smart. But when the same child focuses on Spelling and sees that grade improve in one report card, he gets motivated to achieve the next goal.

(Adults do the same thing, by the way…. ever had a goal to star working out EVERY day. It probably lasted about 3 days. But, if you had a goal to work out two times per week and you had a partner join a class with you and put that class on your schedule then you would probably still be working out and feeling pretty proud of yourself).

You can do it!

All the children I see in therapy have goals for themselves. Many of them have convinced themselves that they are not capable of achieving their goals. Many parents expect children to just come up with a plan. Or they do the opposite and micromanage every aspect of the child’s life so they feel like they are not competent to do things independently.

Your goal as a parent is to help your child set and achieve one new SMART goal in the next 30 days. Write it down here and report back on the progress when it has been achieved.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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