Goal-setting foundations for pre-K–2 teachers

Goal setting with students is a fundamental part of learner empowerment. In Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency, my colleague Chase Nordengren says, “Goals represent the path of learning from beginner to expert. But students don’t all take a single path and aren’t even all headed toward the same destination.”

We can help children reach their destination at even the earliest stages of learning. By building a community of students who are in control of their learning journey in the youngest grades, we can begin to create lifelong learners. Here are three ways to practice goal setting with students in pre-K through second grade.

1. Use goal-setting language daily

According to the ChildCare Education Institute, we can start student goal setting with our littlest learners by being intentional about using goal-setting language. By using specific words in our day-to-day routine, we present children the foundation for being able to set goals for themselves in the future. Goal-setting language consists of words such as “plan,” “goal,” “result,” and “growth.”

We know that in early childhood, students often learn through play. We can use goal-setting language when students are playing and infuse it into our instruction. The ChildCare Education Institute gives practical ideas and question stems for using goal-setting language daily with young children. Asking students their plan for play, for example, helps get their little minds thinking about their thinking. You could ask them what steps they are going to take to be successful in building a block tower or if there is any way you can help them with their plan. This simple metacognitive activity will help establish a goal culture in your classroom.

2. Emphasize personal mastery goals over class-wide performance goals

When thinking about where to begin with goals in your classroom, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. There are so many different types of goals, and they all serve a distinct and different purpose.

First, we need to understand the difference between mastery and performance goals. Here are some useful definitions from Step into Student Goal Setting:

  • “Mastery goals are those goals that focus on increasing the goal set­ter’s competence or understanding of a subject.”
  • “Performance goals are those goals that focus on helping the learner appear competent or outperform others.”

Performance goals can be unintentionally detrimental to young learners because they put them in direct competition with one another. They can also make the time it takes to learn something public, causing feelings of shame in students who learn more slowly. For example, while it can be tempting to hang a sight word chart with student names that move up the chart as they learn more words, displays like this can do more harm than good in establishing a culture for learning.

I recommend creating mastery goals that are personal to each learner. Each student can have a personal data binder with pages to color representing their progress. Depending on the needs of the student, you can check their progress on letter naming or sight words every week, biweekly, or monthly. Students can color in a bar graph or you can have each sight word printed in stars, for example, and ask students to color in the word stars they know.

3. Set intentional class goals to create unity

Class goals are great in early childhood because they create opportunities for you to celebrate as a classroom community, in addition to helping you build that goal-setting culture you’re aiming to achieve.

Young students enjoy being able to set goals for things such as quiet behavior in the hallway, working together, or receiving class compliments. An easy way to set a class goal is to decide on a goal together and determine the reward together, too. You could agree that after the class receives five compliments from another teacher, maybe in the hall or at lunch, then they will have earned extra recess time, new indoor play centers, or a class movie. You can keep track of how many compliments are received by simply placing a tally mark on the board.

Kids are never too young to start practicing goal setting. In fact, the sooner they do, the better.

When considering a goal based on academics, think about making class goals data specific and setting a goal for a percentage of growth to be made by the whole class in an instructional goal area. Don’t call out how specific children are advancing toward the goal; instead, show the entire class’s movement.

Whether you’re setting a behavioral or academic goal, focus on how it will allow you to grow as a classroom community and then celebrate success. You can get as creative as you like with how you represent class goals and progress toward meeting them. I love this “goalball” machine a teacher posted on Pinterest. If a goal is not met as a class, it provides a great learning opportunity for reflection together as a team. What can be done next time to accomplish your goal? Did you set your goal too high? Modeling goal expectations as a class is a great, non-threatening introduction to goal setting and establishing a culture for collaboration and learning.

Start now

Kids are never too young to start practicing goal setting. In fact, the sooner they do, the better. Even the youngest children can benefit from the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies success. Helping them feel that often—and understand the path they took to get there—can give them the boost they need to feel really excited about learning each and every day.

We can lay the foundation for student goal-setting principles early by using goal-setting language and creating individual and class goals. Goal-setting language gets our youngest learners attuned to words that help them develop a plan for their learning. Individual and class goals teach students what it is like to set and achieve goals.

Learn more about student goal setting by reading Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency or watching our goal-setting webinar, “Goals mean growth: Using student goal setting to jumpstart student motivation and success,” on demand.

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