Classroom Goal Setting for Younger Students

Lorena Kelly

Over the past fifteen years, Lorena Kelly’s passion to enhance learning for all students has led to several different educational positions and partnerships on projects such as Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to guide Achievement for Every Student. She is currently an assistant principal in Virginia Beach, VA.


So what does goal setting look like, specifically for younger students?

This question has been posed by administrators, teachers, parents, and students. It reinforces to me that we are breaking an unwritten rule when we invite individuals to have an active role in their learning experience. There is a sense of ambiguity. We want an example. We want to follow a structure as we have in the past; someone tell me what to do and I will do it. This is a drastic difference from the creativity that we expect and aim to cultivate in our students.

Student goal setting is an organic, authentic experience created by the collaboration of student, teacher, and other stakeholders. How might a kindergartener, first grader, or second grader do this?

Well, let’s think of nonacademic goals we set for kiddos. Toilet training might look like this:

Parent: You are going to use the bathroom instead of your diaper. Let me show you what that looks like. Let’s practice. What is your goal?

Child: I am going to use the bathroom instead of my diaper.

You get the picture. Stickers and other reinforcers may be used, but most importantly celebration and a sense of pride result when this is mastered. This is an example of goal setting, and it is done at a very early age.

Learning how to ride a bike is another great example. The first goal may be to lose the training wheels. The next goal may be to get to the corner. The next goal may be to turn without falling.

Goal setting in the classroom

How does this translate to the classroom? There are literally thousands of goals that students can set. Teachers will be in various places on the spectrum of their understanding of the importance and power of goals setting and their willingness to implement something new. My strategy is to honor where they are and help move them from compliance to understanding and commitment.

The journey of one teacher

Ms. H is an eager 2nd grade teacher who loves her students but finds the idea of student goal setting overwhelming. She feels there is no wiggle room. She is covering objectives and meeting pacing expectations. After consulting her grade level and the reading coach, she decides to do class goal setting using a reading assessment mandated by the division which is implemented in the fall, winter, and spring. She has started in a place she feels comfortable and is complying with the expectations of the administrator.

During a professional learning session, a kindergarten teacher shares the individual goals her students made.

  • I will write my first name.
  • I will stay in my square on the carpet.

When Ms. H asked how she managed this, she shared that it was simple. The students are so excited to reach goals that they work with the teacher to monitor and collect data to show evidence of understanding. When the collection of evidence demonstrates understanding, they get to tell everyone they met a goal and make a new one. Ms. H decided to try this and came up with a system that works for her. Below are a few examples from her classroom.

student goal setting

Tips for student goal setting

  • Start where you feel comfortable. Consider what you will be able to monitor and provide feedback. This may be a class goal until you develop an understanding and routines to support individual goals.
  • Network with others. Ask them how they are managing goal setting, monitoring, and feedback. Set goals for yourself and use the network for support/feedback.
  • Don’t be afraid to try things. You can make changes. Build your confidence and continue to personalize your learning experience.

The dedication and growth mindset of educators can lead to amazing experiences for students from kindergarteners to adults. We all have to be willing to start somewhere and evolve in understanding and skill.

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