We often use starting points during the school year to encourage our students to set goals for themselves.

But how can we make goal-setting activities useful tools for middle school students?  

Goals that aren’t abandoned after they’re written.

Ready to find out more?

Read on!

8 Steps to teach middle school students how to set goals and reach them.  Free goal setting forms included.  Great activities for any time of year.

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Goal-setting for students: a hierarchy

If you have read the book Grit by Angela Duckworth, you read about creating a goal hierarchy.  

If you haven’t read the book, you can watch this short video where she explains the goal hierarchy.  (not suitable for students since she talks about her own lifelong goals, but helpful in understanding the concept)

This is different than simply listing goals. Students choose a “top level” goal that is supported by lower level activities that support it.

Just like we understand hierarchies as teacher (hello, Blooms!), goals can be set up the same way. You can grab a free graphic organizer here.

Students choose a top goal and define or describe it in ten words or less. Then, they work backwards to identify the steps they need to reach their goal.

Why this works:

Rather than creating multiple lofty goals without steps to get there like “I want to be on the honor roll this quarter,” creating a hierarchy asks students to create a “top level goal” and then determine the steps they need to take in order to reach it.

When you take time to teach students this process, they are much more likely to see a path to reaching their goals. You are teaching them to break down the goal into manageable steps.

How to create a goal hierarchy

First, you want to model the process for your students.  This provides a powerful teaching tool for your students and will help avoid students who say, “I don’t know what to do.”

As you model, consider creating a goal that you personally would like to reach.  For example, “I want to read 20 books this year” or “I want to pack a healthy lunch every day.”  Nothing too personal, but something that your students can relate to.

You can find a free graphic organizer to use with your students here.

Goal-setting activities 

1. What’s the ultimate goal?

Start with an ultimate goal.  Duckworth calls this the “top-level goal.”  Rather than having your students choose several goals, have them choose just one.  This should be their “top-level goal.”

This could be to make the honor roll, read 40 books this year, make a sports team, or ace a particular class.  It should be something that they are passionate about and really want to achieve.

2. Use “Smart” Goals

As students are crafting their top-level goals, have them use the “smart” goal acronym (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).  This will help students create realistic goals with an end date.

3. Create a pyramid

Use a goal “pyramid” or graphic organizer to help students see how their top-level goal relies on smaller low-level and mid-level goals.  Like a pyramid, the top-level relies on the lower levels for support.

4. The goal-setting steps

Ask your students to think about what steps they need to take to get there.  Rather than having them fill in the pyramid right away, have them brainstorm the low-level and mid-level goals.  Duckworth suggests using the question, “Why?” to help focus the goals.

Brainstorming this list will help students sort their goals.  Additionally, you’ll be challenging them to look for creative ways to meet their goals.

Goal-setting relies on small steps. What small steps (actions) will help your students reach their “ultimate” goal for the year?

5. Looking for low-level goals

What do you have to do to get to the ultimate goal?  

To see this, use a pyramid to break down the ways you’ll reach that goal.  Again, you can refer back to the smart acronym.

The steps on this level of your goal pyramid break down the goal into smaller mini goals. 

Teach your students how to set goals that they can achieve by using a goal these goal setting strategies.

So you may have, “create a list of books I’d like to read,” “use Goodreads to log my books,” “participate in a book club.”

These low level goals can be changed if they aren’t working to help meet the ultimate goal.  

For example, if “go to the library on Mondays” isn’t working or is too difficult or isn’t necessary, the student can replace that goal with another one that will still lead to the same ultimate goal.

6. What are the steps to reach the next level?

What small steps will help your reach the next level?  On the base of the pyramid, you’ll include the action items that will lead to the next level.

For your goal of reading 20 books, that might be, “schedule 20 minutes to read each day,” or “set the timer on my phone to remind me it’s time to read,” or “go to the library on Mondays,” or “meet with book club once a month.”

Goal setting for middle school students is more than just writing a list.  Teach students how to break down their goals with these 8 steps.

7.  Use the tools at hand

Use the tools that students already have and use.  If they are already using a paper planner, have them use it to write down the “action items” they can complete today.

If your students are used to using their phones to write notes rather than a planner, have them use that.  Some students prefer to write something down rather than use a phone. Whichever you choose is less important that the fact of writing it down in a place where you’ll actually LOOK at it.

8. Revisit goals

Don’t “set it and forget it.”  

Once your students have created a goal pyramid, make time to go back to these goals with your students.  Revisit how they are doing with the stepping stones to reach their ultimate goal. Readjust. Rewrite and replan as necessary.

With all the other things you need to teach, it’s easy to forget about helping students revisit their goals.  Remember that this a skill your students are developing. So they need you to help them keep their goals in mind.

Even just a check in for a few minutes before the start of class will help reinforce with your students that reaching a goal requires more than just verbalizing it.  It requires work, persistence, and grit.

With gratitude,

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