Back-to-School Goals: What you need to know

For many students, Back-to-School goals are like New-Year’s resolutions…they’re set with the best of intentions, but are typically forgotten within the first few weeks. 
Studies suggest that only 8-10% of people who set New-Year’s Resolutions actually end up achieving them. 

Why are these success rates so low?

Because most of us have never actually learned how to set goals effectively.
We’re trying to figure it out by trial and error.  And a lot of the time, we’re getting it wrong. 
This is especially true for students, who have significantly less real-world experience setting and achieving goals than the average new-year’s-resolution-setting adult.
The good news is, there ARE strategies you can use to beat the odds and help your teen set more effective back-to-school goals this year.
Here are some guidelines to get you started!

4 Keys to Setting Effective Goals:

1. Don’t just “do your best”: Set specific, challenging goals

How many times have you been told to “do your best”?  Well, it turns out that may not be the best advice, after all.In studies of how goals affect performance, researchers have found that “specific, difficult goals consistently lead to higher performance than urging people to do their best.  In short, when people are asked to do their best, they do not do so.” (Locke & Latham, 2002)
Ironically, asking people to do their best may actually lead to lower performance — because they don’t have a specific target to aim for.  
So, instead of saying “do your best in school”, encourage your teen to set specific goals that will be challenging — but possible — for them to achieve.

2. Know your WHY: Set intrinsically motivating goals

A lot of people – especially students — set goals that sound good on paper, but that don’t really matter to them on a personal level.  For example, students often set a goal to get all A’s, but if you ask them WHY they want A’s, they can’t really give a reason, beyond “my parents want me to get better grades”.
These are extrinsically motivated goals — goals that look good on paper, or seem important to others, but that are not personally meaningful.  Students with primarily extrinsic goals tend to have higher stress levels and lower SAT and GPA scores than students who are more intrinsically motivated.
One way to find out if your teen’s goal is intrinsically motivating is to ask them WHY they want to achieve it.  With my students, I like to play Devil’s Advocate, and really challenge them on their goals before they write them down.  For example, if they say they want straight A’s, I point out that this will be a lot of work and take a lot of time…so, why bother with all of that?  What’s the point?  Why are A’s so important to them, anyway?
If they can’t argue back with at least 2-3 reasons why getting these grades really matters to them, they’re probably setting the goal because it sounds good on paper, and aren’t really committed to achieving it.  This doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish it…but until they find a more intrinsically motivating reason why it matters, they probably won’t be able to sustain their motivation long enough to make it a reality.

3. Set positive goals: Describe what you WANT, not what you DON’T want.

Students who set “performance avoidance goals” based on what they DON’T want — for example: “I don’t want any C’s” — actually tend to perform worse than students who do not set any goals at all.
So, make sure you are setting positive goals for what you want to achieve, rather than what you want to avoid — for example: “I want to get A’s and B’s in all of my classes this semester” 
If your teen sets a goal for something they want to avoid, for example: “I don’t want to procrastinate this year”, encourage them to rephrase the goal by asking what they DO want…”If you weren’t procrastinating, what WOULD you be doing differently?”  For example —“I want to start my homework earlier, and finish it before the last minute.”

4. Adopt a growth mindset: Aim for improvement, not perfection 

One problem with setting goals can be that they can lead to increased stress, especially for students who have high standards and aren’t sure if they’ll be able to reach them.
One solution to this is to make sure students are also setting goals for what they want to learn and how they want to improve, not just the absolute level of success they want to obtain.  While it’s OK for some goals to be about the grades they want to earn, I also strongly encourage students to set at least a few goals for how they want to improve, and choosing at least one goal that is going to take them a little bit outside of their comfort zone. 
One way to check for this is to see if you can rephrase goals to start with growth-oriented words, like “get better at”, “improve”, or “learn”.  For example, “Get good test grades” could be changed to “Learn better ways to study for tests”. 
I hope this helps you guide your teen through the process of setting more effective Back-to-School goals!

If you’d like to learn more about how to help your teen achieve the goals they’ve set, check out my free webinar – Smart Students’ Guide to Goal Setting: Scientific strategies to supercharge your focus & motivation!

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