At the end of a calendar year, it is common to reflect on the past and look towards the future. Many people do this by setting goals or intentions for the coming year. Maybe you have personal or professional goals for yourself, or you might create goals with your family or teaching team. This year, I’d like to challenge you to practice setting goals with preschool children!
Now, I’m not talking about academic or cognitive goals for preschoolers. Instead, these would be goals that are important to the children, like learning to use a piece of playground equipment or playing with a peer.
Helping preschoolers learn to set goals can serve an important purpose in their development. It’s a great way to understand cause and effect about their own behaviors and begin to foster intrinsic motivation and independence. While early childhood students may not have the same understanding of long-term goals as older individuals, they can still benefit from learning to set and achieve short-term objectives.
How to Teach Goal Setting to Young Children
Throughout early childhood development, children learn via concrete examples and hands-on materials. Goal setting can be hard to teach since it deals with something in the future that is not directly in front of the child. But there are several ways to support children in understanding what they want and the steps to make it happen.
Here are some strategies that preschool teachers can use to help teach the concept of goals:
Use Visual Aids
- Create visual representations of goals using pictures or simple charts. For example, you can use a sticker chart where children place a sticker for each small goal achieved.
- Write down the children’s own words about their goals. Research shows that writing down goals makes us more likely to achieve them and early childhood is a great time to start!
Set Age-Appropriate Goals
- Ensure that the goals are realistic and age-appropriate. Goals for preschoolers should be simple, concrete, and achievable within a short timeframe. Consider having children come up with daily or weekly goals at first.
- Provide opportunities for children to express their own interests and desires. This helps them identify what they want to achieve, fostering a sense of ownership over their goals.
- Take preschool children seriously. Even if their ideas seem silly or outlandish, validate their ideas and goals.
- Encourage students to share their goals with other children. Then, they can support one another as they work towards individual achievements.
Simplify or Break Down Goals
- Break larger goals into smaller, more manageable steps. This makes the process less overwhelming for young children and allows them to experience success more frequently. It also builds a foundation for managing difficult tasks in all areas of their lives!
Use Positive Reinforcement
- Offer positive reinforcement and praise when children make progress toward their goals. This can include verbal encouragement, small rewards, or acknowledgment in front of their peers.
- Remember the goal is for children to feel positive about setting and achieving goals. Be sure to use positive words and body language and refrain from punishment or negative tones of voice when speaking about their progress.
Model Goal-Setting Behavior
- Demonstrate goal setting behavior by talking about your own goals and how you plan to achieve them. Children often learn through observation, and seeing adults set and work towards goals can be influential.
- If a child struggles to meet a goal, help them revisit it and see if the goal needs changing. Share a time when you’ve needed to reflect and change a goal in your own life
Create a Goal Setting Routine
- Establish a routine where children can reflect on their goals regularly. This can be done through simple discussions or by incorporating goal-setting activities into daily or weekly routines. For example, you can create goal journals where children write or draw about their goals every day.
Use Storytelling and Dramatic Play
- Integrate goal setting concepts into stories or activities. For instance, read books that feature characters setting and achieving goals, or use imaginative play to create scenarios where children can practice setting goals. Here are some stories about goals for preschoolers:
- The Girl and the Bicycle
- Flight School
- The Magical Yet
- Giraffes Can’t Dance
- Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution
- Puppet shows and role play activities about goals are great for learning social-emotional skills, too!
- Foster a sense of teamwork and collaboration by setting group goals. This can teach children the value of working together to achieve common objectives, an amazing social skill that will benefit them throughout their lives!
- Celebrate both individual and group achievements. Acknowledge when children successfully reach their goals to reinforce the idea that effort and perseverance lead to positive outcomes.
- The point is for preschoolers to take pride in their actions. Achieving something they set out to do greatly impacts children’s confidence and self-esteem, too!
- Offer guidance and support when needed. Preschoolers may require assistance in identifying appropriate goals and figuring out the steps to achieve them. Learning the concept of making plans and taking steps to bring them into fruition takes time!
Include Families in the Process
Always include families in your program! They can extend what you’re learning in the classroom to their homes and continue the conversation about goals with their children. Share progress with them about their children’s goals and encourage children to update their parents about their goals as well.
Final Thoughts on Setting Goals with Young Children
The goal setting process for preschoolers is more about building foundational skills and habits rather than accomplishing grand tasks. Patience, encouragement, and positive reinforcement are essential in helping young children develop a sense of ownership over their actions and the ability to set and achieve goals.