Help Your Students Achieve Their Dreams with Goal Setting Exercises

Goal setting is a topic that transcends the traditional curriculum. It is a key life skill that if learned and used daily can truly make a difference in your students' lives.

Goal setting materials are abundant, yet many students fail to receive adequate instruction in goal setting for two reasons. First, most teachers cannot afford to neglect their subject matter for several weeks, and second, purchasing textbooks with the intention of using only a single chapter on goal setting is hardly a justifiable use of limited educational funds.


Many teens need be taught to dream for themselves, for, if they are not, they are apt to accept goals foisted upon them by adults and thus miss the joy of seeing personal dreams fulfilled.

Introducing Goal Setting

Since visualizing the future is often difficult for teens, it is helpful to begin the unit with daydreaming. To integrate goal writing into your course, introduce the unit with material related to your content that refers to dreams or goals. This might be a poem, a story, a biographical sketch or a news article. Be sure to distinguish between "dreams" as sleep experiences and "dreams" as aspirations.

Defining Goal Areas

Explain to your students that it is easier to think about our lives in categories than it is to think of all aspects at once. Then ask them how they might categorize the various aspects of their lives. If they have difficulty getting started, prod them by asking them to list people and activities that are important to them and to see if they fit them into from five to eight categories.

It is more important that students devise their own categories than that they create perfect classification systems. Allowing them to share ideas will be help students realize that a variety of categorization schemes would work.

Sample Life Categories


Finding Meaning in Daydreams

Once students are satisfied with their categories, ask them to select one that they would like to focus on first. (The length of this unit can easily be adjusted by the number of categories you guide students through. Care should be taken, however, that students not work on too many categories at once.)

Distribute the Goal Dreaming worksheets. Explain to students that their goals must be only for themselves; they cannot set a goal that involves anyone's behavior but their own.

They are, however, to spend at least five minutes daydreaming about themselves related to this cagegory, imagining themselves in the most wonderful ways--successful, glorious, and as perfect as imaginable. A three to five minute period of silence may be helpful for this activity. Next, ask students to describe how they imagined themselves in this daydream on the Goal Dreaming worksheet. Although this writing could alternatively be assigned as a journal entry, keeping this sheet with later, related goal activities may be more helpful. Students should repeat the process with one or two additional life categories.

Students should then determine what part of their dream seems to call to them. They should complete, the sentences, "The part of this daydream that most appeals to me is __________ because__________." Encourage students to explore their feelings fully, writing as much detail as possible because they may use some of these ideas later when they write their personal goals.

When two or three Goal Dreaming sheets are complete, students should select the category they want to write goals for first.

Getting Real

The next step is to help students identify a desire from which to form a goal. To do this, they should look at the reasons certain aspects of their daydreams appeal to them as well as the daydreams themselves.

For example, if a student dreamed of being a lifeguard, and decided it appealed to him because he would work outdoors, working outdoors may be more important to him than actually being a life guard. Thus, students should spend some time reflecting on what seems truly important. It may help to have students highlight ideas that seem really important.

Then they should also examine which aspects of their daydreams seem far fetched and which seem within the realm of possibililty. While it is popular wisdom that we should teach youth that they can achieve anything if they want it badly enough, "badly enough" is rarely translated by teens into years of dedicated work and dogged determination. Instead, youth interpret this popular wisdom as meaning that if their desire is strong enough, minimal effort will is all that is needed.

Thus, when we present as role models, individuals who achieve unexpected accomplishments such as Christopher Reeves directing movies after nearly complete paralysis, we should always describe the grueling work that came between the goal and it's fulfillment.

Directing the Dream without Damaging the Dreamer

Another problem created by people espousing "you can do anything" is the tendency to ignore the requirement for superior intelligence, which cannot be created by will power or diligence.

Tackle this issue delicately so as not to discourage students from having dreams while keeping in mind that if you encourage students to set goals they have little chance of meeting you deprive them of the joys of achieving personal goals.

You can help students make realistic self assessments without hurting their feelings if you point out that people are happiest when they work and play in areas of their interests and relative strengths. Discuss the concept of multiple intelligences, letting students read the short descriptions of each type of intelligence, marking those they think are their areas of strength. This allows students with low intellectual ability to focus on an area of potential success without having to announce he is incapable of being something requiring superior intelligence.

If you have time and resources for personality and interest inventories, these should be given at this time point in the unit. 

Remember, although most of us would love to teach a unit on goal setting that includes a variety of assessments, career exploration, goal writing, scheduling and self reinforcement is ideal, most of us also have packed curriculums. Nevertheless, if students spend a few hour practicing goal writing in many different classes together, perhaps, we can teach students how to make their dreams come true.

Once students have summarized results of various assessments on a summary sheet or have simply decided which is their area of strength on a list of multiple intelligences, and they have chosen one the Goal Dreaming worksheets, they want to work on first, they are ready to learn to write a specific, personal goal.

General Goals are just the first step in making dreams come true. Once students have established general goals and have identified what appeals to them, they should be taught to write specific goals the way winners do.

Since I have listed the criteria for great specific goals and steps for writing them on a student goal writing worksheet, rather than explain the process again, I will only make a few suggestions about teaching this part of the goal writing unit.

It would be helpful for you to read part I of this goal writing series before proceeding since students will be using work they did from that section.

Suggestions for Teaching Students to Write Specific Goals

1. Students will have to be coaxed to state their goals positively and are likely to argue that they can't say they "will" accomplish a particular goal because they are not sure that they can.

Tell them that, despite their reservations, it is essential that they use the words, "I will..." since the wording will affect their belief in their ability to meet the goal. Be insistent on this, even to the point of saying they will not get credit for the assignment unless they follow your directions.

2. At first some students will have difficulty translating a general goal to one that is specific and measurable.

Class discussion is very helpful both for learning how to be specific and seeing a variety of possible goals.

Have students suggest ways that that various goal could be measured for students who are having difficulty. This might also be done in cooperative learning teams.

3. Estimating completion dates troubles many students.
Tell them just to estimate a reasonable time that it should take to accomplish their goal and to be honest with themselves about when they plan to actually begin working on it.

Since estimating the completion of big goals involves completion of steps or sub goals, have students list the steps and the length of time they estimate is needed for each. This list will be used later to make a Gantt chart.

Have students hold off on beginning to work on the goal for a week to give you time to teach scheduling and reward techniques.

4. After listing the many steps required to reach a goal, some students may decide it is too much bother.

It is helpful at this point to have them write the benefits they expect to derive from completing their goal. These usually involve feelings about themselves. Be sure students are still enthusiastic about their goal. If they can't regain their original enthusiasm, have them start over with a new goal.

5. If the goal involves various steps, creating a Gantt chart is helpful and fun for students whether they use project software or fill in a chart by hand. I have found that some students have trouble with the concept of putting time units across the top, so be sure to walk around and check each student's column headings.

You may want to check your software to see if you have any project management programs since they probably can be used to make Gantt charts.

The examples of Gantt charts I have found on the Internet are not clearly marked, so you may want to show students a simpler one done by hand or with software that makes grids such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel or ClarisWorks. Better yet, if you could use a project management software since it is likely to be a strong motivator.

Once students have learned to write specific goals and to schedule sub goals on a Gantt chart, they should be ready for next week's lesson on self-motivation and maintaining momentum.

Once students have made goals, sub goals and a schedule for completion, they are ready for the real work: Changing their own behavior.

Since telling students that they are beginning a difficult task can be discouraging, you will have to use your professional judgement to decide when to discuss the difficulties people encounter when they attempt to develop new patterns of behavior. Helping them to see this opportunity as a challenge that successful people master may help.

Focussing on people who have overcome major challenges in their lives could also lead nicely into a unit on heroes.

Begin the lesson this third goal lesson by asking students to review their goal dreaming worksheet for the goal area they are working on and their goal writing worksheet. Then lead students through the steps on the worksheet Maintaining Motivation and Momentum.

If you or your students come up with interesting variations on any of the suggested motivation methods, please send them in or post them on our bulletin board.