When middle and high school students set short- and long-term goals, they can see a path to the success they hope for.

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”
—Thomas Edison

I learned that quote from Wendy Beth Rosen’s Self-Smart. Taking it seriously, Wendy suggests some areas where students’—and adults’—self-assessments can lead to greater accomplishments and personal satisfaction. Many distractions and challenges in our lives threaten to throw us off our path, or keep us from knowing what our path is. Setting explicit goals for success and tracking our progress toward them is a way to increase our chances of finding the success we hope for.

I’d like to share a method of goal-tracking that can be used by students and educators in ongoing ways, as well as at specific points when they’re experiencing uncertainty or setbacks. These also have value for promoting positive mental health in school.

Middle and high school are particularly important times for students to become consciously aware of and intentional about key choices: what they’re putting into their bodies; how the way they are spending their time helps them reach their larger purposes; who they’re spending their time with; and what they’re doing to contribute to their families, schools, and communities.

At the beginning of the school year and at each marking period, students in middle and high school should record in a journal their goals in these eight areas:

  1. Academics
  2. Social life
  3. Sports and exercise
  4. Healthy eating
  5. Family and community
  6. Hobbies and interests
  7. Screen time
  8. Long-term plans

In working with middle school students, for example, I have seen them set goals ranging from “eating better food at lunch” to “being a great guitar player” to “being an NBA star.” In all cases, we want to help students be clear about their goals (in the first case, “to be a healthy person”) and to set realistic short-term goals on the way to their long-term goal (for the guitar and basketball players, finding time for regular practice with feedback). For these students, and all students, goals provide anchors, especially valuable in high winds and rough seas.

All of the eight areas of life above matter, and academic success is related to all of them. Having a way to separate them, document progress, and create priorities is important. Students need help to be successful even when they have positive aspirations. A sure way to not succeed is trying to make progress in too many areas at once, so help students find one, two, or three areas to prioritize for a marking period. Revisit these priorities with them and see if follow-up goals need to be set in these areas or if new areas should be prioritized. Keeping to no more than three at a time is vital, because even if we might need to change in eight areas, we can’t track that many. Slow and steady wins the race.

Tracking also helps ensure that a given area is not neglected. When we see that things might have been neglected, we can make some adjustments.

The main point of setting goals is to help students take realistic steps to achieve them. Many educators find that using the SMART format—goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely—is practical and reasonable, and keeps students on track.

This kind of journaling is ideally suited to advisory or extended home room periods. Advisory periods are supposed to focus on the whole child, and the eight areas provide broad coverage. Journaling also fosters communication between advisory teachers and those who focus on these areas in schools, including subject area teachers, “specials” teachers (including health and physical education teachers), and staff running extracurricular activities. In addition, the advisory period can be used for pair and group problem-solving to help overcome obstacles students face as they pursue their goals.

One way to help students achieve their goals is to pair them up to help one another with goal-setting and monitoring. Students see each other in various school contexts and can be helpful outside of formal class time.

Having communal, whole-class conversations about goal-setting creates a new mindset in students and fosters cooperation and mutual improvement because students’ goals are not solely their responsibility. We all get better when each of us gets better. So there is an expectation that goals set will be shared—perhaps with classmates and certainly with other teachers. (This expectation of sharing should ensure that personal goals related to family issues stay out of these conversations, as they require more professional and confidential follow-up.)

A helpful way to introduce the journaling is to ask students to reflect on the opening quote from Edison, taking a position as to whether they agree, disagree, or are not sure about it, and why. Have students share their rationales in small groups and then share out with the larger class. Ensuring that students understand they have more potential than most of them realize is a critical preliminary step to making goal journaling an authentic activity for them.

This activity is also relevant for adults. Educators have a lot on their plates, and having a way to make sure that one’s learning, family, health habits, interests, and long-term plans are front of mind (even if not always front of action) keeps us grounded.

Devoting regular time in professional learning communities and faculty meetings to discussing goal-achieving strategies can provide a power morale boost in schools. In particular, discussing long-term plans can stimulate broad faculty collaboration to shape the school. And sharing with students that you’re doing the same thing you ask them to do makes it more likely that they’ll value the activity.