June 21, 2018 |
Helping students achieve goals can seem like a conundrum, especially when it comes to helping others achieve theirs— like students. From the time these students were born, adults have directed the course of their lives at every decision-point relegating them to a level of dependence that demands little ownership or responsibility, limited thinking, and limited guided practice. We are cultivating a level of dependence that impedes our young people’s ability to become successfully independent. They eventually leave homes, relationships, and education systems expecting and expected to make a good go of life. The problem is that many are failing miserably. They are failing because we have not prepared them to own the next phase of life, to plan, to set goals, or to track their own progress.
Own the Future
If we want our young people to be properly prepared for what happens after high school, the first thing we need to do is help them own their own futures. Human beings are the most dependent species on the planet at the time of birth and our ability to move to any level of independence comes slowly over the course of many years. Adults in various roles (parents, teachers, coaches, community members) reinforce that dependence far longer than is healthy. So, many young people, while experiencing a maturing of their bodies, actually show very little maturity of thought or activity. While they have learned to build with Lincoln Logs®, wood blocks, couch cushions, and LEGO® blocks, they often have not learned how to build their lives. They remain dependent on others for their happiness, for direction, for purpose, for values, and for meaning. They have not learned much about goal-setting. They don’t know that they are supposed to set goals and if they do, few know how to turn those objectives into something real.
Part of gaining maturity is learning that we are in charge of our own joy, achievement, and contribution. Each human is born with natural gifts, talents, propensities, challenges, and circumstances. While we don’t choose these things, each of us is responsible to create our own futures. The problem is that we wait too long to tell our children that they are responsible for and capable of building beautiful, meaningful, and productive lives. Somehow, many grow up complaining about the circumstances in which they find themselves and trying to hold someone else responsible for making their lives feel good. They fail to recognize that THEY are the ones responsible to make things better. Why set goals if you think it’s someone else’s job to get you from where you are to where you want to be?
As soon as children are ready for solid food we need to start pushing life ownership as much as we push potty-training and the consumption of green beans and cereals. We need to help young people become aware that THEY are the architects of their own lives. Once they get that they are in charge of their emotions, their happiness, the “weather” in their own young lives, then we can help them figure out and make a plan for what they want to build, do, and become.
Follow a Plan – Set Goals
Much of the fun in building with LEGO® blocks is the spontaneity of putting random bricks together to see what takes shape. This is true in life as well. We take the seemingly random occurrences of life and build the best we can. As haphazard as this may seem, the builder of an amazing life almost always starts with something in mind when they start putting things together. They follow building instructions (that include pictures) to build careers, relationships, opportunity, and joy. Our children will be more effective in their building if we teach them the importance of starting with a plan; a verbal and/or visual description of what they intend to build. When they have a clear picture in their minds of where they are headed, what they want to be, and do, and have, then they will be far better at building amazing lives regardless of the uncontrollable circumstances of their lives.
As soon as children can speak we can begin talking with them about how their choices will get them different outcomes and will take them to different places. We can ask them about their goals and desired outcomes. Some conversations are about very short-term: “Do you want to play with your friends at recess or sit inside by yourself?” Others goals take longer: “How many sight words do you want to learn this week?” Some take longer still: “Do you want to make the competitive soccer team this Spring?” or “Do you want to go to college right after high school or wait for a while?”
Work with Others and Track Progress
Once children are clear on their goals the thing that will most help them build towards those objectives is to help them understand and deploy two very powerful performance mechanisms: scoreboards and accountability. Scorekeeping combined with peer-to-peer accountability creates a game-like environment at school and in life that compels students to perform to the best of their ability and engages them more fully in the work of proactively creating their futures. It is easy to see how engaged kids are when gaming. They spend hours on end playing and learning from experts to compete at ever higher levels in their favorite games such as Minecraft, Fortnite, Call of Duty (in all its varieties), and Super Mario. Seeing progress real-time, being able to experiment and choose different courses of action, playing with friends (sometimes friends across the world whom they have never met outside the game itself), and having the opportunity to set “high scores” all create extraordinary levels of engagement.
As athletes and gamers keep score to tell if they are winning or losing, our children need to know whether or not they are progressing towards their desired future states. When winners in sports and video games see on the scoreboard that they are losing they often are able to innovate, raise their level of effort, and collaborate more effectively with others to achieve a win. Losers, on the other hand, tend to quit, blame, complain, and whine. We can set our children up to win.
Human beings (at all ages) have an amazing capacity to innovate and to step up their performance when the game clock is winding down, they are on their “last life,” or they see they are on the verge of establishing a personal best score. We can leverage this fact by helping children fabricate that kind of positive pressure for themselves through scorekeeping their progress on their goals and the activities that take them towards their goals. We need to teach them to track academic performance AND the study behaviors that predict academic achievement. We need to help them identify and track the practice behaviors that will help them be selected for a vocal or musical performance group. We need to help them visualize their movement to proficiency in areas like math, reading comprehension, and spelling. We can even help them track their own performance on something as basic (and important) as potty-training. When children have scoreboards in place, they are “counting” and they can then have others “counting on them.”
Accountability is about creating an environment where we are “counting on each other” to be the best we can be. Our integrity as human beings helps us avoid letting others down when we know they care about us and our happiness and success. The rhythms of accountability that work best to drive performance are daily or weekly, depending on the needs of the individual and the objectives pursued. Accountability, when done well, is part science, part art, and worthy of its own blog post. That said, the basic principles are that children meet in small groups in the appropriate rhythm to identify the most important one or two things they can do by the end of that day or week to improve their performance on the goals they are working on at that time. The next day or week they meet to account to each other on whether or not they kept their commitments. Then, based on the current score, they make new commitments for the next time period. This rhythm helps children prioritize the activities that really matter vs. spending all of their time doing trivial things and/or activities that are aligned less well with their picture of the future.
Going forward, let us educators, parents, and coaches (adults) work together to better prepare our young people for the next stages of life. Let’s model for them and teach the importance of personal vision, goal-setting, and owning their own futures. Let’s teach them how to build those futures through planning and the choices they make each day. And let’s show them how keeping score and practicing accountability sets them up for long-term success in whatever they choose to do.
For more information on how you can help your students achieve their goals, please visit: Leader in Me
After earning his BS in Teaching Psychology with minors in History and Coaching, Andy taught and coached at Timpview High School, one of the leading high schools in the state of Utah. Andy later earned his Masters in Educational Leadership and served as the principal of Juab High School before taking the role of School Community Resource Director for the Juab and Tintic School Districts in north central Utah where he wrote and administered grants and coordinated services for at-risk students and families. During the summers he was responsible for training teachers throughout rural Utah on how to use the internet in classroom instruction.