Back-to-School Stress Busters

Help Children Set Goals

By Erin Ramsey

Do you know what you’re children are wishing for this school year?

I recently asked my daughter about her goals for school, and she said she wished she were better at grammar. I suggested that could be a goal she wants to set for herself. She thought that since her brain didn’t naturally comprehend grammar that it would be a wish. I explained that is how achieving goals works. It doesn’t have to be a wish; it is in her control.

Adults have a tremendous impact on how the school year begins. I decided to begin this school year full of possibilities.

Yes, the beginning of a new school year can be stressful for both children and adults with new schedules, teachers, expectations and friends. However, the beginning of the school year can also be a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start. We can choose to focus on reacting to stress or we can choose to respond by setting goals and taking on challenges. We can take a step back and think about how to approach the year in a proactive manner so our families can chart a course of challenging, fun and meaningful experiences.

So, keep this in mind:

Life is full of stresses and challenges. Children who are willing to take on challenges (instead of avoiding them or simply coping with them) do better in school and in life.

When we take a moment to reflect and proactively decide the direction we want to go, we are using executive function skills. These skills include inhibitory control (not going on automatic); focus; cognitive flexibility (thinking in new ways and shifting based on demands); and working memory (referring to previous experiences and using the knowledge to our benefit).

Don’t we all want the children we love to proactively decide how to embark upon new opportunities and not just learn to cope? Learning to take on challenges is an important part of that and of success in school and in life.

Adults can promote taking on challenges by:

  • Building on Interests: Talk with your child about their hopes and dreams for the year. Share your hopes and dreams for yourself. When we take the time to think about what we would like to learn and what we are interested in exploring, we are increasing motivation and curiosity which are key to life-long learning.
  • Goals: Help your child set goals for him or herself. Make sure you let your child choose some of their own goals, not just what you want for them. They don’t have to only be related to school. Learning to set meaningful goals is a driving force behind the promotion of life skills. You may need to have several conversations about what goals are. In the case of my daughter’s grammar wish, we talked about how she could create steps and strategies to improve her understanding of grammar. I explained that is how achieving goals works. The conversation helped me understand how she was thinking—a wonderful perspective for me and a good opportunity to get to know her better.
  • Action: Make a list of goals together and break the goals down into action steps. Include timelines and check-in dates. Together you can help each other be accountable.
  • Relationships: Create a team to help each other achieve your personal goals. Children need trusting and supportive adults to help them do things that are hard.
  • Growth Mindset: Carol Dweck, a researcher from Stanford University, has found that children who are praised for effort and strategies rather than personality and intelligence are more likely to have a “growth mindset.” Those that have a growth mindset believe that their abilities are something they can change and improve. On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset are less likely to take on challenges and believe that they are born either dumb or smart and they can’t change it. Focus on praising efforts and strategies, not personality or intelligence. Children who are praised for their effort (“you tried so hard”) or their strategies (“you figured out how to put on your sock by yourself”), develop a growth mindset,where they see their abilities and intelligence as something that can be changed. Children who hold a growth mindset are more likely to try really hard in the face of challenges.

I hope you will take some time to think about what goals you would like to set for yourself and talk with the children in your life about their goals. Happy new school year!