The Importance of Setting Purposeful Goals With Students

The Importance of Setting Purposeful Goals With Students

In the Responsive Classroom approach, we often say that we start the year exploring hopes and dreams, or learning goals, with our students, but this exploration can only occur after we have established an initial rapport, a feeling of safety, and a sense of joy among our new class members. Regardless of grade level, there is no classroom management approach that will fix a classroom culture that does not include positive relationships and the celebration of each child’s contributions to the learning community. We can engage in this work by creating space for students’ motivations to surface and be affirmed by their community.

What Is a Hope, a Dream, or a Goal?

Helping students reflect on their motivations is very important because not all young people can distinguish among a hope, a dream, and a goal. In my second grade classroom, I define them as follows:

  • A hope is something within a person’s grasp to achieve or experience—something they can reach with effort and support.
  • A dream is a big, audacious outcome that might take years to achieve, like becoming a professional athlete.
  • A goal is a hope with a plan that is directed toward the overarching dream of the student.

I’ve found that creating a chart and placing student offerings under each section without judgment helps them begin to understand these nuances. For some students, it can be very hard to figure out a hope or goal they can take responsibility for. To support them, I always allow the class to sleep on their thinking and come back to look at their hopes, dreams, and goals from a fresh perspective the next day.

Helping Students Set Achievable Goals

Although SMART goals are explicitly introduced in our middle school approach, those of us who teach in earlier grades need to be aware of the qualities of effective goals in order to provide gentle guidance for our young students and leverage the impact of this process.
In the working paper “Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture That Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation” (2018), the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states, “Kids are motivated to work toward achievable goals.” This is why it’s important for teachers to help students take the big, audacious dream and identify smaller steps that a child of that age can realistically reach for.

This does not mean that goals and hopes should be too easily achieved. Fifty years of study have shown that the more specific and challenging a goal is, the more energizing and animating its effect (Locke and Latham 2002). There is a sweet spot where the student must stretch to reach for a goal that can be possible for them to attain with your support.

The Power of Including Families

Having students communicate a goal to someone they respect or care about increases their motivation and leads to increased realization of their goals. This is why I began the practice of having students take a copy of their goals home and sharing these with their parents or guardians.

This year, I’m planning a post-COVID Hopes and Dreams event where I invite parents into the classroom so their children will have the opportunity to share their goals for the year and perhaps explain how they came to these specific social, academic, or behavioral benchmarks of progress. Every child wants to succeed as a person and as a learner.

A Few Tips for Helping Students Set Goals

  • Guiding the process without inserting your own adult expectations allows students to envision authentic pathways toward their own desires and plants the seeds of belief in their ability to reach their dreams, which is so important for resilience.
  • Taking time to allow these personal motivations to take shape in the minds and hearts of our students ensures that they begin to take ownership of them.
  • Scaffolding students to creatively record their hopes, dreams, and goals in writing (or pictures for our younger students) increases their usefulness as anchors for effort, decision-making, focus, and self-control across the school year.
  • More excellent tips can be found in “Setting Goals, Hopes, and Dreams: Connecting Students to the Community.”

By intentionally facilitating the practice of goal setting and acting as coaches supporting students in achieving those goals across the year, we are slowly establishing a life practice that will reap benefits for every child not only in their academic journey, but also as they age and tackle the larger challenges of livelihood, health, family, and social responsibilities.

Christine Lewis is a teaching and learning strategist in Maryland and a consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools.


Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. 2002. “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey.” American Psychologist 57, no. 9: 705–717.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. 2018. “Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture That Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation.” Working Paper No. 14. Retrieved from