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Setting SMART Goals in the Elementary Classroom

Thursday, January 5, 2017 -- Madison Michell

You may already be familiar with SMART goal setting. Whether it is a format you follow in your personal life or something you’ve put into practice via professional development, this widely accepted technique is certainly worth taking notice of. At its core, the SMART approach provides a clear and concise framework to help you clearly define and successfully tackle achievable goals.

Used across many different industries already, the SMART technique can also be used in the classroom to personalize the learning experience. But, how do you take a concept that has been used so broadly with adults and make it meaningful for your K–5 students? Let’s take a look at how SMART objectives can be defined in the elementary context and explore key considerations when applying this goal-setting standard.

What is a SMART goal?

It’s generally accepted that the SMART acronym was first published by George T. Doran in 1981 in his paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” The reasoning for such a goal-setting model is probably best summarized by philosopher Elbert Hubbard:

“Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organized their energies around a goal.”

So, in the efforts of organizing our energies to accomplish our goals, let’s define the elements of this technique as they pertain to the elementary classroom.

S is for Specific

Your target or area of improvement should be clear and easily understood. After all, how do you accomplish a vague goal? As a first foray into this process, you may ask your students to set a specific behavior goal, as these are typically more tangible and explicit than academic goals.

M is for Measurable

This qualifier is primarily in place to ensure that there is some way to quantify or indicate progress toward a goal. As you might expect, this is most impactful when it comes to helping students realize the progress they are making. Thinking through some sort of individual or class tracker that can visually capture how a goal is measured is a nice way to help elevate this component of goal setting.

A is for Agreed-Upon or Attainable

This element of the goal-setting process typically comes into play when working toward a larger group or team goal. However, it can also apply to individual students when you want buy-in from other family members or school stakeholders before a student moves forward in a specific direction.

R is for Realistic

Helping students understand what kind of goals are, in fact, achievable given the available resources can be tricky. This is where your learners may require some additional guidance. Allowing students to select from a predefined list of behaviors or academic needs you’ve identified can be an effective way to help them hone in on a realistic goal.

T is for Time-Related

Don’t leave goals out there to fester. Set specific time constraints around when you expect results to be achieved. In an academic setting, the length of a unit, grading period, or semester provides built-in points of reflection that may align nicely to the length of your goal-setting exercise.

How can I help my youngest learners become invested in the goal-setting process?

Understanding the components of setting a SMART goal is just one step toward goal-setting success. Making sure that your students understand the purpose and process of goal setting is arguably even more important. Here are three considerations to keep in mind as you begin this journey with your elementary students.

1. Commit to student conferencing

Goal setting must be an ongoing priority to be successful, and you have the power to set that standard for your students. One way to help support the process is to be intentional about conferencing with your students regularly. Map out specific questions to get students talking about where they are seeing progress and identifying specific areas for improvement. Readjust goals collaboratively as needed, and be sure to establish when your next check-in will happen. Making time to work with every student individually helps bring a more personalized approach to instruction and, in turn, gives students greater agency over their academic trajectory.

2. Get parents and families involved

As adults, when we are working toward a goal, we often confide in our families and closest friends for ongoing support. That shouldn’t be any different when it comes to setting goals in an academic setting. Outline goals, progress, and key milestones with other individuals in your students’ lives. This means not only revisiting them during parent-teacher conferences but also communicating what a child could be doing at home on an ongoing basis to work toward the established goals. Additionally, if your students have regular interactions with a coach, specialist, or counselor, invest those individuals in the goals your students have identified too. An extra cheerleader or two to help offer support never hurts.

3. Celebrate success

Seeing success can give new life to a goal. This couldn’t be more true for your elementary students, who can benefit from visual reminders and tracking grids paired with regular celebrations to help keep them focused on their goals. Work with your students to identify different rewards that are most meaningful to them, and outline a defined metric that is required to attain specific prizes. While some students can go several weeks without recognition, others may require smaller, more frequent celebrations. Think about what your class will require, and build that in from the very beginning to keep motivation high.

Want to learn about a few additional ways you can institute a more personalized learning approach in your classroom? Check out these 10 Steps to Creating Personalized Learning Plans for your Students