Fremantle Press children’s author Katie Stewart shares how to teach kids to set their own goals – and why it’s so important
Katie Stewart, author of three books for younger readers, knows that goal-setting isn’t an innate ability, but a skill to be learned. In this blog post, she shares how and why teaching kids to set goals at a young age is an important step towards building confidence and resilience.
My latest book, Wombat Can’t Sing, tells the story of a little wombat who feels he needs to learn to sing because a fantail has told him he should. Singing makes others happy, she says, and Wombat really likes that idea. Despite the efforts of those around him though, Wombat doesn’t learn to sing at all. Some readers might say that Wombat has not tried hard enough to achieve his goal. After all, he only makes four attempts before giving up. Shouldn’t he keep trying? Can’t we do anything if we try hard enough? The truth is, however, that there is absolutely no reason why Wombat should learn to sing. After all, singing is really not his goal, it’s simply what Fantail has told him he should do. Wombat’s real goal is to make others happy and by the end of the book, he has learned that he already knows how to do that.
This confusion is common with children. Advice given with use of the word ‘should’ rather than ‘could’ can lead them onto paths they may not have taken if they were more confident about setting their own goals. So how can children be taught to work out their goals on their own and achieve them?
What is it that they want to do?
In Wombat’s case, he thought it was learning to sing, but really he just wanted to make others happy, a broad goal that could be achieved in a number of ways, depending on the skills of the person (or animal) trying to achieve it. Had Wombat been more confident about his own abilities, he may have seen that more clearly. In fact, the other animals in the story who were trying to help Wombat, were all confident in their ability to make others happy, but none could actually ‘sing’.
Why do they want to achieve a particular goal?
Trying to achieve something without knowing the overall reason is a recipe for failure. The reason is the incentive for carrying on. So a child may see little point in learning to swim until they become interested in fishing. At that point, it becomes a really good idea to be able to swim for safety’s sake. So with ‘learning to fish’ becoming the overall goal, ‘learning to swim’ is simply a step on the way.
How do they go about it?
To achieve a major goal in one step probably means that the goal was too easy, but a higher goal can look daunting. It is far easier if the goal is divided into more easily achievable stages that progress like a ladder towards the major one. The sense of achievement with each one spurs the child on to the next and gives them the confidence to carry on. This breaking down of goals into smaller steps is probably one of the hardest things to learn, but simple, every day activities can be used to show them how. Making a cake, for example, is something which cannot simply be achieved. A recipe must be found, the ingredients bought, measured and mixed. The oven must be set, the correct sized tin found and greased or lined. Then the cake must be cooked for just the right time, removed, cooled and iced. So making a cake with children will give them an idea of the many necessary stages and skills that are needed.
Confidence is essential if a goal is to be achieved by child or adult. Even before setting a goal, we need to know our strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise we are likely to set a goal far too easy or too difficult. For children, this confidence comes from the comments of parents, guardians, teachers and friends. Gently pointing out where they might be making a mistake and praising achievements will give them a better idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Suitability for setting their own goals
This comes back to the idea of not using the word should when guiding children in achieving their goals. The word should implies that you are telling them what they must do, rather than letting them decide. A better word, ‘could’, on the other hand, implies that it is just a suggestion of what might be a good idea. It will make them feel more in charge of achieving their own goals and they are far more likely to come up with ideas that are interesting to them and within their capabilities. ‘You should be a concert pianist’, said to a talented musician, can feel like parent pressure to keep practising and aiming for that goal, even when it’s not something they really want to do. Alternatively, ‘You could be a concert pianist’ is more encouraging without pressure and simply lets them know that music is one of their talents.
Less confident children may set the goal bar quite low, but this is where the adult can step in, with gentle suggestions of where they might stretch themselves a little. If, for example, a child decides that they will learn to do up buttons – a task that they should probably already have achieved – a parent might suggest that they could aim to get themselves fully dressed, leaving the parent time to make them an extra special drink with their breakfast.
Failure is not the end!
One of the biggest obstacles to forming goals is the fear of failure. Maybe the child has tried before and not managed. Maybe they’ve been laughed at for not achieving a goal at the same time as others. Lack of confidence can be part of a downward continuum, where fear of failure leads to lack of confidence which leads to even worse anxiety. Though children are told that they can achieve anything they want if they try hard enough, they are often not told that sometimes the road to that achievement takes a very different direction to the one they might have planned. It is okay to take a detour. It’s okay to replan. In fact, the willingness to replan based on experiences gained can be a very important part of successful goal setting. It’s a personal adventure, not a race and the trick is to keep going, even if it might mean going around the mountain instead of straight up.
Join Katie Stewart at Paper Bird Children’s Books & Arts for a very special Story Time event on Sunday 15th May, 9.30 am – 11 am, to celebrate the release of her new book, Wombat Can’t Sing, and meet her bush friends. Book your ticket via Eventbrite.