Why Students Fail to Attain Goals

When I was in 6th grade we were given the task of writing our autobiography, as well as a chapter predicting our future. Being a big dreamer, I added embellishments like "being president" and "living in a mansion" as seamlessly as I spread peanut butter on bread. All I really remember about the project was that it was fun to write down anything I wanted with "sky as the limit" thinking.

As it turns out, the latest brain research supports the need to set kids free to dream big. In contrast, most current goal-setting formulas emphasize short term, proximal, or S.M.A.R.T. goals. In reality, according to research, it doesn't matter whether the goal is short-term or long-term or S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). If there is no passion for achieving it, then the likelihood of follow through is minimal at best. When a goal is set by a teacher, coach, pastor, parent, or youth worker to "help" a student achieve success, it often fails to captivate their imagination. Without personal buy-in or excitement a student lacks the fuel needed to activate perseverance. And without perseverance, there is no mojo for goal attainment.

What if, for all our efforts to get students to embrace goal-setting, we have missed the most vital first steps - sparking their imaginations and activating their dreams!

In reality, most students simply cannot see the connection between their current lives and what life will be like 5, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. Nor have they developed the persistence skills necessary to hang in through challenges and temporary failures that are encountered along the way.

The first step, rather than directing them to a short-term or SMART goal, is to assist them in finding something compelling or that ignites their imagination. The research says that it doesn't matter what it is. It may be a top of the line luxury car or a career that brings fame and wealth. The point is, the criteria for goal selection (without venturing into negative or illegal activity), is based on what is most compelling rather than what is most realistic. From this experience, the mind is open to learning the steps, process, and commitment needed to set other goals and to persist until they are attained.

The second step in helping students in goal setting is facilitating a process to capture what is imagined and distilling it into a specific dream. In the example of the luxury car, have them narrow it down to make, model, year, color, etc. The idea is to help them to paint a vivid mental picture of their goal that is so compelling that they are naturally invested in taking action. If a student has trouble engaging their imagination or coming up with a dream, the research says its our job to share our own stories and introduce them to compelling stories of others who have lived into their dreams.

At uLEAD, our Vision Principle states, "To discover and share your dreams is to become fully alive." Trying to get students to adopt and persist in goals they are not invested in is like tying apples to a tree - they look nice for a while, and then rot and fall off. It's time we change our strategies in teaching kids to adopt goals, because without investment and persistence, they will never be successful in reaching their full potential.

In the book, Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain, Jensen and Snyder share their plan for overcoming obstacles to goal achievement.
1. Set a compelling goal that evokes positive emotions.
2. Expect setbacks and move on.
3. Identify and focus on personal strengths and maintain a daily focus on small steps.
4. Examine priorities and spend time on what's most important.
5. Record everything - keep records of dreams, goals, and daily tasks, and revise them daily.
6. Identify obstacles and address them.

"A Goal is a dream with a deadline." Napoleon Hill