Written by Nicole Bolf 

Goal setting for teens is an important topic to cover at the beginning of any semester. People frequently set goals, but don’t always change their behavior.

Learning how to write SMARTER goals is an effective way to help your teen write goals and take actionable steps to achieve them.

Before diving into the SMARTER goal model, it’s important that your teen understands the concept of goals and finds value in setting them. Help teens set effective goals by telling them why they have to do something.

If just the topic of goal setting earns you some eye rolls, now is a great time to remind them that you know there are things they want to accomplish for themselves and that you’re going to help them do that with goal setting!

Below are some activities to help you in facilitating a conversation about goal setting with your teen.

Begin with the End in Mind

Ask your teen to imagine a bunch of puzzle pieces (or if you want to add some drama to this discussion, dump puzzle pieces out on the table!). Ask them these questions about completing the puzzle:

  • How do you know where to begin?
  • Could you finish the puzzle if you did not have an idea of what it was supposed to look like?
  • What if you had just a quick glimpse, would that still help?

Sometimes, we do things with an end in mind. Here are some examples:

  • Blueprints for a house
  • A recipe for cooking
  • Looking at a map (ok now a phone app) for directions on how to get to a new place
  • Writing an outline before completing an essay

This activity, in summary, is meant to help teens understand that though they have visions, dreams, and maybe even specific goals for themselves, there are steps they will need to take to reach their vision

Choosing the correct goal

+ daily action

=

SUCCESS

Wish vs. Goal Setting for Teens

Ask your teen if they can explain the difference between a wish and a goal. If they are having a hard time differentiating between the two, try providing different statements. See if they can determine which ones sound more like a wish and which ones resemble a goal. Here are some ideas:

  • I want school to be in person and not remote (more of a wish)
  • I want to get an A in English class (could be a wish that also turns into a goal)
  • I want more clothes (likely a wish)

When we look at SMARTER goals, they are written out in ways to help individuals take actionable steps towards making a goal happen. SMARTER goals increase the likelihood that you’ll get what you want!

Past Failures Don’t Define Your Future

There are times people do not reach their goals and sometimes there is a logical explanation for it. Understanding why goals have failed can help people make adjustments so that they can succeed at reaching future goals.

Just because you have failed to meet a goal in the past, doesn’t mean you will fail to meet a new one. This concept can be demonstrated to your teen by providing examples of goals you did not reach such as:

  • I wanted to quit drinking caffeine, but did not succeed
  • I wanted to work out more, but ended up not having the time to work out at all
  • I wanted to paint the house by the end of summer, but it’s still left unfinished

Just because you did not accomplish these goals already, does not mean you can’t revisit them. Showing your teen you haven’t met a goal in the past might make them more comfortable.

They may feel like opening up to you about their goal if they do not fear negative consequences should they not reach it.

As we get into discussing the SMARTER goal model, you might even get some clarity as to why your personal goals were not accomplished.

Recommended Books

The Middle School Student’s Guide to Academic Success: 12 Conversations for College and Career Readiness, written by Blake and Bo Nemelka, is a great place to start the goal-setting conversation with your tween or teen. Each section is written clearly, in short chunks, and includes an action step. Hard-to-understand concepts like the purpose of more immediate goals and the importance and impact of time management in setting and achieving goals are easy to understand by both parent and child. Helpful action steps included: questions with worksheets, visual graphics that show you the flow of creating goals, and practical tips that you can begin implementing today.

On Course: Strategies for Creating Succes in College and in Life, written by Skip Downing and Jonathan Brennan, begins with a self-assessment to identify behaviors and beliefs. The authors use short journal entries, focus questions, worksheets, and a section titled “Wise Choices in College” at the end of each chapter to offer practical suggestions. Each chapter also features a student story that identifies challenges and how that student overcame them to be successful. The authors do a fine job of teaching why it’s beneficial to learn certain skills now and how it creates future opportunity. Each chapter activity builds on the previous one, helping the student create an academic goal plan.

SMARTER Goals

The SMARTER Goal method is a smart way to teach goal setting for teens, teen SMART goals. A quick internet search will provide you with many templates that use the SMARTER model.

While it is an exceptional tool and important life skill, it doesn’t work well unless the person using it fully comprehends the meaning behind each step.

The word SMARTER is an acronym for the name of each step one should take when writing a goal.

There are sometimes slight variations people use when teaching the model, but the ones we will discuss here are as follows: Specific, Meaningful, Reasonable, Timely, Enlist Support, Re-evaluate.

Specific

You may wonder, “What are good goals for a teenager? What are some good goals for high school students?”

You want to make sure your goal is specific enough to measure and to prove that you have been successful. When thinking of your goal, ask yourself how you will know if you’re making progress.

The goal needs to include things such as a number as well as information on how long or how often you will do something.

Let’s use this following goal as an example: “I want to exercise more!”

Can you identify how this goal is not specific enough? If your average exercise time per week is approximately zero minutes, technically working out for even 5 minutes would meet your goal.

Chances are, working out for five minutes a week is not what you meant when stating this goal. A more specific way to write out this goal would be as following:

 “I want to exercise for at least 30 minutes at a time, for four days each week.”

This is specific as it gives an exact number of minutes you would like to work out, along with an amount of days per week. It will be easy each week to reflect and check in on your project.

 This would be an excellent opportunity to help your teen identify any goals they have not met. You could help then analyze if they were or were not specific enough and suggest ways to write them out in measurable ways.

Some other examples of good or common goals for teens that might need tweaking to be SMARTER include:

  • I want to get good grades! (What does “good” mean? As? Bs? Cs? This is situational for each family)
  • I will be a better football player! (What does “better” mean?)
  • I will go to college! (when? Right after high school? One day? What type of college?)

Meaningful

There are likely many goals you have for your teen and those goals are important for you to discuss. When it comes to having teens write their own goals, however, the goal they work with has to be meaningful to them. For this exercise, it would be beneficial for your teen to come up with their own goal.

 When anyone sets a goal for themselves, they should reflect on the following questions and use them as a tool to decide on the goal’s meaning:

  • Is this goal important to you?
  • Are you trying to prove something to someone by setting it?
  • Is this something you think is important?
  • Are you being pressured into it?

Action-Oriented

This step asks you to identify actions you can take to reach your goal. Using the example goal above, we can suggest some actionable steps to take to reach it. In order to exercise for at least 30 minutes, 4 days a week, first think about some barriers that prevent you from doing so. Work? School? Lack of motivation? Write out measurable action steps that can help you achieve this goal such as: 

  • I will complete my exercise by 10am on Mondays and Wednesdays
  • I will go on one hike each weekend at my favorite trail
  • I will ride my bike every friday afternoon at 5pm

If your teen’s goal is “I will get a B or better in English this semester”, some potential action steps are:

  • I will complete all homework assignments by the due date
  • I will only give myself 30 minutes of screen time on weekdays
  • I will read all the novels I am asked to one day before the assigned pages are due

There are many other steps that students can take, but helping your teen first identify some past barriers to getting good grades is an excellent first step in writing these action steps.

Remember, the action steps have to be reasonable, unlike my suggested limited screen time rule!

Reasonable

Goals must be reasonable or you are setting yourself up for failure.

If your teen has never done gymnastics a day in their life and states they want to be an Olympic gymnast, the chances are very slim of that happening.

While it’s not fun to crush your teen’s dreams, we have to keep the goal for this activity realistic. Ask your teen to think about steps they are already taking to make any goal reasonable

Timely

This reinforces the concept of a goal being specific. Your goal of exercising 30 minutes, 4 days a week might not be something you want to do forever. Be fair to yourself and state you will do this for at least 2 months. You can always add time later!

Enlist Support

Telling other people about your goal helps hold you accountable for reaching it. There are also people who can support you with your goal. Our example goal could be supported by a work out buddy.

The goal of Bs or higher can be supported by a trusted study buddy. Ask your teen who they think would serve as a good support system and try not to take it personally if they don’t say you!

Re-Evaluate

Establish a time to check in on your progress towards reaching your goal. If one month in you’ve found yourself only exercising twice a week for 30 minutes at a time, maybe this is something you feel good about or perhaps you want to try and just add one more day.

If you still want to increase your frequency, ask yourself again what your barriers have been.

 Ask your teen when they think is a reasonable time to check in on the progress of their goal. Reiterate that even if they are falling behind, there are things they can change to get back on track.

Revisit the action steps and determine why or why not they are working out.

Goal Setting PDF Template for Tweens and Teens

Click the image below to download a pdf of the Goal Action Plan worksheet. 

Ready, Set, GOAL!

Hopefully these steps give you the tools to help your teen write effective goals for themselves. The SMARTER model takes some practice, but really does help individuals achieve their goals. Give it a try and remember, begin with the end in mind.