Me to fifth grader: What are your goals for this semester?
Fifth grader: To be more responsible.
Me: How will you know if you met your goals?
Fifth grader: <shrugs>
This conversation played out in various forms with many of my students during the conference day. As I reflected on these conversations, I wondered: Do they know how to set goals? Do they know how to achieve them? What if they want to change their goals? Are goals even helpful?
According to a 2002 study, focusing on an end result without considering the effort needed to achieve that result can lead to a loss of motivation. But if we guide our students to focus on the process rather than the outcome, they have a better chance of experiencing small wins that lead to improvement.
To help my students set, achieve, and revise their goals, I turned to Atomic Habits by James Clear. Working on habits became the theme of my advisory study skills class. Clear’s primary message is this: Build small, sustainable habits that will inch you closer and closer to the person you want to become.
Here’s how I taught my students to focus on habits rather than goals.
1. Start with “I am” statements: I began the first class by telling students, “I am a runner.” I asked them what “I am” statement they would like for themselves. We have many labels that apply to our identity, such as “I am a student,” “I am a daughter,” etc. I challenged my students to reflect more deeply about a part of their identity that they wanted to flourish or grow. Some ideas were, “I am a reader,” “I am a soccer player,” and “I am an organized student.” As they wrote their “I am” statement, I offered prompts for those having trouble.
You can reframe this request by asking students to think about what they want someone else to say about them. For example, “My friend Aliah is a helpful person.”
2. Ask, “What does that type of person do regularly?” We discussed what habits a runner, reader, soccer player, or organized student might have. If you spotted this person on a random day, what would they be doing?
Some of the things we came up with were: A runner would run most days, a soccer player practices drills, a reader reads every night, and an organized student has a separate binder for each class.
Emphasize the consistency of the habit, not the amount: “I will ask my coach if I can help set up cones before practice at least once per week” or “I will clean out my locker every Friday afternoon.” I had students write down a couple of habits, with the consistency, under their “I am” statement.
If your students are comfortable sharing, you can pair them up to help each other to write observable habits.
3. Leave room for “failure”: In the next class, I told the students that I hadn’t run over the weekend because of a minor injury. Was I still a runner? They all agreed that I was because I usually run on the weekends and my habit would resume when I got better.
The idea is that I didn’t fail to meet my goal—I still identify as a runner because I have the habit of running on a regular basis.
If students focus on goals and fail to meet them, they might feel like they weren’t successful. Focusing on habits can reinforce successes. If a student set a personal goal to study 15 vocabulary words this week, but was only able to study 10, they didn’t meet the goal, but if they think of it as a habit to study 15 words each week, they still achieved something by studying 10 words.
The point I want to make with students is that by setting small, consistent habits, we slowly work toward being better versions of ourselves with every habit, without feeling defeated if we don’t meet every goal.
4. Reflect and follow up: For a few minutes in each study skills or advisory class, remind students to check in with their habits. Ask: Are you keeping up with the habit still, or do you need to revise it? They can reflect on a chosen identity: “Am I still a reader? How do I know? What have I accomplished as a reader?”
This reflection practice might even prompt students to adjust their “I am” statements.
5. Technology integration: Ask students to use electronic calendars to enter their habits. They can remind their future selves of their habits by creating a calendar event for the future. One of my students created a calendar event on his birthday two years out. He listed his habits and even left a note of encouragement for his future 13-year-old self in the event description. When he gets the calendar alert two years from now, he can take a moment to reflect on which habits stuck and which ones need revision.
I now make a point of asking students to create small and consistent habits. In a recent check-in with a fifth-grade advisee, the student really wanted to set a goal to earn an A in Spanish class. Instead of just setting the goal, I asked for his thoughts on why he didn’t have an A already.
“I study really hard for every test, but my test grades are not improving,” he said.
“Have you asked your teacher for tips on how to study more efficiently?” I asked.
After our chat, he revised his plan, adding as a habit checking in with his teacher weekly to make sure he was studying the right content in the right way. With this mindset shift, he now has a plan that he can apply to many classes—he sees that planning the process is more effective than simply desiring an outcome. I would bet that he actually earns that A he’s striving for.