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Setting SMART Goals in the New Year

Make them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

A new year is a good time to evaluate priorities and set goals for the coming months. Although New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, the sentiment behind them is admirable—a desire to improve health, behavior, or other aspects of one’s life.

SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Parents can help children set SMART goals by asking questions and discussing children’s current situation and what it would take to get to their desired situation.

Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Specific. Start by naming a goal. If the starting point is too general (e.g., do better in school), the goal can be refined to make it more specific (e.g., get an A in math and science).

Once a specific goal is identified, it will be easier to outline specific actions that can be taken to meet the goal (e.g., turn in all of my assignments on time, study before every test). Big goals can be broken down into smaller, specific ones.

Measurable. Making a goal measurable means that the child will be able to know when she has achieved it—even better if there are small, measurable steps along the way to get to the final goal.

Attainable. A goal should be neither too easy nor impossible to achieve. Goals that are too easy provide no motivation, but goals that are too hard are discouraging and can lead to giving up when it becomes apparent that they cannot be achieved. Instead, aim for a just-right goal that is a challenge that can be reached with appropriate effort.

Realistic. Part of setting realistic goals involves asking whether a child is motivated to achieve the goal, whether the goal is relevant in the context of other commitments and goals, and whether achieving the goal is realistic with appropriate supports.

Timely. Attaching a timeframe to a goal is a way to stay accountable. Some goals can be accomplished in a week, others in a month, year, or more. Shorter timeframes generally work better for younger children. Adolescents can have both short- and long-term timeframes for different goals.

Researchers distinguish between mastery and performance goals. Mastery goals are focused on learning the material, mastering a skill, or attaining proficiency in something for its own sake. Performance goals are focused on external indicators of achievement such as getting an A, winning a game, or earning praise from someone else. Both kinds of goals can be important and motivating. Parents can try to help children understand their motivation for wanting to achieve a goal and refocus if necessary. For example, the goal of getting an A does not warrant cheating; the goal should be refocused on mastering the material.

As parents help children set and work toward achieving SMART goals, parents can also think about their own goals. Setting SMART goals is important for parents, too.

More from Jennifer E. Lansford, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today