As the new school year approaches, parents everywhere are excited for their child to begin their first day. Children prepare with fresh haircuts, ‘first day of school’ outfits, and school supplies, yet underneath all their preparation, they may be struggling with anxiety and apprehension with the thought of beginning school, especially tweens and adolescents moving into middle school or high school. As a child therapist, if I had to name a primary reason for anxiety increasing as school approaches, it would be uncertainty. Uncertainty of what’s going to be expected of them, uncertainty of what the structure is like, uncertainty of “who’s lunch table am I going to sit at?” and “how am I going to find my classes?”– all changes that are new and unfamiliar. With the first day of school quickly approaching, it is a great opportunity to check-in with your child and support them with regulating their thoughts and emotions. One effective strategy that builds connection and a sense of control within their new transition can be goal setting for their upcoming school year.
How does creating goals with my child reduce their anxiety?
Working with your child to set specific, realistic goals decreases anxiety because it provides a roadmap or structure for them to work in, increasing feelings of control as they enter a new situation. As you model for them how to think with intention beyond the present moment, it is a bonding opportunity as you listen to your child’s stress and beliefs about themselves. Connecting your expectations with their expectations, clarifies what the family values as success versus what they think must be accomplished. For example, there may be some relief when a child hears, “Getting straight A’s in all your AP classes is really challenging. What do you feel that you can accomplish? How can I support you with that?”” By creating a target that is reachable, it decreases your child’s irrational thoughts about how the next grade level is too challenging or that they are not “good enough” because they now feel capable and more motivated to meet expectations. As author Amanda Morin states, “When your child begins to decide what they want to accomplish, they’re more likely to be motivated to complete things for their own satisfaction and learning, rather than for the satisfaction of others or for tangible rewards”.
How do you begin the goal setting process with your child?
When creating goals with clients and their families, I often start the conversation with defining the word goal. How can a child create a goal or be engaged in conversation if they do not actually know what a goal is? Amanda Morin states, “..a goal is something that a person wants to achieve. A goal is realized after a person puts a plan of action in motion that makes their intention a reality.” Using this as a base, we discuss different goals that engage my client’s interests, for example, a goal that my client has for his basketball season. Then, we discuss ideas on how to accomplish the goal. After some simple examples, I introduce the concept of a SMART goal.
What is a SMART goal?
At times, parents have approached me with thoughts that their child doesn’t have realistic goals or that they are not motivated to do school work or help around the house. Goal setting can be a powerful strategy, but your child needs to feel connected toward their goal and that it has a purpose. In addition, they need guidance on how to develop goals so the strategy is supportive. SMART is an acronym that contains five key elements to effectively create and succeed at a goal.
A SMART goal is..
- Specific: The goal is clear and has an end so you know when you have reached it.
- Measurable: You can track progress on your goal.
- Achievable: Your goal is challenging, but you are capable of meeting it.
- Relevant: Your goal is interesting to you or is a skill you want to learn.
- Time-bound: You have a deadline to complete the goal by.
How do I begin?
There are many online worksheets and activities to support you and your child with creating SMART goals.
After learning about my clients’ overwhelming thoughts and emotions about their upcoming school year, I created my own SMART goal activity for us to use during our session. As they created goals related to their personal life, relationships with their peers, and their academics, we formulated them into the sentence starters below:
My goal is to ________________________ (specific) by ___________________(timeframe).
I will accomplish this goal by ___________________ (things/steps you can do to achieve this goal).
Accomplishing this goal will _______________________ (result/benefit/why is this goal important to you?) .
Of course, we saved time for them to add some creative touches. Children left their session feeling more relaxed with positive thoughts about their school year, and had plans to put them in a place where they look often, like a school agenda. In addition, every client was happy to share their goals with their parents. It was a great planning tool and I feel confident that it can create some powerful conversations with your child.
“5 Tips for Setting Smart Goals as a Family.” Waterford.Org, 24 Aug. 2022, www.waterford.org/resources/smart-goals-for-kids/#:~:text=Setting%20SMART%20goals%20can%20help,which%20they%20should%20help%20define.
Leonard, Kimberlee. “The Ultimate Guide to S.M.A.R.T. Goals.” Forbes, 11 May 2022, www.forbes.com/advisor/business/smart-goals/.
Morin, Amanda. “How to Set Goals for Your Child This School Year.” Verywell Family, 23 June 2022, www.verywellfamily.com/setting-back-to-school-goals-2086626.
Paulus, Daniel J, et al. “Mental Health Literacy for Anxiety Disorders: How Perceptions of Symptom Severity Might Relate to Recognition of Psychological Distress.” Journal of Public Mental Health, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4755316/.