6 Tips for Setting Realistic Back-to-school Goals

By Kaumudi Marathe

parentingMy daughter Keya and I have a tradition for the last day of school. We go to Trails Cafe in Griffith Park, where she orders a snake dog and an old-fashioned root beer. We recall the year’s high and low points, and I listen as she tells me which teachers she liked, what subjects she found interesting and what her classmates’ summer plans are.

Over the break, we don’t think about school at all. Then, the week before it re-opens, we focus and prepare – buying school supplies and clothes, marking our calendar with important dates. These occasions are opportunities for natural conversations about what she hopes the new academic year will bring and the goals she wants to achieve: better math grades, more time for ballet, community service and, of course, her vain hope that she’ll have less homework.

That time is here again. How can students and their families prepare for what’s ahead? Teachers, therapists and counselors believe setting goals helps, and agree that the exercise should balance a child’s needs, parents’ expectations and everyone’s peace of mind.

Where are you now?

Learning strategist Quynh Nguyen tutors middle and high schoolers and helps parents and kids prepare for college. She warns that the word “goal” is loaded with pressure and expectations and is really intended for parents, not the child. “Unless young children are already goal oriented, which many are not, they don’t respond easily to a conversation about ‘goal setting.’ A very small number really know what they want or understand the concept,” Nguyen says.

So, the process should start with parents taking a good look in the mirror to identify and address their own expectations and agendas. They should ask, “What is it that I want my child to achieve?” then consider what the child really wants and be ready to ask their child about her or his desires.

“Tap into the part of you that is the supportive listener, not the commander or nagger,” says Nguyen. “Ease into a conversation with your kids about the previous school year and hear what they have to say, framing the discussion in terms of their wishes, not your hopes. That’s when you’ll hear what they need versus what they are trying to do to meet your expectations.”

Provide concrete examples to help your child understand the purpose of setting goals. “Recall what they did last year and ask questions like ‘What did you enjoy?’” says Nguyen. This will help you both be clear about your child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses.

Where do you want to be? parenting

Next, ask what areas your child would like to focus on during the new school year. This will let you budget and schedule those soccer, music, dance or art classes – or the tutoring that will help your child catch up or get ahead.

Brenda Lapchinski-Matthews’ daughter is starting seventh grade at a private school in Santa Monica this fall. “I spoke with the school and asked a bit about the upcoming year,” she says. “I found out they are doing a particular play and [my daughter] Semara is interested in joining the drama department. So we ordered the soundtrack at the library and we’re going to try to find the film to watch. We also found out she will be using computers for the first time, something we have never done, so I’ve got her doing a home typing course to become comfortable with the keyboard. Our overall goal is to familiarize ourselves with as much as possible for the next year.”

Let your child take the lead in goal setting. “Students should have ownership over their goals,” says Jackie O’Sullivan, director of elementary education and part of the Las Virgenes Unified School District’s educational services team. “They should be able to clearly articulate them to their teachers. These goals can be reviewed by the parent to the teacher at the beginning of the year, but students should be empowered to communicate [them].”

The district’s educational services team suggests that families brainstorm possible goals, then choose just one or two to really focus on. “Parents can help students develop an action plan that is broken into smaller steps,” says Ryan Gleason, director of secondary education at Los Virgenes Unified. They can then post their children’s goals, and have their children self-evaluate their progress every week or two.

Goal-Setting Tips

  • Ask your child what he or she wants to accomplish.
  • Formulate a plan that makes sense to everyone.
  • Post a list in a convenient place, if helpful.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about important goals.
  • Continue the conversation all year.
  • Support, applaud and reassess regularly.

Making it work

Being specific is important. “It’s actually best if parents support their students in setting a small number of meaningful, manageable goals,” says Dr. Clara Finneran, assistant superintendent of education at Las Virgenes Unified. Goals are most successfully met, she says, when they focus on effort, hard work and tenacity, not solely general achievement. For example, students and parents can work together to set goals such as “I will read 30 minutes each night,” or “I will be prepared to leave the house by 7:30 a.m. each day.”

For Dana Farrar, a special-education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District who works with children with extreme behaviors, the goal is twofold: create balance and foster your child’s independence. Her suggestion is to build routines so days run smoothly and you have to remind your child of tasks as little as possible. Her tip? Let kids help with planning. “After-school routines would include washing hands, having a quick snack and then doing a half hour of homework or whatever is suggested for the grade level,” Farrar says. “Generally, this is 10 minutes per day per grade. Even if students do not have specific assignments, they can read a book, organize notes, read over materials and practice spelling words.”

Farrar, whose daughters have balanced academic achievement with dance, music and other extracurricular activities thanks to these tools, admits that it all boils down to hard work. “What is most important is establishing homework as a non-negotiable daily habit,” she says. “Teach the concept of first work, then play. If the child needs reminders, write a list and let him or her check it off himself.”

Farrar recommends teaching kids to use a timer, and reminds parents that as kids get older, they will build independence. They will eventually be able to write their own lists of tasks and estimate the time they’ll need for various assignments. “Students also need to realize as they progress, the grades they earn will require more and more independent effort on their part,” she says. “It is not about kids being inherently smart, but about good routines and study habits.”

parentingFollowing through

Regular follow-ups are also critical. “Parents should encourage honest reflection and celebrate growth in addition to mastery,” says Gleason.

Nguyen recommends being positive and inquisitive. Be curious about what your kids are learning, feeling, succeeding at or failing. “Keep conversations going with them and their teachers,” she says. “Following up is about taking inventory of information they are giving you and guiding them to be flexible and make adjustments to their goals as needed. If you are too firm, you might steer them in directions they do not wish to go. Having flexibility is important.”

On the flip side, letting your child learn to deal with setbacks is also vital. “Are you planning to attend college with your child?” asks Farrar. “If not, let him or her struggle once in a while. Kids learn about who they are and develop genuine grit by trying things they don’t think they can do and accomplishing them anyway. Self-esteem is like a muscle that needs working out, and this is not something parents can do for them.”

Don’t be afraid to back up if your child doesn’t have solid academic skills such as mastery of multiplication tables and fluency in reading. “It’s much more important in the long run [to have those skills] than just get through the current assignment,” Farrar says. “Let the teacher know you suspect problems, but be willing to help your child master the necessary skills. The important thing is that [your child] learns how to learn.”

Here’s to a new school year and to your child’s happiness in and out of the classroom.

KaumudiMarathé is a journalist and chef, but her favorite job is being the mom of her 14-year-old. When she isn’t driving to and from ballet class, volunteering at school events or walking her puppy, Kaumudi teaches cooking, writes freelance and runs long distances in Glendale. 

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