Empowering Students: Setting Life Skill Goals

After introducing students to life skills (skills like critical thinking, communication, leadership, and time management) and embedding life skill lessons into my Language Arts class, I decided it was time to take things a step further and put students actively in charge of setting life skill goals for themselves. Although I knew improving in these areas was important, I still hesitated to take too much time away from teaching literature and writing in our classes. In order to balance the two, I decided that instead of taking an entire class period to do this, we would work on setting goals over several days, giving up the first five minutes of class in order to set goals and reflect on them.

Setting goals and action steps:

  • Setting the goal: As an entrance slip, I asked students to look at our chart of Life and Career Skills learning targets and choose one that they’d like to work on. When they handed in their entrance slips, I double-checked to make sure the goals they chose were specific and attainable. If they had decided on a very broad goal, I asked them to narrow it down in the next class.
  • Deciding on the steps to attain the goal: Once students had all decided on a goal, I shared Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s quote: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Following that, in another entrance slip, I asked students to list 3 – 4 concrete steps for reaching their goal. This was a more difficult task, and many students decided on steps like “work harder” or “study more.” I explained that these steps were too vague, since they’re not a plan of action. Over the next week, in short five-minute increments, students refined the steps they would take to meet their goal.

    Life Skills Reflection sheet

  • Filling in the Life Skill Goal and Reflection sheet: Once all of the students’ steps were well-written, I asked them to copy their goals and steps into a reflection sheet, which they would then put in the front of their binder (where they could see it often).
  • Reflecting on their goals: Every four weeks, I gave students an entrance slip asking them to reflect on their goals to see how they were doing. As students met their goals, I asked them to set a new one. If they were having difficulty reaching their goals. we brainstormed to figure out why and tried to come up with new steps to reach them.

I found that students were very honest about the goals they needed to set and about how well they did in reaching them. Some of them admitted that they really didn’t work very hard at making changes and we talked about whether or not they needed to find a new goal that was more meaningful for them.

I kept a document with all the goals they were trying to reach. This helped me observe them and give them positive feedback when they seemed to be making an effort. One of my students realized that she was always the first to put her hand in the air to answer a question, often without thinking about what she wanted to say, and then giving a rambling answer when she was called upon. Her goal was to think carefully about what she wanted to say before speaking. Whenever I noticed her shooting her hand into the air and then bashfully taking it back down to think before raising it again, I could give her a small nod of encouragement or a discreet thumbs up. As often as possible, I tried to let students know that I noticed their efforts to make change.

Many of my students set goals around procrastination. They realized that they were leaving work for the last minute and then feeling very stressed about completing it on time. Knowing this, I put little notes on the homework slides, reminding them not to procrastinate or giving them tips for getting started on their work.

Over the course of three months, a few students managed to reach their goals and move onto another one. Most of them were still working on their original goal but felt they were making progress, while some of them struggled to make headway. Even as students moved towards their goals at different paces, however, their reflections showed pride in their efforts:

  • “I haven’t stopped procrastinating completely, but when I manage to get all my work done during the week, my weekends are the best!”
  • “I’ve been making an effort to participate in class discussions and even though it’s still scary, I’m getting better at it.”
  • “I’ve been working hard on my life skills and I believe it’s been paying off. However, I’m still not where I want to be. To get there, I’ll have to get out of my comfort zone more often.”
  • “I can’t believe how much checklists help me! I’ve learned to prioritize my work and it makes me feel so good to cross things off my list.”
  • “I’ve reduced my procrastination but I still need to spend less time doing homework. To do that, I plan to turn off any distractions like my phone, because I haven’t succeeded in that so well.”
  • “Not using my cellphone while doing homework has helped me a lot. Doing small assignments the day they’re assigned has helped me because I don’t have to worry about them on my rest days. Now I have to work on managing long term projects.”
  • “I have started to listen more and I don’t get as distracted in class.”

As important as it is for students to grow in these areas, I think it’s just as important for them to realize just how empowered they feel when they set meaningful goals for themselves and strive to meet them. It helps them develop the attitude that they can take charge and make changes in their lives — and that’s a great lesson for them to learn as early on as possible.


  1. Heather Marshall April 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

    I Loved reading the reflections from your students. Such a simple, yet powerful exercise to have them set goals.

  2. So helpful for you to do this with your students in an engaging way. Did any have real trouble? Did any goals surprise you?

    • Great questions Gillian! A few students blew the whole thing off and didn’t take the time to set goals they cared about, but most took it very seriously. I did get a few surprises. One student’s goal was to lower her stress and she mentioned that she felt stressed by parent expectations. This surprised me because her parents seem very relaxed and don’t seem to worry about grades, etc. When we talked about it, she realized that the expectations were actually her own. She still stresses about doing excellent work, but at least I think she now realizes that she does it for herself. Overall, the goal setting led to good conversations and I got to know my students so much better.

  3. Marilyn McAlister April 17, 2018 at 8:01 pm

    Carla, this is wonderful. Setting life goals is so important. We do it as adults. Why shouldn’t students? I appreciate the procedures and student samples. I’ve worked with SMART goals in the past, but they became daunting. I love the fact that your procedures allow for authentic pacing. I will definitely be coming back to this post in the fall.

    • Thanks Marilyn – I’d love to hear how it goes. I felt that it worked well for most of my students. Although there were a few that didn’t take it seriously, most of them chose goals they cared about and seemed to take pride in trying to reach them.

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