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  • Writer's pictureLola Objois

Why SMART Goals Don't Work for Teenagers, and What to do Instead.

It's January! And this only means one thing, it's time to be bombarded with New Year's resolutions and goal setting tips. But if your students are anything like ours, setting goals has never really worked with them, and we know why it hasn't.

Setting goals is an important aspect of personal development and success, and this is especially true for teenagers. As young adults, teenagers are facing new challenges and responsibilities, and setting goals can help them to stay focused and motivated as they navigate these changes. However, traditional goal-setting methods, such as SMART goals, may not always be effective for teenagers. In this blog post, we will explore why SMART goals may not work for teenagers, and how to help them set better goals that are meaningful and relevant to their lives. By understanding the unique challenges and needs of teenagers, it is possible to support them in setting and achieving goals that are meaningful and relevant to their lives.

SMART goals are a popular method for setting and achieving goals. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These characteristics are intended to help people set clear, achievable goals that are aligned with their values and long-term objectives. However, while SMART goals can be effective for adults, they may not always work for teenagers. This is because teenagers' brains are still developing, and they may not yet have the cognitive skills and experience necessary to think about the future in a meaningful way. They may also be more focused on the present and may not yet have a strong sense of their long-term goals or the steps necessary to achieve them. Additionally, SMART goals may not take into account the unique challenges and distractions that teenagers face, such as schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and relationships. By understanding the limitations of SMART goals for teenagers, we can explore alternative approaches to helping them set and achieve goals that are meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Start with why

As we've explained in our recent blog post "The Teenage Brain", teenagers often have a hard time planning for the long term because their brains are still developing and they may not yet have the cognitive skills and experience necessary to think about the future in a meaningful way. Teenagers may not independently think, "I need to get a good grade on this test because I want a good grade in this class so that I can have a good GPA and get into a good university and have more opportunities later in life." Instead, they may be more focused on the present and think, "The faster I'm done studying for this test, the sooner I can hit the beach!"

In his book "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action," Simon Sinek outlines how people are more likely to be inspired and motivated when they understand the purpose or "why" behind what they are doing. This is why it's important to pair each goal with its "why." When students understand the purpose behind their goals, they are more likely to stay committed and motivated to achieve them, even when faced with challenges or setbacks. For example, if a student's goal is to get good grades, starting with why can help them to understand that their grades are important because they are a reflection of their efforts and determination, and are necessary for achieving their long-term goals (e.g. getting into a good college). By starting with why, high school students can gain a deeper understanding of their goals and the purpose behind them, which can help them to succeed in high school and beyond.

Set actionable goals

SMART goal setting tells us to set "measurable goals" such as "cut costs by 10%" or "hire three new engineers by March 1st." However, these types of goals may not be ideal for high school students whose brains are still developing. It can be daunting for teenagers, especially anxious ones, to set goals like "get an A in math" because this goal is ultimately out of their direct control and can create a lot of anxiety. If they bomb the final exam, they may not achieve the goal of getting an A. Instead of setting "measurable goals", it may be more effective for high school students to focus on setting actionable goals that are directly in their control. Examples of actionable goals for high school students include "study for math 30 minutes per day" or "attend office hours once a week." By setting goals that they can directly influence, high school students can increase their chances of success and reduce anxiety related to goals that are out of their control.

The smaller the better

One way to help teenagers set better goals is to encourage them to set small, achievable goals that they can build upon over time. Rather than setting overly ambitious goals that may be difficult to achieve, it is better to start small and gradually increase the difficulty as teenagers gain confidence and experience. This can help to reduce frustration and increase the chances of success. For example, rather than setting a goal to "study for chemistry 6 hours per week" a teenager could set a goal to "study for chemistry 30 minutes per day" and increase it over time. This is an actionable goal that is directly in the teenager's control, and by achieving it consistently, they can gradually increase the amount of studying and increase their chances of getting a good grade. By setting small, achievable goals that they can build upon over time, teenagers can develop a sense of progress and accomplishment, which can help to boost their confidence and motivation.

Support and accountability

The final piece, and possibly the most overlooked aspect of goal setting, is support and accountability. Holding high school students accountable for the goals they set is important, but it is crucial to do so in a way that is supportive and non-judgmental. We recommend starting with daily check-ins and then moving to weekly ones, such as "Hey, have you done your 30 minutes of math today?" This can provide an opportunity for the student to receive feedback and make adjustments as needed, while also giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility for their goals. It is also important to remember that teenagers are still learning and developing, and it is normal for them to make mistakes or face setbacks. By providing support and encouragement rather than criticism, adults can help students stay motivated and focused on their goals, and can increase the chances of success.

Tutors can be a valuable resource for helping students set goals and achieve them. We work with our students to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement, and help them set goals that are achievable, small and have a "why". We also help our students create a plan and schedule for achieving their goals, and provide support and encouragement along the way. We hope to see you soon around our tutoring tables!

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