Setting SMART Goals for a New Year Beyond Illness

As a school psychologist, I try to guide kids in choosing SMART goals, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

As a school psychologist, I like to help kids set and accomplish goals, working to be “approach motivated”, moving toward their visions of attainment, rather than trying to avoid the things they fear. But while becoming an astronaut or the next President of the United States are lofty goals, they often lead to disgruntled kids, especially in the short- and midterm. Instead, I try to guide kids in choosing SMART goals, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Here is how that tends to look for kids whose goals are affected by illness.


I often hear kids set goals like “to be a better friend” or “to do better in school” or even “to be a better soccer player”. These are great starting points! But what, exactly, do they mean? Hiding below the surface of each of these goals is a specific direction. I like to help kids find that direction by exploring the meaning of their larger, more abstract goal. What does it mean to be a better friend? Maybe that means being honest even when it’s hard. What does it mean to do better in school? Maybe it means turning in homework on time. Finding specific goals may mean breaking a large goal into a few smaller ones.


measuring tape

Again, it can be hard to tell when you’re “better” at something. Once kids have chosen a specific goal, it’s time to figure out how to know when they have achieved it. Especially for medically complex kids, consider making these measurements “process-oriented” rather than “product-oriented”, meaning that the measurement can track how they go about achieving their goal. For example, rather than setting the goal of getting straight A’s, set the goal of studying for an appropriate amount of time every night.


man holding onto string ballon

This step is so hard! You want kids to shoot for the stars…but then what if they miss? Setting an achievable goal requires a difficult look at what is truly possible. That said, there may be many achievable goals on the path toward something that seems impossible. For example, for a child who wants to be an astronaut, an achievable goal might be choosing to take a more advanced math or science class; for a child who wants to be President, an achievable goal might be finding an opportunity to speak in front of a crowd. If a child struggles to find an achievable goal, ask what steps are necessary to reach their dream, and then help the child choose one of these steps as a first goal.


piggy bank

This step asks kids to explore why they choose a goal. Is completing 100 paint-by-numbers kits in a year really relevant to a child’s life? If that child is working on paintbrush technique, then maybe it is! Otherwise, it might be worth helping that child find a goal that is more meaningful. For a medically complex child, this may mean choosing with intention whether a goal does or does not have to do with illness. Goal-setting can be a strong way to deal with issues surrounding illness (for example, by setting goals for medication adherence or physical therapy), it can can be an opportunity to specifically look beyond illness. Whatever a child’s goal, ensure it is relevant to his or her life!



In the example above, if a child sets a goal to complete 100 paint-by-numbers kits, but doesn’t set a time for completion, it’s tempting to put off painting until some point in the future. But if the goal has to be accomplished in a year, then it’s time to get started! Help kids set realistic timelines for their goals. Even if this means doing something every day or every week, set a point in the future to evaluate progress. Again, an important key is to work with the child to set this timeline. Anything you impose becomes your goal for the child, not the child’s goal!

That’s it. That’s how to set a SMART goal with the child in your life. But don’t forget the final step: Write it down! Better yet, have the child write it down him or herself. With some kids, it’s useful to make an illustrated booklet, painting, or even a sculpture showing this SMART goal. Making a physical reminder of a child’s goal can help to keep it front-of-mind, even once a child leaves the house or your office, keeping him or her on the path toward their own self-defined vision of success.