Five Tips for Setting Goals

One of the most common problems I run into in the schools is knowing how to create a goal for a kid and then following up on that goal. Many teachers aren’t taught this skill and many are afraid of the math behind it. This post isn’t about what goal you should set. Goals are different in every situation. This post is about how you set the goal and how you monitor it. There are five easy tips to remember. Pro tip: this works for parents when trying to change behavior at home too.


  1. Know where you are
  2. Know where you’re going
  3. Remember the dead-man rule
  4. Make it graphable and measure progress
  5. Involve the kid


  1. Know where you are: This is also known as the baseline or the starting point. How is the student performing now? Usually, it’s pretty easy to identify the starting point, but sometimes you have to take a little data to figure it out. For example, the student reads at a second-grade level. The student is disruptive in class. Sometimes you need to get more specific. The student reads at a second-grade level and can read 30 words per minute. The student gets up from his desk 70% of the time and disturbs other students when he is supposed to be seated and working. It’s best when you can identify it in such a way that is easily measurable and sensitive to small changes.


  1. Know where you’re going: Just like the baseline, you need to know where you’re going. This is truly the goal you want to accomplish. It needs to be specifically related to the baseline and measured in the same way. By the end of the school year, the student will increase his reading to 65 words per minute at a second-grade level. By the end of the month, the student will work quietly on his classwork 80% of the time without disturbing other students.


  1. Remember the dead-man rule: This one is tricky and often confusing for people. The dead-man rule means that you should never set your goal around a behavior that a dead man can do. The goal should be written in a way that the behavior you want replaces the behavior you don’t want. Usually that’s easy with academics, but not so easy with behavior. Notice in the baseline, I stated that the student gets up from his desk 70% of the time, but in the goal, I stated that the student will work quietly at his desk. I could have written the goal to say the student will not get up from his desk, but even a dead-man could do that. A better replacement behavior is to identify the active skill you want the student to do. In this case, work quietly at his desk.


  1. Make it graphable and measure progress: Goals that are written well can almost always be graphed. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t know where to begin. It’s really pretty easy if you follow the first two steps above. If you know where the student began and you know where you want the student to be, then you can draw a line between the starting and ending points. Two points make a line. Collect data in between to see if the student is making progress. Use the graphing tool linked below. All you need to do is enter the dates and the data you collected. It’s usually best to collect academic data once a week. Behavior data may need to be collected more frequently, as often as every day or even every hour.


  1. Involve the kid: This is one of the most important pieces of creating a goal. You have to involve the student. Kids (and adults) have more investment in any situation when they have some say the outcome. Most kids know when they have a problem and want to improve even though they don’t always show it. Ask the student for help in creating the goal. Let them help you measure it and monitor it. Make colorful graphs they color in themselves or let them enter the data themselves on an Excel sheet. Give them lots of positive reinforcement. Verbal praise and high fives are the easiest and often best ways to reinforce kids. Don’t be afraid of offering treats and free time too.

Try the graphing tool linked below. A lot of programs for measuring academics offer these graphing tools as part of the program, but they aren’t versatile enough to cover any kind of goal. You need to have a tool you can use for anything.

Graphing Tool


Graphing Tool Instructions

  1. Enter Date when baseline was taken
  2. Enter the baseline data in Goal column
  3. Enter Date when the Goal ends
  4. Enter endpoint of Goal in Goal column
  5. Change the Label of the data in Column C to the type of data you are collecting
  6. Enter Date and data for each time data is collected
  7. View the graph on the Graph tab below
  8. Change the Graph Labels to reflect what you are measuring


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