Help Your Middle School Students Set Goals

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There exists a faulty assumption that with adolescence come the skills for self-control (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). This assumption may prevent middle school students from receiving the time, tools, resources, and instruction they need to actually develop the skills that lead to self-control. It also creates a gap between expectations and the reality that students do not have self-control skills (Figure 1). This gap can introduce stress, tension, and discipline problems that are exacerbated by the developmental changes that come with puberty and adolescence. Communicating expectations that students should have these skills even though they have not been taught can lead to hopelessness, frustration, disengagement, and even complete resignation from putting in any effort to develop self-control skills.

Two important self-control skills for middle school students to learn are goal setting and time management (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2004). Goal setting translates hopes and dreams into concrete, action-able steps. It enables people to visualize how their own behaviors, efforts, and actions create the pathway to achieving their goals and empowers them to act with agency in their success.

Setting SMART* Goals

Teaching middle school students to set SMART goals is an effective way to teach both goal-setting and time-management skills. The SMART goal process:

  1. Requires students to visualize and unpack the logic of what it takes to move from hoping to actually achiev­ing a dream.
  2. Helps students to see how they need to manage their time over a sus­tained period in order to achieve a goal.
  3. Teaches students to give fore­thought to their actions, which helps develop self-discipline and self-control.

*Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound

The SMART Goal Planner is a useful tool for helping students set SMART goals and assess their progress toward that goal over time. Below is an example of how students would map their efforts to the small changes that may occur (Figure 2). The arrows help students see the logic of how their effort influences the goal, encourages perseverance, and keeps their hope alive that they can achieve their goal.


  • Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1997). Social origins of self-regulatory competence. Educational Psychologist, 32(4), 195-208.
  • Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (2004). Self-regulating intellectual processes and outcomes: A social cognitive perspective. In R. J. Sternberg & D. Y. Dai (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition: Integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development (pp. 323–349). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.