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A good conversation with your child: effective goal setting

Found in: Leadership Blog

With reports recently published and parent/student/teacher interviews just completed, now would be a great time to talk to your child about goal setting.

I’ve mentioned before that success at school (and in life generally) is determined primarily by a character trait often labelled grit (or educational discipline), which is simply the ability to set a goal, continue and achieve it despite adversity.

Let me try and impress you for a minute. Research into goal setting conducted by Gabrielle Oettingen from New York University has coined the term Mental Contrasting with Implementation Impressions, MCII, (keep reading, that was designed to impress, not scare you off).

Her research found that people generally had three different ways of approaching goal setting, but only one was really effective.

“Optimists favour indulging, which means imagining the future they’d like to achieve (for a middle-school student that might mean getting an A for maths by the end of the year) and vividly envisioning all the good things that will go along with it - the praise, the self-satisfaction, the future success. Oettingen found that indulging feels really good when you’re doing it- it can trigger a nice dopamine surge- but it doesn’t correlate at all with actual achievement.

Pessimists tend to use a strategy Oettingen calls dwelling, which involves thinking about all the things that will get in the way of accomplishing their goals. A dweller might think about how he never finishes his homework, and there’s never anywhere quiet for study, and besides he gets distracted in class. Unsurprisingly dwelling doesn’t correlate with achievement either.

The third method is called mental contrasting, and it combines elements of the other two methods. It means concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way. This creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain a desired future. The next step to a successful outcome according to Oettingen, is creating a series of implementation intentions - specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them, such as “IF I get distracted by TV after school, THEN I will wait to watch TV until after I finish my homework”.

This strategy has helped students achieve higher grades, dieters eat more fruit and veggies 😊

What MCII amounts to, is a way to set rules for yourself… Rules provide structure, preparing us for the encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere. Before long, the rules have become as automatic as the appetites they are deflecting… Habit and character are essentially the same things. It’s not like some kids are good and some kids are bad. Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits. Kids understand it when you put it that way because they know that habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”

Quote from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough. 2012

So take a breath, get with your child and happily MCII together. 

Mr Rod McNeill