Helping Your Child Define Goals and Success - Learning Lab

Helping Your Child Define Goals and Success


In my experience working with families who have children with behavioral and social needs, one particular issue seems to differ greatly from family to family: how to define our goals and ultimately, our “success” in attaining those.

Determining goals and success in academia seems much simpler. If a student is learning about photosynthesis, the goal would be learning the actual scientific process and success as determined by a simple test or quiz that demonstrates the student has “learned” the skill. This process is very different for problematic behavior and social skills, especially in our day-to-day lives outside of a clinical setting.

We must remain mindful that developing social and behavioral skills are ongoing goals that are shaped (hopefully) throughout our entire life, and that success must be viewed as change in the direction we want. Being perfectly behaved and having perfect social skills are unattainable goals even for adults. If our expectations are too high and we are only praising, rewarding, and recognizing behavior based on those expectations, we run the risk of ignoring all the little successes a child is achieving.

For example, I work with some children on handling frustrating situations more effectively with their parents. One student with whom I work displays a number of non-compliant and defiant behaviors with her parents. I’ve been working with her for several months and we’ve implemented four different strategies to change some of her behavior during various parts of the day.

Each week they report to me that we are seeing less and less frustration and problematic behavior during those sections of the day. That, in my mind, is clearly success. During one session, the student reported to me that “nothing is working” and her behavior is not changing at all. She reported this to me because she had a fight with her mother the night before. I spent the entire session attempting to prove to her that she is, in fact, improving with respect to her behavior (success). I wanted to communicate that our goal is not some unattainable concept of perfection, and that success will not be defined by a complete absence of frustration and anger. Instead we determine success by some observable change in behavior that is heading in the direction we want it to go.

In determining what your goals and success will be, consider having a “main goal” and “sub-goals”. Sub-goals are the smaller successes and changes we see along the way to reaching our main goal. Behavior change is a process, often a very slow one.

To keep things in perspective, parents, too, should be mindful that they are likely attempting to change some of their own unwanted behaviors (e.g., having just one fried chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A); however, this does not mean that the parent has failed.

We need to keep this in mind when we see our children attempting to make some change in the direction we want them to go. They deserve recognition for those efforts, no matter how large or small, and both parent and child should be able to label those efforts as successful.