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Go for the Goal

sok_ribbon.pngMy four-year-old recently learned to swim. At breakfast the morning after he did his first solo lap across the pool, he announced he wanted to be an Olympic swimmer (a change from his former policeman career plans). “Now I love swim lessons!” His sense of accomplishment and excitement for practice made me beam.

No matter what our kids’ paths in life, working toward goals is an important skill to have for school, work, hobbies, and big dreams alike. So what makes a goal-driven child, and how do we support their budding abilities along the way?

Work with the brain

Setting and reaching goals requires a certain type of brainpower. Sure, the amount of knowledge and information our kids have is important, but their attention and thinking skills are what really makes the difference.  Cramming a lot of facts, letters, numbers, and so forth into your child’s brain will sure make him sound impressive when they’re spouted back to you, but it isn’t really the foundation of long-term success.

Experts agree that achievement has a lot to do with focus, long-term planning, filtering information, and managing impulses — a set of skills known as executive function, which springs largely from the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Intelligence matters but not as much as a child’s ability to pay attention, think forward, monitor himself, and generally keep on track. When kids are encouraged to flex these brain muscles (even on a toddler and preschooler scale), it strengthens the neural pathways involved.

Early executive function skills are linked to lots of good outcomes later in life. Take a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers tracked and tested kids from preschool until age 15 and found that the four-year-olds with better impulse control turned into third-graders, and then teens who had better analogical reasoning (the ability to understand patterns and analogies) — a key component of intelligence and creativity.

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Redefine “goal”

To help your little one aim high and work hard, first put yourself in his shoes. When we think of goals, we usually do it from our adult point of view: scoring high on a test, getting in to a good school, running a marathon. We all want to support our kids in reaching goals, but it’s key to remember what that means for young ones. For a preschooler, a goal might be to create an incline out of tiles and roll down different objects, or to tape together dozens of straws and see how long the gadget can get. We tend to see these activities as entertainment and fun, but they are actually important practice.

Even babies have goals. It may sound crazy to think of a babbling infant as goal-directed, but imagine the world from her perspective: She sees an enticing box of tissue paper across the room and sets off to snag it, all with the plan in mind to take out every piece (yes, that’s a goal). If you can, watch her execute her miniature plans, and (unless you have guests coming over and can’t have tissue scraps all over the floor) see if you can let her follow through on them without doing too much of the work for her. She’s planting the seeds for bigger goals later in life.

Create the right environment

Certain activities are thought to foster executive function: imaginary play, creating plans before starting an activity, and setting up ways to monitor progress. When you’re thinking about preschool and home activities, consider incorporating some of these ideas. This means allowing your child to make choices about the activities that interest him, following his lead, helping him create plans for how to play or work on the project, and checking in about the process along the way. It’s also great to think about long-term activities, not just short ones that fill up a free hour of playtime. If your child has to “pause” on a project, such as a puzzle or a block tower, and pick it back up over the course of a week or more, it supports the idea of following through and maintaining extended focus on an idea.

Talk about your own goals as well because kids learn a lot by listening to our stories. For example, in our family, Mom is in the process of writing a book and Dad is making a short film. At breakfast, I might mention the plans or goals I have for the day, and later I debrief on the progress I’ve made and any light-bulb moments I’ve had recently. When I pick up my son from preschool and we talk about our “highs and lows” of the day, he’ll sometimes even ask me how many pages I got to write. I share what happens when something doesn’t work and talk about the idea of drafts, frustrations, and how I revise my plans when necessary.

Focus on what matters

Achieving a goal feels good. The sense of accomplishment is reinforcing, and it often makes our kids ready to take on more.

But we don’t want our kids to win just for the sake of it, and we certainly don’t want them to feel stressed or anxious about being perfect or always getting it right. We want their interest to be piqued, for them to commit, get better at things over time, and find enjoyment in play and work. That’s an important thing to keep in mind, even in the early years. We can impose chores to practice responsibility and help with study skills because they’re necessary for success. We can’t skip over the crucial step, though: helping our kids find what they’re passionate about and what makes them happy. The best goals are the ones that start here.

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