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In 1968, Dr Edwin Locke introduced the concept of goal-setting as motivation, showing a significant increase in performance when subjects pursued challenging, but clear and achievable goals accompanied by appropriate feedback. In 1990, he published, with Dr Gary Latham, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, which presented five principles for improving success. In it, they recommended goals that encompassed:

1. Clarity

2. Challenge

3. Commitment

4. Feedback and

5. Task Complexity

But Locke and Latham were working with adults in a work environment. How does this help us understand the role of goal-setting with children? The key words are ‘clear’, ‘achievable’ and ‘appropriate’. 

There is no doubt that children respond to challenges. Like adults, they relish the feeling of satisfaction they get from achieving something difficult, especially if it impresses the important people in their lives – their peers, their parents and their teachers. But children, especially young children, are not great planners. They live in the eternal present, have limited capacity for holding more than a couple of concepts in mind simultaneously and they have short attention-spans (which was true even before the advent of the touch-screen!).

Does this mean that we should leave goal-setting for a later age? Some think it does, but even if a child is too young to make – or stick to – a plan, as parents and teachers, we can learn a great deal from the goal-setting principles first developed by Locke and Latham. We can be the goal-setters for them, while still giving them the autonomy and agency they need to make sense of the world.


As humans, we make sense of the world through experience. Every new learning is stored as a concept, and those concepts make it easier to process new experiences through a process of association (this is like that, therefore, what I know about this helps me work out what that means to me) we call this ‘analogous thinking’, and it is an essential building block of intelligence (which is not, as used to be believed, fixed at birth!).

But children are inexperienced. They don’t have a deep reservoir of concepts to draw upon – which is why tasks that an adult may find fundamental, may, for a child, seem incomprehensible.

A focus on clarity means seeing things from the perspective of the child and setting the challenge in terms of what they already know.


Does this mean that we only give children things they can already do? Of course not – otherwise they would never progress beyond their limited comfort-zone. The goals we set for them in any activity (remember, they learn ‘hands-on’ through play) should stretch them; make demands of them that require them to solve problems and think logically and creatively to achieve the goal. And it should, above everything, engage and excite them. They must want to achieve the goal – only then will they have the Commitment they will need to follow the plan through to a productive conclusion.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD), which, in simple terms, describes the distance between what a child can do on their own, and what they can accomplish with the support of someone more knowledgeable about the activity. 

This is where our goal-setting for children should sit. The Challenge should excite the child, the level of Task Complexity should stimulate, but should fall within the ZPD so that we are able to subtly assist, without becoming didactic or taking over the learning experience. 

This is how we measure the appropriateness of our Feedback: 

1. Are we solving the problem/supplying the answer, or are we stimulating the child’s imagination in a direction that we know, will eventually lead (with effort, on their part) to an answer which is meaningful to them – not necessarily the answer we would have come up with, or the one we planned?

2. Are we maintaining a level of fun, engagement and excitement that makes the activity ‘structured play’ rather than a boring ‘learning activity’?

Remember, it is not the destination that is the real goal, but the journey itself. Learning is an idiosyncratic process – no two children make sense of the world the same way, and none of them make sense of it the way the adults in their lives do.

The important thing is not that they completely achieve the original ‘goal’ that we may set for them, but rather that they learn something – anything – that makes them more able to face whatever challenge we, or the world, may throw at them next.

For more on this Topic, tune into episode 97 of the PakMag Parents Podcast , with Brian joining Bree.