by Meg Adem

When goal-setting goes wrong: how to keep your son on track

Setting goals that are relevant, personal and challenging can be extremely motivating for your son. However, at times goals can do the opposite and cast a shadow of demotivation over boys.

Perhaps your son has set himself a goal that he still wants to achieve, but that now feels too ambitious or far out of reach. As a teacher at an all-boys school, many of my students have experienced the panic that goes hand-in-hand with a crisis of confidence and a feeling that they are never going to reach their destination.

I’m sure you too have experienced feelings of frustration, disappointment and helplessness – I know I have. So what can we do to support our sons to progress rather than give up on their goals?

Encourage your son to take goals step by step

One method that I have found to be effective when goal setting or reassessing progress is to focus on the steps to the goal, rather than the goal itself. Focusing on the end result can often make kids’ goals seem too far off or intangible. The step-by-step approach takes the focus off the ultimate goal (that seems so far away) and instead places the spotlight on his ongoing performance.

By focusing on the next step, your son’s goal-setting becomes process-oriented, which alleviates some of the pressure. Rather than worrying about winning a race or smashing an exam (for example), your son can instead concentrate on the task he needs to complete right now.

The more complex or ambitious the goal, the more steps are likely to be required.

This 5-step strategy has been invaluable in helping the boys I teach take back control of their goals.  

  1. Write down your ultimate goal/s.
  2. Visualise what achieving your goal looks like, and how you will get there.
  3. Identify the behaviours you need to display in order to achieve your goal.
  4. Identify the people or resources you need to support or assist you.
  5. Create a timeline that shows the daily activities (steps) that will lead to your end goal.

Depending on your son’s goal, he may need to add in other steps. However, no matter how many steps your son identifies, concentrating on the process to get there will be a lot more effective than simply dreaming (or panicking) about the end goal.

Acknowledge and compliment his progress

Behaviourist Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect put forward the theory that behaviours that are followed by a satisfying consequence (e.g. praise) are more likely to be repeated and strengthened.

Recognition and praise are essential for motivation and drive – for all of us. Your son needs to hear an important adult in his life acknowledge his behaviours and be specific with praise. For younger boys, this could be as simple as saying: “You have learnt all your letters. I am so proud of you”. For an older boy, this could be along the lines of: “You have submitted all your work by the due dates. I’m impressed.” 

Help him understand today’s power over tomorrow

As you know, what you do today influences what happens tomorrow. By encouraging your son to live in the ‘now’ in order to achieve his goals in the future, you will set him up with a more realistic mindset about the world outside school and home. Parents can help by:

  1. Helping him set good habits
    We are all creatures of habit and tend to stick with ‘what works’. Make sure you model healthy ‘life habits’, such as healthy eating and getting enough sleep, which will help him reach his goals.
  2. Remaining positive but realistic
    Positive thinking, such as optimism and gratitude, should be encouraged and practised every day. However, this does not mean you should express unrealistic expectations. Instead of, “After all your hard work on that science report, I’m sure you’ll get an A,” try, “You put so much effort into that science report. You’re improving all the time. Let’s see what feedback you get from your teacher.”
  3. Not sweating the small stuff
    Your son needs to be able to deal with daily hassles and will look to you for examples of how to do so. Be mindful of how you respond to running late, being stuck in a traffic jam, or your computer crashing. How your son handles small stresses now will be a large predictor of his resilience later in life.

For more tips and advice to help your son set successful goals, click here.


Bassham, L. (2011). With Winning in Mind. Mental Management Systems.
Enclopaedia Britannica (2017). Edward L Thorndike. Accessed 10 January 2018 from
Markman, A. (2013). The choices you make today affect you for years. Psychology Today. Accessed 10 January 2018 from


 Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Meg Adem is a science and psychology teacher, writer and athletics coach at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about


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