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Goal Setting and Hope

By Katie Curran & Karen Reivich

The science behind the mechanisms and mediators that lead to successful goal accomplishment has been a focus of research since the 1970s. When an individual desires to make a change or accomplish an outcome, research tells us that he or she will be more successful if he or she attends to a number of variables that are key in goal setting (Locke, 1996). Specifically, keys to achievement include: setting difficult but attainable goals, setting explicit and precise goals, having a strong commitment to one’s goals, and having the belief in one’s capacity to achieve the goal (self–efficacy), among other variables. Noted repeatedly in the literature is the importance of choosing goals that are not only important to the individual but also that he or she is capable of reaching. Teaching successful goal–setting strategies to school–age children is critical for students’ success in and outside of the classroom.

Hope Theory

Central to goal accomplishment is the idea of hope. In accordance with hope theory, a goal is anything that an individual desires to experience, get, do, or become. Lopez et al. (2004) present the importance of hope in goal accomplishment and provide researchbased suggestions for producing higher levels of hope in students. Hope theory refers to "individuals’ perceptions of their capacities to clearly conceptualize goals, develop the specific strategies to reach those goals, and initiate and sustain the motivation for using those strategies" (Lopez et al., 2004, p. 388). Hope theory posits that hope plays a critical role in goal achievement through several mechanisms. Hope finding is when an individual becomes aware of hope and understands its application potential. Hope bonding is when social bonds (e.g., friendships or the bond between a teacher and student) facilitate successful change. Hope enhancing is the explicit experience of change and the increasing hope that comes when a student sees himself or herself achieving a step along the way to goal achievement. A growing body of literature shows the benefits of hopeful thinking in academic and athletic performance, physical and psychological well–being, and connections to others (Lopez et al., 2004).

Goal Setting and Performance

How does goal setting increase performance, achievement, and ultimately well–being? In an article chronicling the findings of 35 years of research, Locke and Latham (2002) provide an overview of the mechanisms that underlie the positive outcomes associated with goal setting.

First, goals are directive. That is, they direct attention toward the behavior that will lead to the desired aim. If a student sets a goal to read three chapters of a book by the end of the week, the student has heightened his awareness of this activity and will be more likely to devote his energy to reading. In a study of the effects of goal setting on performance, Locke and Bryan (1969) provided feedback pertaining to multiple aspects of participants’ performance related to automobile driving and found that performance improved only on the dimensions for which there were previously set goals. This research indicates that when a student sets a goal, he or she is more likely to notice behavior related to that goal and more likely to respond to feedback regarding goal–directed behaviors as compared to behaviors not specifically linked to a goal. This research points to the importance of being specific about the behaviors that will help a student achieve his or her goal, because by naming the behaviors or strategies, they will then be on the student’s "radar" and thus will be more likely to be noticed and monitored.

A second reason that goals lead to positive outcomes is that they are energizing. Goals increase effort toward performance, and when an individual is engaging in goaldirected pursuits, he or she often experiences positive emotion and the state of flow. Research indicates that when an individual sets a goal, that individual shows increased direct physical effort, cognitive effort on repeated tasks, self–reported subjective effort, and physiological indicators of effort (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Third, goals affect persistence. They increase the effort and time spent on–task. Time allotted for the goal will affect how this effort is spent, whether in short bursts of high intensity effort or in less intense sessions over longer periods of time. Regardless, when specific and attainable goals are set, data indicate that task persistence increases.

Finally, goals lead to action. When goals are set, individuals will rely first on the knowledge and/or skills they already have to try and attain the goal. If a new skill is required, students who have set specific goals are more likely than those who have not set specific goals to identify and adopt new strategies to help them achieve their respective goals (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Components of Hopeful Thinking: Goals, Pathways Thinking, and Agency Thinking

What makes a good goal? The first component of hopeful thinking is the development of goals. A goal, defined, is the aim or object for which an endeavor (i.e., action) is directed. While the definition seems straightforward, the process of goal setting has many variables. Goals may be self–directed or assigned (e.g., the parent or teacher sets the goal the student must achieve), learning oriented (e.g., learning how to play the piano or learning all the names of the 50 states and their capitals) or performance oriented (e.g., earning an A on an essay, making 70% of one’s foul shots), long–term (e.g., saving $100 by summer) or short–term (eating only one cookie today), complex (e.g., learning how to finger pick on the guitar) or simple (e.g., learning how to hold the guitar), and difficult or easy to achieve. The ability to set and achieve goals is helpful to individuals throughout their lives and across many domains of life. School psychologists are a resource for improving students’, teachers’, and schools’ overall performance and nurturing the well–being of individuals as well as the school culture; therefore, understanding goal setting and hope is critical for school psychologists.

What makes for effective goal setting? Goals must be specific, attainable, measurable, and meaningful. Specific goals will aid in directing focus and action towards achievement. Students are often told to "do their best," yet this vague language leads to a wide range of acceptable outcomes because there is no external gauge to direct the students’ performances or the evaluators’ outcomes. "Do your best" is vague. "Raise your hand five times in class" is specific. Specific goals decrease variation in performance and outcomes by reducing the ambiguity about the goal (Locke, Chah, Harrison, & Lustgarten, 1989). Along with being specific, goals should be realistic and attainable so they enable mastery and thus build winning streaks. Of course, what is realistic and attainable will vary by student; thus "one size fits all" goals will not be successful. Goals that are measurable allow students to track progress, recognize successes, and develop strategies for dealing with setbacks and failures. In addition, goals must be meaningful to the student, although often students set goals they believe will make others happy (e.g., students choose goals they believe to be important to their parents or that will make their teachers happy). Research shows that people tend to feel less positive about pursuing goals dictated by others and that the satisfaction of achievement is fleeting for goals set out by external forces (Snyder, Feldman, Shorey, & Rand, 2002). Therefore, when working with students to set goals, school psychologists should help students to think about what would be a meaningful accomplishment, and then help each student to design a specific, attainable, and measurable goal.

Task complexity or difficulty is also central to effective goal setting. Goals that are set too high leave individuals feeling frustrated, and goals that are too easy lead to decreased motivation. Locke and Latham (1990) found that specific and difficult/ challenging goals consistently led to the highest performance. For school psychologists, encouraging teachers and students to set specific goals that are at the right difficulty level for the student is important. As a student’s performance increases, he or she should be encouraged to set goals that continue to motivate him or her to acquire the next level of learning or performance.

Pathways thinking. The second component of hopeful thinking is called pathways thinking. Pathways thinking refers to an individual’s perceived ability to develop strategies and routes to accomplish a desired goal (Snyder, 1994). Individuals who are high in hope are more likely to develop multiple strategies, take into account possible obstacles, and develop solutions to ensure that they reach their goals. Snyder et al. (2002) present the findings of several studies in which people who are able to identify several pathways toward a goal outperformed those who identify only one or a few pathways. The findings suggest that people higher in hope perform better academically (i.e., perform better on achievement tests, have higher grade point averages, and have higher graduation rates), and are less likely to quit sports and more likely to outperform their lower–hope counterparts in athletics, at least in part because once they hit an obstacle, those high in hope have fallback strategies already in place.

For school psychologists, working with teachers and parents to assist students in developing an increased number of strategies to accomplish goals is critical. This can be done by breaking longer–term goals into steps and discussing the strategies needed for each step. "Chunking" or "stepping" helps students to gain confidence in reaching the goal because it counters unhelpful beliefs that goals must be accomplished "all at once," which often generate procrastination and anxiety. In addition to breaking a goal into smaller chunks and identifying the pathways to accomplishing each step, it is important to help students identify the likely obstacles at each step and to plan strategies for working around these obstacles. Anticipating barriers and planning "work arounds" builds a student’s confidence and belief that he or she can continue on the path toward his or her goal even when barriers occur. In summary, increased pathways for a specific goal will aide in building a person’s self–efficacy around that goal. Together, increased pathways and self–efficacy will lead to better performance and likelihood of achievement. Over time, these changes will begin to produce the positive life outcomes that are associated with higher levels of hope, self–efficacy, and pathways thinking.

Agency thinking. It is not uncommon to work with students who, despite setting appropriate goals and developing a variety of pathways to accomplish the goal, fail to get started in the goal pursuit. This difficulty in getting started might indicate that a student needs support in building his or her agency thinking. Agency thinking refers to the beliefs or "self–talk" that facilitate a student’s ability to get started and follow the pathways to a goal. It is such agency thoughts that provide the motivation necessary for goal attainment. Students high in agency thinking often encourage themselves through statements such as, "I can do this," "I really want this and I’m not going to let anything stop me," or "I’m going to keep at this until I reach my goal." In contrast, students low in agency thinking undercut their resilience and success through counterproductive self–talk such as, "There’s no way I can do this," "I’ll never make it," or "I just don’t have what it takes."

Agency thoughts are highest when the goal is meaningful to the individual, the task complexity is at a high enough level to keep interest but not so high that it undermines motivation, and feedback is used in a manner to encourage learning and increased selfefficacy. School psychologists can help a student develop agency thinking by teaching the student to monitor his or her self–talk, to challenge counterproductive thoughts with optimistic thoughts, and to use positive self–talk as a way to enhance motivation and resilience when the student notices that he or she is beginning to feel disengaged from the goal, is procrastinating, or is encountering setbacks.

In summary, goals without pathways and agency will go nowhere, goals and pathways without agency will be difficult to accomplish, and goals and agency with no pathways will fail frequently. In order to successfully develop hope, there must be intentional development of all three components of hope: goals, pathway thinking, and agency thinking.

Goals and Grit

The field of positive psychology has begun to study the concept of grit—a trait necessary for the achievement of long–term goals. Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long–term goals. Long–term, challenging goals (such as making the competition jazz band when one enters high school, or becoming the editor of the school newspaper by the end of middle school) require the ability to stay single–minded in one’s pursuit of the goal, to regulate one’s impulses that would divert from the goal, and to stay motivated over a long period of time. As Duckworth et al. (2007) put it: "Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina." (p. 1088)

Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) studied grit as a predictive factor in a variety of settings and found that grit out–predicted both IQ and conscientiousness when it came to educational attainment, grade point average in Ivy League undergraduates, ranking in spelling bee participants, and retention of West Point Cadets. Although the science of grit has not yet identified how to develop this trait, researchers speculate that, in order to develop grit, teachers and parents should encourage students to pursue long–term goals by practicing with intensity and stamina, and children who show a deep commitment to a long–term goal should be supported with resources as well as with praise and encouragement. In addition, we suggest that by teaching students how to build their self–efficacy, optimism, self–regulation, and resilience, we will enhance the likelihood that these students will become gritty.

Strategies for Goal Setting and Hope Implementation in Schools

Set implementation goals. We encourage you to introduce the concept of hope as it relates to goals in your school. Below are a few steps to help you get started in developing pathways towards your goal of introducing these concepts. Educate the school community. The first step in making a change is education. We recommend that you summarize the findings on hope and goal setting in a newsletter, present the findings at a staff meeting or PTO/PTA meeting, and/or hold a school assembly.

Build a team. When your goal is to effect change in an organization as large as a school, you are going to need a team. Pull together the interested parents, teachers, and students that are highly motivated to increase hope around the school. The more people on your team, the more brains you will have developing pathways and bringing agency to the table. Keep meetings positive, focused on the goal, and geared toward identifying pathways to reach the goal.

Set priorities and develop workable strategies. Once you have a team of people working on building hope, brainstorm about best first steps. Implementation will vary widely based on the age of the students, size of the school, and willingness of the teachers to get involved. A few ideas to get you started include:

  • Form "Goal Groups" in which teachers and students meet together to set, discuss, and report back on progress and strategies.
  • Encourage sports teams and extracurricular clubs to adopt the goal setting strategies above.
  • Keep goal journals in which students and teachers have ongoing writing assignments which pertain to goals: setting, developing strategies, navigating obstacles, and achieving.

Enhancing the IEP Process Using Hope

Schools are already required to do quite a bit of goal setting as part of special education. Each Individualized Education Program (IEP) comprises a set of goals. When crafted well, the goals are specific, objective, and measurable. Unfortunately, what is intended to be an individualized set of goals according to IDEA 2004 has become anything but in many schools. Some schools have created databases full of goals to be "cut and pasted" into an IEP. While this may aid in efficiency, it does not aid in developing meaningful goals toward which the IEP team feels a strong sense of commitment. Teachers and/or case managers who may not be familiar with a student are often asked to write the goals. This process can lead to goals that lack meaningfulness to the student. We encourage IEP teams to bring their knowledge of goal setting, agency thinking, and pathways thinking to the IEP process and to make each of these explicit topics of conversation among the IEP team, the student, and the student’s family.

Goals Setting, Hope Theory, and Fishful Thinking

The Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Fishful Thinking initiative targets five key life skills for youth: resilience, optimism, goal setting, empowerment (self–efficacy), and emotional awareness. The activities, articles, and newsletters on the website (www.fishfulthink ing.com) are informed by the field of positive psychology and have been developed to be used by parents and teachers. There are activities, articles, and videos included as part of Fishful Thinking that help parents, educators, school counselors, and psychologists build goal setting and hope in students. For example, the Goal Road Map (http://www.fishfulthinking.com/Goal-Setting/ActivityGoalRoadmap) helps students to identify goals and develop a written plan for achieving their goals. The Goal Road Map facilitates the student in thinking about pathways to achieving the goal and plans for overcoming setbacks.

The We Can Club (http://www.fishfulthinking.com/Goal-Setting/ActivityWeCanClub) is a group activity that guides students in setting a shared goal around creating positive change in the school or community. In addition to facilitating goal setting, this activity cultivates optimism and underscores the power of working together to bring about a positive outcome.

Finally, the Strengths Goal activity (http://www.fishfulthinking.com/Goal-Setting/ ActivityStrengthsGoal) guides students in setting a specific, measurable goal around the development of a character strength (e.g., kindness, creativity, gratitude, etc.) that he or she would like to cultivate.

Each of these activities, as well as the others at www.fishfulthinking.com, is appropriate to use in classrooms and at home, as well as in counseling sessions.


Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long–term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6,) 1087–1101. Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting, Applied & Preventive Psychology 5, 117–124.

Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. (1969). The directing function of goals in task performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 35–42.

Locke, E. A., Chah, D., Harrison, S., & Lustgarten, N. (1989). Separating the effects of goal specificity from goal level. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 43, 270–278.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35–year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705–717.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar–Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., … Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 388–404). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. New York: Free Press.

Snyder, C. R., Feldman, D. B., Shorey, H. S., & Rand, K. L. (2002). Hopeful choices: A school counselor’s guide to hope theory. Professional School Counseling, 5(5), 298–308.

Katie Curran, MAPP, is the founder of Strength Based Behavior Consultants, where she collaborates with families and professionals to assist individuals with autism in recognizing and reaching their full potential. Karen Reivich, PhD, is the codirector of the Penn Resiliency Project, a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a spokesman for the Fishful Thinking program.