Reflective Intention-setting for Kids


Each December, we are barraged with images and articles encouraging us to set resolutions for the new year.  This year there seemed to be an additional set of articles about “all the things” successful people do.  In almost all of them, setting goals is near the top of the list.  I don’t know about you, but when I’ve got people wanting to tell me the 10 billion things successful people are doing (in other words, the 10 billion things I’m not doing), I have to dig deeper than I’d like to admit to put away the snark long enough to learn a little something.

I’ve never been a big goal setter, myself.  I’ve always been the “let’s see what’s going to happen today” kind of gal.  Predictably, I’d never given it too much thought until I realized that I wouldn’t feel comfortable actually promoting that way of moving through life to my students.  I don’t want to create cut-throat neurotic little people, but I do want kids to feel empowered and motivated to improve themselves in meaningful ways; to take a proactive and purposeful path, rather than a passive one.

Setting intentions is something I came across in a colleague’s classroom.  What’s the difference between a goal and an intention?

A goal is a benchmark that can be either met or unmet.

This is why goal-setting was never my thing.  As soon as it became clear that I wouldn’t meet the goal, I’d feel defeated and just stop trying.

An intention is more like a guiding principal or value.

There is much more flexibility in setting an intention.  It encourages reflection and adjustment, and allows for the inevitable mistakes that one will make along the way.  There is also value in setting reasonable, achievable goals in order to move yourself forward and live your life according to the intentions you’ve set.

For many kids, setting intentions is an introduction to the idea that they have some power to affect change in their lives.  Oftentimes kids are so used to being told what to do, where to be, etc., that the passive stance is the only thing they’re used to.  Setting them up to take control of their own growth at a young age will prepare them for success in adulthood.  That’s what we’re going for, anyway!

What does this look like and sound like?  

Before we really get into this, I want to be clear that adults must participate as well!  There is nothing more valuable than modeling for our children.  And don’t make it fake, kid-friendly intentions, either.  I’ve had intentions like, I intend to be more patient when people are talking in line.  The kids and I all knew that it was a valid and authentic intention that would benefit us all.

  1. Explain what an intention is, and identify possible intentions that can be set.   I introduce my 2nd and 3rd-graders to the idea of intention-setting by having them think about overarching things they want to get better at, or things they want to work on.  For example: I want to get better at math; I want to stop fighting with my brother; I want to have more friends; I want to read big chapter books.  
  2. Make a list of these intentions that can live somewhere out in the open.  I did not do this with my class, but I think it would have been very valuable.  Not only do they get to see that everybody has a number of things that they hope to improve or work on, but they can also have something to go back to when they’re drawing a blank.
  3. Categorize the list to discover larger ideas.  Again, this is not something I did, but wish I had.  Putting I want to stop fighting with my brother under a larger intention of being kind to others helps kids to see the connectedness of their intentions and their larger value in the community.
  4. Schedule it in, and stick to it!  In my classroom, we set “intentions for the week” every Monday.  As the kids finish unpacking, they grab a post-it, jot down their intention, and bring it to the rug for morning meeting.  After a while, many of the kids come to school with a pretty good idea of what their intention will be because it’s how we begin each week.  Pick a schedule that works for you, but be consistent.
  5. Make it a public declaration.  Every person in your classroom or household should set an intention and share it with the community.  This promotes the normalization of the idea that we’re all working towards bettering ourselves, holds us more accountable, and promotes support.  For our part, we go around the circle and say, “My intention for the week is to…”, and then each person puts his or her written intention up on a designated chart labeled “Intentions for the Week”.  At home, this could be a small white-board, cork-board, or a piece of paper that hangs on the fridge, or on the wall next to the kitchen table.  Younger kids can draw pictures representing their intention.
  6. Have regular check-ins.  Setting intentions will not be meaningful if they’re forgotten.  Each morning, we check in with a few people to hear how they’re doing.  This serves as a reminder, but can also present the opportunity to reflect on why someone isn’t making progress.  If you’re trying this out at home, family dinners sound like a great time to check in!
  7. Offer support.  If somebody is not making the kind of progress they were hoping for, ask if they could use some support.  For example, if a student’s intention was to talk less in line, they might ask a trusted friend to remind them if they begin talking.  As crazy as it may sound, this can really happen.  Family dynamics might make this more difficult at home, but setting an expectation that the family is a supportive entity may make it easier for kids to offer support to each other (this from the girl with no kids, so take it as you will :).
  8. Reflect.  At the end of the week, we each reflect on how it went.  If there was little progress made, we think about why.  Maybe we need to set up baby-steps to help us move forward.  Or maybe we need to ask for support, when we thought we didn’t.

So, that’s more the logistical side of things.  It’s very important to help guide kids towards setting meaningful intentions, and identifying the steps they can take to move in that direction.  This takes some thought and organization.

After identifying possible categories that intentions can fall under, it’s important to take some time in each.  For example:

Week 1: Academic-related intentions (this could be broken down by having a week of reading, writing, math, etc. intentions).  I intend to write longer stories in writing workshop.  

Week 2: Friend-related intentions.  I intend to stand up for my friend when kids are mean to her.

Week 3: Behavior-related intentions.  I intend to follow directions the first time, without any reminders from the teacher.    

Week 4: Community-related intentions.  I intend to push in the chairs for classmates when they forget.  Or for community at home, I intend to sometimes help my brother pick up his toys, even when I didn’t help make the mess.

Eventually, I let kids have complete freedom in setting their intentions, and midway through the year, our chart is covered with a wide variety of topics.

Once everybody has internalized the process and has a good sense of what intentions they have, things can become a little more goal-oriented.  So let’s take my earlier intention of, I intend to be more patient when people are talking in line.  Now it’s time to break that down and consider, what is one thing I can do to help me along this path?  Instead of writing the intention on a post-it, I’m now writing down the strategy I’m going to try for that week.  So I might write, I’m going to count to 10 before I say anything to kids that are talking in line.  Then the reflection piece becomes very useful.  Is this strategy working for me?  Do I need to revise or change it?  

Everybody benefits from this practice.  I always say that one of the unexpected byproducts of being a teacher is that it forces me to be a better person every single day.  This is one of my favorite ways to model positive change, and to be inspired by the change I see in others.  Good luck!


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