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Motivating Kids to Persist, Progress, and Achieve Success

How to help your child set and achieve goals—and have fun along the way

I don’t always hit my daily 10,000 steps goal, but when I do the tracker on my wrist vibrates and I’m treated to a pixilated firework display. In hindsight, it’s not much of a reward for literally going the extra mile—still, it’s motivating. I’m not embarrassed to say I recently paced a 200-square foot hotel room for several minutes at the end of the day just to make my Fitbit buzz. Okay, I’m a little embarrassed. But, taking one step at a time, tracking your progress, and celebrating wins (no matter how small) is key to achieving your goals.

As human beings, we’re hardwired to respond to positive reinforcement. With every step tracked and every earned firework display, our brains release dopamine neurons—feel-good cells the make us want to persevere. Whether you’re an adult trying to stay active or a child trying to learn math, little rewards can go a long way. For example, students who use DreamBox, earn badges, virtual coins, and other rewards as they progress toward their learning goals.

Regardless of your age or objectives, the more goals you achieve the more dopamine your brain releases. And, that helps you to stay motivated. As parents and guardians, we can leverage this idea of setting goals and providing positive feedback along the way to help our students succeed—and we can do it with or without the help of technology. Here’s one low-tech example to help you get started:

  1. Identify a goal. For example, say your child wants to become a better reader. Take that somewhat vague objective and make it a tangible goal by zeroing in on specifics. Visit a library, and ask your child to choose a genre and pick out a book—or even better, a series of books.
  2. Make a plan. There are seven books in the Harry Potter series and seven months between now and spring vacation. Your child could plan to read a book a month, and 5 chapters per week to start. Sure, that’s a lofty goal, but you get the idea. By dividing the larger goal of reading an entire series of books into completing smaller weekly objectives, the goal becomes that much more attainable—and just like that you’ve got yourself a plan.
  3. Track progress. Create a chart and hang it in your child’s room so they can check off chapters as they go. Having a visual reminder will help to keep them focused and inspired every step the way. You’ll find free downloadable charts that you print out at home here.
  4. Reward incremental wins. For every five chapters they read, you could add a sticker to the chart. For every book they complete, think of another small incentive to nudge them to start the next book. Like the pixilated firework display on the fitness tracker, the reward doesn’t necessarily have to have monetary value to be worth a fortune psychologically. Remember, positive feedback promotes greater motivation and the proof is in the dopamine.

In the end, earning stickers or fireworks is just the icing on the cake. The real reward is achieving your goal—whether it’s to be a better reader or become more physically active.  Teaching kids to set goals and achieve them is something they’ll use now and the rest of their lives. Have fun with it!

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