Goal Setting During Uncertain Times: How Educators Can Help Students Look Forward

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

Goal Setting During Uncertain Times: How Educators Can Help Students Look ForwardWhen it comes to goal setting, I would typically advise that people face forward instead of looking back. However, 2020 threw us so many curveballs and complications that I think it is important to also reflect on what we have accomplished and done this past year. It often felt as if we had little control amid the numerous traumas and problematic situations we  experienced in 2020, ranging from day-to-day difficulties to global crises. Turning toward a brand-new year with our students, perhaps the first thing we can do is simply congratulate ourselves for still being here.

Our students have grown so incredibly much over the past year, even though they have missed more class time than ever before and regressed (or found absence) in social communication. They have also, however, learned a huge lesson about life: sometimes we encounter giant obstacles that we were not prepared for and sometimes we have to learn to adapt quickly.

As I think about the past year, I continue to be amazed that we still choose to get up in the morning and interact with who we can, attend school (even if it is online), and make each minute and hour go by with some sort of task (even if it’s different than what we would hope). My first personal goal for the new year? To congratulate myself for the things I have done in the midst of chaos this past year. I invite everyone to do the same, and to include in this compliment the acknowledgment that we have another year ahead of us and that we are willing to face it.

Of course, it is perfect timing for us to encourage our students to embrace the turn of the year and set some goals for the future, and we can remind them of their strength from last year as a catalyst for change. The true challenge for educators will be to find a gentle balance and to be mindful that we do not stoke retraumatization by the disparities and injustices our students have seen and experienced. Instead we must remind them of the resilience they’ve shown through it all and the possibilities for the future.

Gratitude-Centered Goal Setting

There is no shame in starting to set goals with a little bit of gratitude! Having students reflect on things they have been through in the last year can lead to discussions about how they were able to take charge of those things that they had control over.

Start by having students write a short journal entry about 2020, but with a twist. Instead of making an exhaustive list of ways that things went wrong, try something fun like having them pick an emoji or a meme to represent what last year was like for them.

Next, ask students to pick an emoji or a meme that represents how they got through it. Allowing students to share with their classmates their own personal interventions for getting through a tumultuous time will help them develop goal-setting skills while also encouraging them to recognize their power and find empathy in listening to others.

After students identify their strengths, begin to shift their attention to using these capabilities in the new year! You can start by asking students what they are looking forward to this year. Maybe they know that there are things they are going to have to tackle, or maybe there are things they are excited about. We want to help students find tangible goals for realistic experiences that will likely arise in their lives so they can envision an outcome they’d like for themselves.

Active Goal Setting

As we have learned this year, the future is always up for a swift game-changer. So we must be ready to pivot our goal setting and remain open to many possibilities within our hopes. We can help students understand that sometimes things happen that make our goals more difficult to reach (like the pandemic did for our students who had looked forward to volunteering in the community in 2020) but that may even bring about new possibilities (like successful online campaigns for advocacy).

Here are a couple ways students can have a broader look at goal setting and allow their goals to really represent the hopes they have for the future.

Collages. Instead of words, students can use pictures from magazines to create visual representations of what they would like to see in the upcoming year.

Collaborative Google Doc with friends. Show students how we can be stronger together when we collaborate by allowing them to interact with each other when discussing their goals.

Bullet journal. Record overarching words that represent hopes and dreams for the future instead of specific targets.

Daily goals recorded each day and tucked somewhere into students’ clothes or binders. Help students develop good goal-setting habits by providing time for them to record daily small-scale goals that they can recall throughout the day or week.

Character Education

For some of us, goal setting is about cultivating the parts of ourselves that are most beneficial to the things we would like to accomplish and the relationships we would like to strengthen. Character education is a great way to help students identify what traits they would like to foster to find better circumstances and interactions in their lives. It might be helpful to your students if you explore character traits that are healthy and beneficial to growth. This post is a good start to understanding how character education can be implemented in your office or classroom.

Adults Set Goals Too!

As you work through goal setting with students, it is important for students to see you set some goals too. Feel free to share your personal goals so students can get an idea of what goal setting looks like for you. You are likely your students’ biggest fan and cheerleader and a powerful person that they look to for the way that the world operates. Showing students how hopeful you are for your life and your goals, and for their goals and their future, will impact their own promising outlooks and worldviews.


Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

This entry was posted in Counselor's Corner and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply