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Being goal oriented is like having a sense of direction in life. Where do you hope to go? What are you doing to get there? These kinds of questions are important for everyone,  and it’s important to set family goals together—and also helping young people set and work toward their own goals in life. Goal setting can be particularly significant to teenagers, who are sorting out who they are and their place in the world.

How we think about our futures can dramatically affect how we live today. These ideas and goal-setting activities focus your family on the attitudes, skills, and habits that can help each family member learn and grow toward your individual and shared goals.

Ideas for Setting and Working Toward Goals

Build Strong Connections

Having and working toward meaningful goals for kids isn’t something parents can force their kids to do. In many ways, the goals must come from within—from the young person themself. However, parents and other adults can open up opportunities, create relationships, and be available and supportive as young people explore and discover their aspirations, their goals, and sense of purpose. Here are some starting points when setting goals for kids.

  • Connect—Listen. Ask questions. Share your own hopes. Kids are more likely to open up when we have a strong relationship with them. They’re more likely to open up about their goals, fears, and hopes.
  • Reveal—Share your own sense of purpose and passion for your own work and other things that are important to you. These topics may not be their interests, but your energy and enthusiasm can inspire them to reflect on what really matters for them.
  • Notice—Pay attention to the things your kids are interested in. This lets them know that you see and support their interests and aspirations. Ask what they enjoy. How does it relate to their goals for the next few years?
  • Coach—When you learn about your child’s aspirations or goals, coach them to find things they can start doing now that can help them move in that direction.
  • Highlight—Share example of people from your family, network of friends, and community who are using the knowledge and skills that are related to your class to make a difference in their communities.


Create Helpful Goals

All goals are not created equal. Some are more motivating than others. Some help move forward better than others. Use these guidelines to help set goals.

  • Emphasize goals for kids that your child believes is something they can do and would be valuable to accomplish.
  • Set moderately difficult goals. If goals are too easy, kids won’t put in any effort. If they’re too hard, they’ll get discouraged and will give up.
  • When setting goals, also identify obstacles or barriers to those goals—and ideas for how to overcome them. This helps them keep going when they encounter challenges.
  • Make goals specific. A general goal is harder to see, and that makes it less motivating. Encourage kids to “talk out” their goals, which also makes them more concrete.
  • Check in regularly, showing you’re interested and supportive. However, avoid “nagging” or making them think the goal is more important to you than to them.
  • Give specific feedback to show kids that they are making progress, and what they are doing to make progress. “Good job” doesn’t say why they are doing well, so they don’t learn from it.
  • Show or demonstrate the skills they need to use to achieve the goal.


“Reboot” Your Child’s System When It Overloads

Try these ideas when you or your child is bombarded with lots of stimulus, information, demands, or requests all at the same time. (This tends to shut down the “executive function” thinking in your brain, making it hard to make good decisions or even to move forward with what you need to do.) These ideas can help you “refresh” or “reboot” your thinking—or help another family member do the same.

  1. Don’t give (or ask for) a whole bunch of instructions at once. Break the steps down, and give instructions just one step at a time.
  2. Find a place without distractions that only add to the “incoming traffic.” It may mean going to a quiet place where it’s easier to focus.
  3. Avoid setting off “emotional triggers” that add to the stress and flood the system. These include blaming the person for the situation, challenging them just to work harder to avoid punishment, or reminding them of all the other times things went wrong or they weren’t successful.
  4. Pause, take deep breaths, take a break, slow down, and get away from the action for a bit. Find ways to calm yourself, rather than just building up frustration or stress.
  5. Turn off the television, smartphone, tablet, computer or video game. The additional noise, beeps, and images distract you, adding to information and stimulation overload.
  6. Pause, step back, and look at the big picture. If, for example, your child has a big project to plan for, talk through the steps: When is the project due? What materials do you needs? How many hours will it take to complete? Organize the different pieces so you can see them more clearly. Then identify the one or two you need to focus on first, and set the others aside.
  7. Brainstorm with someone you trust about options you have for sorting out the “incoming data” or information. How might you think about it differently?
  8. Talk about what’s going on inside your head—what you’re thinking and feeling.This helps you make conscious decisions, rather than just running on auto-pilot.
  9. Move around. Getting heart rates up increases blood flow to the brain. Being active also reduces stress. Running, swimming, basketball, dance, martial arts, yoga, or other physical activity can all help reboot your brainpower.
  10. Suggest a bike ride, game, playing music, cooking, or some other activity that you enjoy doing together. Just relaxing can give your brain a chance to reboot and be ready to tackle the challenging tasks.

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Set Family Goals Together

Take a quiz about the role of goals in your family. Invite other family members to take it too.

Take a quick quiz to reflect on how you set goals in your family. Use the results to explore new ways to set goals together.

Parents Do you already have a Family Quiz Code? Click here. Click here to take the quiz and get a Family Quiz Code to share with your family (optional).
Youth* Click here if your family has a Family Quiz Code. Ask a parent to set up a Family Quiz Code.

* The quiz is designed for youth ages 10 to 18.


What’s the quiz for? This quiz is for your own reflection and discussion as a family. It is not a formal assessment.

How does it work? The first adult who takes a quiz is assigned a random number, which we call your Family Quiz Code. They then share that code with everyone else in the family. Each person just enters this Family Quiz Code when they start a quiz, and all your results are automatically combined so you can talk about them together.

Why do you need a Family Quiz Code? This anonymous code lets you see the results from everyone in your family combined.

Who will see the results? No one else will ever know your responses, unless you share them. The Family Quiz Code cannot be used to find or identify you or your family.

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Talk About It

Set Family Goals Together

These discussion starters are for parents and youth together and for parents to talk with other parents.

Where You’ve Been, Where You’re Going

These questions encourage you to talk about hopes and dreams as you set your family goals. Look back on what you’ve already done to achieve goals. Look forward to anticipate how what you’re doing now sets the stage for what’s next.  

Discussion Starters for Parents and Youth Together


  1. Looking back, what is one goal you’ve met that you’re really proud about? What helped you accomplish this goal?
  2. Who are people from your family’s past who have had dreams or aspirations that changed the course of their lives? How might your life be different if they hadn’t reached for their goals?
  3. What is a goal you’ve had that you haven’t reached? What got in the way?
  4. If you could wish for one thing to happen in your life or your family in the next five years, what would it be? What goal might you set for the next year that could bring that wish closer to reality for you?
  5. Imagine yourself in 10 years. If everything goes well, what would you be doing? What would you look like? Who would you be with?
  6. What is one thing you do now to help you be ready for something you hope to be good at in five years?
  7. Who are people who you have turned to who have supported and guided you as you have worked toward goals? How has that made a difference?
  8. If you could do one thing better, what would you most wish you could do? How would it make your life better if you could do that?
  9. If you could do one thing to make the world a better place, what would you want to do? What steps could you take how to pursue making that kind of difference?


Discussion Starters with Other Parenting Adults*

  1. In what ways are being goal- and future-oriented difficult or easy for your child?
  2. Many parents struggle to get their kids to think beyond what’s happening right now. What, if anything, have you done that helps them take a longer view?
  3. How do you motivate your kids to focus on their future? What works? What doesn’t?
  4. If your kids have a goal for the future that you disagree with or that you don’t think is possible, how to you respond to them?
  5. When do you think it’s important to let kids take responsibility for their futures by setting their goals, planning, and taking actions on their own? How long—and how—do you help out?

* These parenting adults may include your spouse or partner, extended family members, friends who are parents, or a parent group or class.

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Try It

Set Goals Together

How we think about our futures can dramatically affect how we live today. These ideas and goal-setting activities focus your family on the attitudes, skills, and habits that can help each family member learn and grow toward your individual and shared goals. These practical ideas and family activities can help your family explore practical ways to work on goals together.  

Goal Setting Activities: Imagine What Your Future Holds (2 Activities)

Thinking about your future can be a powerful motivator today. Then it is important to identify goals and ways to get there, even as we deal with major obstacles. These goal setting activities explore these issues.


Letters to Our Future Selves 60min


Family members write a letter to themselves in 10 years that gives them a chance to focus on their hopes for the future. Who do you want to be in 10 years? Those kinds of questions are often asked of young people, sometimes with little thought about how powerful they can be. They’re also questions for adults to consider. Imaging our future possible self can be a powerful motivator for growth, learning, and change. This family activity invites everyone in the family to imagine the kind of person they hope to be in 10 years and write a letter to that person.

  1. Have family members all think about what kind of person they hope to be ten years from now. Focus on the hoped—for person, knowing that each family member may have other feelings as well about the future. Jot notes about this person’s qualities. Have family members each describe the person to each other. You may ask clarifying questions, but don’t debate the basic idea of who that person is.
  2. Next, have people each think about the actions they take today that will influence whether he or she becomes that hoped-for self of the future. Write down all the actions and steps you think of.
  3. Give each person three or four sheets of paper and an envelope. Have family members each write a letter to themselves in 10 years. This is a great activity for both kids and adults. Include the following kinds of information in the letter, but make it your own:

    [Today’s Date]

    Dear Samuel, age 24:

    It feels weird to write a letter to yourself in 10 years. But maybe it will bring us closer together! So here’s what I have to say.

    My past: Tell stories from your past 10 years about your family, school or work, friends, teachers, or other people. Where have you lived? What have you enjoyed? What have been some hard times? What changes have you experienced? What happened in the world that really affected you?

    My present: Where do you live? What things are you passionate or excited about? How do you enjoy spending your time? What friends and family are really important to you? Who are other people who are an important part of your life?

    My future: What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years? What do you see yourself doing? What will your family and other relationships will be like? Where will you be living? How will you be making a difference for other people?

    I really look forward to being the person who reads this letter in 10 years!

    Samuel, age 14*

  4. If everyone in the family is comfortable with it, you can each read your letters (or parts of your letter) aloud to each other. However, it’s also okay to keep them private. Invite each person to describe their future self.
  5. Talk about the ways your family will support each other in working toward their idea of their future self. Even though everyone may not follow the path they outline, it’s important to offer encouragement for each other.
  6. Have family members each write their name on the envelope with the following message: Open this letter on _________ [date it 10 years from now]. Then seal the letter inside the envelope.
  7. Put someone in charge of storing the letters where they will remain private, then pulling them out to read in 10 years. You can mark the date on an electronic calendar. Or include the letters in a storage area that you check once per year (for example, with holiday decorations) as a reminder of when it’s time to read them.

Variation If it’s easier to remember and keep track, submit your letters electronically on www.futureme.org, which will send the letter to you as an email to you on the day you designate in the future. You can decide whether to keep the letter private (seen only by you) or make it public for others to see on the website.

* This letter and activity are adapted from the School Archive Project at Quintanilla Middle School in Dallas, Texas, which has students write letters to their future selves. The letters are stored in a vault until their class reunion 10 years later.


Overcoming Obstacles with a WOOP! 20min


If-then plans help you think ahead to overcome the obstacles to goals or wishes. A powerful way to be motivated to set and achieve life and learning goals is captured in what’s known as the WOOP strategy, as described on www.woopmylife.org:

Wish—Something important but doable that you hope to fulfill.

Outcome—The good things that can happen by fulfilling this wish.

Obstacle—The most critical personal barrier that stands in your way.

Plan—Form an if-then plan of how to overcome or work around obstacles.

Asking about and writing down responses in these four areas has been found to be a powerful motivator in education, health, personal growth, careers, and relationships.1 It can be used for both short-term and long-term projects. This family activity focuses on if-then plans, since that’s something we sometimes forget to do. In this activity, your family looks backward in order to think more clearly about future obstacles.


  1. Find five or ten objects for each family member that can symbolize obstacles or barriers. These might include dominoes, buttons, wooden blocks, or even silverware. Also give each person a sheet of paper and something to draw with.
  2. Have people each draw (or describe) a goal or wish they have had in the past for themselves that they did not reach. It could be a goal in school or work, or a personal goal (such as creating a project or losing weight).
  3. Have everyone sit around a table. Place their paper with unfulfilled wishes at the center of the table. Describe them to everyone.
  4. Have one person describe something that got in the way of fulfilling that wish. Place one of the objects you have between you and the “wish” paper. Then have the next person do the same for her or his wish. Continue until everyone has put down one obstacle. Then go around again, letting each person add one obstacle each time you go around.
  5. When everyone has thought of several important obstacles, talk about these questions:
    • Looking back, which obstacles would have been the hardest to overcome?
    • Can you think of strategies you could have used to overcome or work around some of these obstacles?
    • If you were to try to achieve this goal or wish now, what obstacles would you anticipate? What plans would you put in place to help you work around them?
  6. Now think of a current goal that’s really important to you. This works best when you are motivated to achieve the goal!

Goals that Motivate (2 Activities)

Our goals affect the effort we put in—and how long we stick with it. Goals that focus on the mastery of knowledge and skills—not just performance and or doing better than other people—tend to be goals we work on the hardest, particularly in the long term.

These activities help you think about whether family members’ current activities are fueling increased effort.


Set a Learning Goal 25min


Discover the power of goals that focus on learning, not just performance.

The types of goals we set influence how hard we work on them. This activity invites you and your kids to talk about the differences and to focus on a goal that motivates you to keep working on it, even when it gets hard.

  1. Start a conversation with your family by defining two kinds of goals, based on the research of Carol Dweck2:
    • Performance goals focus on achieving measures of performance, such as earning a certain score on a test or winning an award in your favorite sport.
    • Learning goals focus on mastering knowledge and skills, such as learning how to solve a math problem or to shoot a free throw in basketball.
  2. Based on your experiences, brainstorm how you think these different types of goals affect you in the long term. Insert these insights from research as you talk:
    • Proving vs. improving. People who focus on performance goals are more concerned about proving their abilities. People who focus on learning goals are more concerned with improving their abilities.
    • Fixed vs. growth mindsets. People who focus on performance are more likely to believe their abilities are fixed and can’t change. Those who focus on learning believe that their abilities can improve, which is a growth mindset.
    • Short vs. long term. Performance goals can motivate you to work hard in the short run. But learning goals can motivate you for the long term.
  3. Have family members each identify a learning goal they want to achieve in the next few weeks. For example, someone might want to be able to paint a particular kind of picture in art or solve a particular type of problem in math.
  4. Create a plan for achieving this learning goal. (Use the WOOP activity above.) As you do this, double-check yourselves to be sure that your goal emphasizes learning, rather than performing better that other people.


Check Your Schedule 20min


How much of your family’s time is spent on activities that emphasize performance vs. learning goals?

Most families are involved in several activities at home, school, work, and in their community. (Some families are involved in a lot of these!) This activity encourages you to examine your regular commitments from the perspective of learning vs. performance goals. Perhaps you’ll find some things worth changing to enhance learning.

  1. Give each family member a sheet of paper to create a list of the big things they’ve spent time doing in the past month. These may include school, work, sports, volunteering, religious activities, cooking, cleaning, hobbies, or video games. Write each activity on a separate line down the left side of the page.
  2. When everyone is done, have people each write beside the activity whether they think it is primarily focused on a performance goal, a learning goal, or neither. (For definitions of these two types of goals, see the above activity.) If people aren’t sure, talk about the first few together so everyone understands and can do the rest on their own.
  3. Then have family members each identify and share:
    • Top three activities that emphasize learning goals
    • Top three activities that emphasize performance goals
  4. Compare lists. Do they overlap? Are there differences of opinion? (Different people could experience the same activity as having a different set of goals, and that can be a great conversation.) What does this tell you about the ways you spend your time?
  5. How satisfied are different family members with the mix of goals in your activities? If it’s not satisfying, what might be realistic to change to shift toward more learning goals? (It may not be realistic, for example, to change schools, but you might be able to think about ways to adjust your own goals related to education.)
  6. Think through how you would make a shift if you identified a change you’d like to make. Take time to celebrate together the many different opportunities you family members have to learn and grow.


Plan: Getting from Here to There (3 Activities)

The motto for some people may be “just do it.” But acting without forethought usually won’t get you very far. Learning to plan well is vital for helping you make real progress toward important goals. These activities encourage your family to be more explicit and intentional in how you go about planning.


Ready? Aim. Aim. Aim. 15min


Combining “just do it” with “figure it out first” attitudes in your family brings out the best for planning and working toward goals. Some people don’t like to plan. They are spontaneous. They just seem to get to work and see where it goes. These people can seem chaotic and random to other people. Their motto might be: Ready? Fire. Aim. Other people are careful planners. They don’t know what to do now until they know what they’re going to do to get to their goal. These people seem over-cautious and plodding and predictable to other people. Their motto might be: Ready? Aim. Aim. Aim. The challenge is that families often have both kinds of people in them, even though the contrast isn’t usually that extreme. Since each attitude—spontaneous and planful—has its strengths, this is a great opportunity for your family to tap each other’s strengths (and stretch you beyond your comfort zones) to make both planning and action really work for you.

  1. Give each family member a sheet of paper and something to write with. Have people each write independently (without talking or knowing what the other is doing) a paragraph describing their ideal family one-day outing. (If some family members prefer, they can draw a picture of it, then talk about it.)
  2. Have people each describe their ideal day to everyone else. People can ask clarifying questions, but don’t debate or try to change someone’s idea. Ask each person: How much planning would you want to do to be sure that this outing is successful?
  3. When all the “ideal outings” have been shared, discuss these questions:
    • Which outings seemed like they would be a lot of fun for everyone? Why?
    • Which ones might not be as much fun for some people? Why?
    • In what ways did the different outings reflect each person’s interests—and how they approach setting goals or planning for the future?
    • Many people who do planning for a living talk about “analysis paralysis.” It’s easy to spend so much time analyzing and building plans that you never actually move things forward. When, if ever, have you seen that happen in your family?
    • Instead of “analysis paralysis,” talk about setting a goal, then try some small experiments or actions that can help work toward that goal—before trying to figure it all out. When, if ever, have you or your family tried this approach? How did that go? What did you learn?
    • How do we recognize, tap into, and learn to appreciate each other’s different strengths when it comes to both careful planning and creative spontaneity? How can each approach help us work toward goals together?
    • If everyone is at one end of the spectrum (for example, spontaneous), how might you be intentional in balancing your approach to planning?
  4. Decide together if there’s one of the outings you can actually do in the next few days or weeks? How can you prepare for it in ways that draw on the strengths of some people to be spontaneous and others to figure out lots of details?


Tall Tower Test 45min


What can building a block tower tell us about how we approach goal setting and planning? Simple games can be fun ways to prompt conversations about what goes into planning to accomplish our goals. With this game, your family will work together to build a tower twice, using different rules each time.

  1. Find non-breakable objects that can stack on each other to build a tower. These could include dominoes, wooden or plastic blocks, cardboard boxes, or other game pieces. (Don’t pick things that would cause damage or hurt someone if they fall. Also, don’t pick things that lock together, such as Legos.) Mix and match until you have 40 or 50 individual objects. You’ll also need a timer, clock, or stopwatch. (Smartphones have timers.)
  2. Gather the family around all the stacking objects randomly piled on a table or the floor. Say that the family’s task is to build a tower with as many of the pieces as possible. There are five rules:
    • You have 5 minutes to build the tower.
    • The tower has to be free standing. It can’t lean against anything, and you can’t use anything (such as tape or rubber bands) to hold pieces together.
    • Everyone has to help.
    • You can’t talk while you do it.
    • You have to start building right away.
  3. Start the timer, and have the family work together to build the tower while following the rules.
  4. When the time is up, stop building, admire your work, and talk about the building experience:
    • How did the building go? How tall did you get? What that what you expected?
    • What seemed to work? What didn’t?
    • What was fun about it? What was frustrating?
  5. Now repeat the activity with some modified rules. Your rules this time are:
    • You have 5 minutes to build the tower (same as before).
    • The tower has to be free standing (same as before).
    • Everyone has to help (same as before).
    • You can talk as much as you’d like (different rule).
    • You should use about 3 minutes of your time to plan what you’re going to do BEFORE you touch or move any of the pieces.
  6. Start the timer, and work together to build the tower, following the new rules.
    • How did it go this time? How was it similar to and different from the first time?
    • How did the rule changes affect how you built the tower and how high it was?
    • How did it affect the process to spend 3 minutes planning before you started?
    • What did you do during that planning time that really seemed to help? What did you do that might have made it harder?When 5 minutes are up, stop building, admire your work, and talk about the experience together:
    • Which of these points came up in your activity? Which ones didn’t work well for this activity? Which might have made the activity go better?
  7. What happened in the activity that reminded you about how you and other members of your family plan (or just do) things that are important to them?
    • What do we do (or could we do) to make our planning better?
    • How do we help each other in figuring out how to do things, then encourage each other as we’re working on those things?
  8. What are some things we’re thinking about for the future that we could be more intentional about planning?
  9. Were there things we learned from this activity that might help us when planning to work on these goals?
  10. How can family members help each other in developing and following plans to achieve their goals?
  11. Identify one priority you as a whole family have for the next few weeks. Write down a plan you can use to help you achieve that short-term goal. Keep the plan handy, and check in with each other at least once a week to see how it’s going. (You can also focus on helping a child or teenager work toward an important goal he or she faces.)

Variations: The above activity involved playing a game to simulate how you think about planning. In reality, any fun activity you do as a family can help develop planning skills, from cooking together, planning an outing, or preparing for a celebration or holiday. Kids can participate in planning and preparation in ways that fit their developmental level. Let your child participate in any appropriate activity that includes planning ahead and multiple steps that lead to a concrete (enjoyable) outcome that they can be proud of being part of. As you do things, talk through the steps you take so children understand your thought process, logic, and how the different pieces of the plan fit together.


Say What You’re Thinking 25min


Thinking out loud about a goal helps develop a realistic plan for achieving it. Sometimes “say what you think” means you say whatever is on your mind—even if it’s mean or inappropriate. Saying what you’re thinking is different, and it has a different purpose. It’s a way to help you solve problems and figure things out. Talking out loud about what we’re thinking inside helps us understand our own thought processes. That awareness is a critical part of setting goals and planning. This activity3 lets your family practice thinking out loud—something you can then do more naturally as you go about your everyday activities and planning for the future.

  1. Sit together in a circle in a relaxing environment without distractions.
  2. Pick a goal that one family member (adult or child) is working toward but is finding to be challenging to figure out. It should be something he or she is comfortable talking about with everyone else in the family. It could be something at school or work, in a friendship, on a team, in a favorite activity, or with healthy habits.
  3. Give all the other family members (not the person who identified the problem you’ll focus on together) a copy of “Talking About Your Thinking: A Checklist.”
  4. Now, have the family member with the challenging goal start talking about what he or she is thinking about the goal—like a monologue. He or she can say whatever comes to mind. (It can be completely random.) At this point, just let the person talk without asking questions or giving ideas.
  5. While he or she talks, other family members check off parts of the checklist that he or she talks about. They can also write notes about what the person says about each of these topics—or other things they hear. In some cases, the person may not talk about any or many of these topics
  6. Once the person has either figured out what to do or can’t think of other things he or she is thinking about, have family members ask about some of the checklist prompts, particularly ones that didn’t come up during the “monologue.” Resist the temptation to tell the person what to do. (The central purpose is to get better at thinking through challenges and goals for yourself, even when you bounce ideas off of other people, which is part of good planning and problem solving.)
  7. When the conversation starts to wind down or the person has gone as far as he or she can go, discuss these questions together:
    • What were you each feeling when we started this activity? How did those feelings shift as you continued?
    • How far did the person get on her or his own without the prompts? How, if at all, did the prompts change the conversation?
    • What really helped move the conversation forward? Were there breakthrough moments? Why do you think they worked that way?
    • Did anything slow or shut down the conversation? What happened then? Why do you think it had that effect?
    • What did you learn about how you think about planning and working toward goals from this activity?
    • How has this conversation influenced how the family member moves forward with tackling the goal you talked about? What makes it easier or harder now to focus on achieving that goal?
    • If you were to do this activity again or use the checklist prompts to help you think through a goal, what would you do the same? What would you do differently?
  8. Repeat the activity with other family members facing other challenges, first giving them a chance to think out loud, then offering simple prompts to remind them to think about the problem in different ways. Over time, people will get better at thinking out loud about the many dimensions of challenges they face.


Goals, Overload, and Your Brain (3 Activities)

We all juggle lots of information, responsibilities, and priorities. Researchers describe this ability as part of “executive function,” or high-level mental tasks that involve self-control, discipline, creativity, and flexibility.4,5 If we don’t develop and hone these skills, we lose focus and just do whatever is automatic or easiest to do at the moment. This interferes with our ability to make progress toward our goals. These activities help you understand the complex ways that brains work and how that affects the ways you and your kids get better at thinking about the future in ways that support learning and growing.


Air Traffic Control…at Home 20min


Air traffic controllers’ challenges are a springboard for talking about how your family supports each other in developing the skills of self-reflection. Whenever we start something new, we can be easily overwhelmed. There are so many things to learn and pay attention to—all at the same time. It’s easy to act impulsively or just to barrel through, without really thinking through what’s best. This activity helps your family talk what’s happening in the brain when you’re dealing with complex challenges, tasks, or goals. This understanding not only develops your self-awareness, but it also opens up new ways to support and guide each other as you learn and grow.

  1. Together as a family, watch this short video from the Discovery Channel (2 minutes, 35 seconds) about air traffic controllers.
  2. When the video is finished, talk about what in the video stood out for each family member. What did you notice that was interesting or surprising to you? What questions did it raise for you?
  3. What are things air traffic controllers have to do that remind you of things you have to do in your own day-to-day life? For most people, there won’t be life-and-death decisions every hour!
  4. Researchers who study how the brain works describe three important functions that are a lot like what air traffic controllers do: juggling, switching, and self-control. See a summary of these skills on the “Thinking Like Air Traffic Controllers” download.
  5. Talk about where you would expect to see these three functions (juggling, switching, and self-control) at work when air traffic controllers are on the job. Some examples are on the “Thinking Like Air Traffic Controllers” download.
  6. Next, think about how these skills (juggling, switching, and self-control) are also important in everyday life, particularly when you are working toward important goals. Some examples are on the “Thinking Like Air Traffic Controllers” download.
  7. Talk about how people in your family are good at juggling, switching, and self-control. For those who are good at them, what do they do that others can learn from? How does the family depend on these strengths in your everyday lives?
  8. Then talk about areas where some family members may struggle. What can you do to support each other in developing these skills (juggling, switching, and self-control)? You might start, for example, by giving one direction at a time or removing desirable distractions (such as putting away the smartphone). This can help by giving people an opportunity to practice a specific skill before mixing it in with others.
  9. Think about upcoming situations when a family member will encounter multiple demands—like an air traffic controller. What might he or she do to make sure that it goes better while also learning new skills (juggling, switching, and self-control)?
  10. If you have time, watch the air traffic controller video again. What do you see this time that you didn’t see before you had this discussion?


Imagination All Day Long 5min, whenever you have time


Pick a few of these short activities to help your family practice—and enjoy—using your imagination throughout the day. Imagination is a vital part of self-reflection, critical thinking, and executive function. It involves being able to form mental images or concepts that you can’t physically sense through the five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch). As world-renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”6 This activity is actually a series of quick ways to add a bit of creativity to everyday routines and activities. Each can be completed in five minutes. Pick a few to try that fit your family’s schedule and the ages of your children. As you try these activities, remember that ideas don’t need to be realistic or practical. (If they are, you may not be stretching your imaginations enough.) The goal is to stretch your creative muscles. Avoid criticizing other ideas, though you can build on other ideas by saying something like, “Yes, and maybe they could also…” When getting ready for school in the morning

  • What would be the most fun way you can think of to be awakened in the morning?
  • Imagine that you lived 200 years ago (or 200 years in the future). How do you think your day would be different? What would be the same?

When reading or discussing a book, movie, or TV show

  • Think of at least five ways the story could end other than the way the author or creator chose.
  • Which one of the characters would you most want to be like? What might happen next to you after this story ends?

When hanging out or playing

  • Imagine that you went to a part of the world or another planet where you could have no electronics and no games or activities that you bought in a store. What kinds of activities would you do for fun?
  • If you and your friends could invent a new game, what would it do? What would it look like? How would people play it?

When preparing or eating a family meal

  • If you could prepare your favorite meal for someone you’d love to have dinner with, what would you prepare? Who would you invite to have that dinner with you?
  • Pick five random foods from your refrigerator, cupboard, or pantry. Imagine what you could cook with them that would be really good, but would include all the ingredients.

When doing chores or homework

  • Imagine what the school would be like if students designed the schedule for a whole semester. What would be the same? What would be different?
  • If you could invent one thing that would make your homework or chores easier or more fun to do, what would you invent?

When getting ready to go to bed

  • What if you lived in a world where you slept when the sun was shining and stayed awake when it was dark? What would you do for fun? How would school or work be different?
  • If you never had to sleep, what would you do with the extra time? What would you like about that? What would be hard?


System Overload! 20min


Problem-solve with family members about ways to cope better when you get bombarded with information or expectations. When too many people try to log into a website at once or when you try to do lots of complicated things on your computer at once, you can get a message that says: System Overload! It can’t process all the information from many sources at the same time. Our brains are a bit like that. We can get bombarded with information—requests, questions, ideas, information, directions, and distractions. When they all come at once, it overwhelms your brain or, more specifically, your executive function. Over time, most adults figure out ways to manage this overload, at least most of the time. But children typically haven’t developed the skills or experiences they need to do that well. So their system, almost literally, goes into “Systems Overload” mode. You might say that it, like a hard drive or web site, crashes! This activity is a chance to think about the times when family members’ systems get overwhelmed and send out Systems Overload messages. Then you can think of ways to help each other “refresh” or “reboot” to get your thinking working smoothly again.

  1. Have family members each think of a time in the recent past when they faced difficult challenges that either did or could have overloaded their system. Have them describe the situation by responding to these questions:
    • What different “data sources” or information were bombarding you? This could include multiple requests, different noises, or competing demands.
    • What did it feel like when you were in the middle of this overload of stimulus?
    • How did you respond? What happened afterward?
  2. When everyone has described their situations, talk about what was similar and different across the different examples.
  3. Next, talk about the strategies each person used to cope with the overload, including examples that really worked and any that might have backfired.
  4. What other strategies might you have been able to use to deal with the “system overload” that you experienced? If you need ideas, check out these 10 Tips for Dealing with “Systems Overload.”
  5. Create a list of the best ideas you have to help family members “reboot” when their system crashes from too much stimulus or information. Post it in a handy place where you can remind yourself of your ideas when you really need them.


Take Initiative: Moving Past What You’ve Always Done (2 Activities)

Positive change doesn’t just happen. It takes initiative, nudges, and triggers to get us started. These activities introduce these ideas and some ways they can become part of family life.


Change … on Purpose 20min


Stories from your family’s past remind you of the ways people have taken initiative to make life better for themselves and future generations. Some people go through life mostly waiting for things to happen to them or for them. Other people actively go after what they want, investing a lot of time and energy in their quest. What can we learn from those who have a lot of personal initiative?

  1. Bring your family together to remember stories about when your family (current or past generations) made bold changes that had a major effect on your family’s future. Perhaps you or they moved to a new country or town, sacrificed to start a business or advance education, or confronted a social injustice. These changes might have been voluntary, or might have been forced you’re your family by circumstances (job change, divorce, discrimination, chronic illness, or something else). Use these questions to fill out the story as much as you can:
    • What motivated the change? Why did they do it?
    • What obstacles or challenges did they face? How did they deal with them?
    • How long did it take to see positive results from the change?
    • In what ways does the change that was made affect your family today?
  2. Your family has also probably experienced some unintentional changes—changes that you didn’t plan and didn’t want, and changes that hurt your family. These could include things like major injuries or disabilities, premature deaths, job loss, and other challenges. Talk about those stories, using these questions as prompts, if needed:
    • How has your family responded to those kinds of situations?
    • Have there been ways family members have taken initiative to move forward in positive ways in the midst of difficult circumstances?
  3. Researchers who study how people grow and work toward their goals find a number of things that distinguish people who take initiative from those who don’t. Compared to people who just let change happen to them, people who take initiative tend to…
    • Be willing to invest themselves in their goals and achieve a sense of purpose.
    • Do not take failure, setbacks, or disappointment personally.
    • See obstacles or challenges as opportunities for personal growth.
    • Feel energized when working for things that matter—even if it’s really hard.2

    How do you see these differences in your own family’s stories? How do these qualities shape you and your family today?

  4. These family stories shed light the ways your family has taken initiative in the past. What lessons do you see in these stories that can help family members be purposeful about changes they need to make today and in the future.
  5. Create a small poster of “Lessons from Our Past on Taking Initiative.” Write down the top five lessons that you see in these stories. Keep it handy where family members can find it when they need a motivating boost to tackle a challenge. Variation: If previous generations are still living and are accessible to you, make it a family project to Interview Family Elders about the stories of how your family has taken initiative through the generations. Capture their stories on video or audio recordings to share with others in your extended family. They’ll appreciate the opportunity to tell their stories, and you’ll have a lasting treasure to pass down to future generations about the gifts their ancestors gave them.


Domino Effect: Triggers and Nudges 30min, (or more, if you build a domino chain reaction)


Reminders, transitions, and nudges can turn good intentions into concrete actions to work on goals. There are probably lots of things you and your family want to do and know you should do. But it can be hard to get started. An extra push can make all the difference. These can be called “nudges” and “triggers”— or “baby steps” that get you walking, then running toward your goals. This activity gives you a chance to think creatively about what nudges or triggers you can use to give each other the extra push to take action on your goals and priorities.

  1. You have two ways to start this activity, depending on how much time you have and what you have available:
    • Watch one or more of these videos of domino chain reactions. This video shows an impressive chain reaction with 128,000 dominoes. This one shows how small dominoes can knock over big ones. This one uses books instead of dominoes.
    • If you have dominoes or building blocks, create a domino chain reaction for yourself. Enjoy the fun of setting it up as a family—and see if it works for you.
  2. Talk about what you saw in the domino chain reaction (either your own creation or the videos). What do you think it took to figure out these chain reactions? What was most surprising? What seemed most challenging? What obstacles got in the way of it working (or could have made it not work)?
  3. In many ways, the domino chain reaction is filled with nudges and triggers. Think of triggers as setting the chain reactions in motion. Think of nudges as major redirections in the chain reaction that point the momentum in the direction you want. What are some nudges and triggers you noticed in the domino chain reaction?
  4. Think about the ways that nudges and triggers can help you start and continue actions to achieve your goals. Based on these descriptions, what are some nudges and triggers you already use in your everyday life?
    • Triggers are simple reminders that catch your attention and remind you of what you intend to do. They help you get you started with something small so you can “work up” to bigger changes later. For example, you might have a reminder on your smartphone to taking a two-minute daily walk during lunch. Once the two-minute walk becomes routine because you the triggers remind you to do it, you’ll be more likely, later, to take a 10-minute, then 20-minute walk.7
    • Nudges are simple things you do to make it easier to “default” to the better choice (based on your goals) rather than to what you’re in the habit of doing.8 For example, moving the fresh vegetables to the front of the refrigerator, rather than having sweet snacks at the front where they’re easiest to grab. This change “nudges” you to make the better choice—even though you still have a choice.
  5. Now have family members each think of a goal they have that they’re having trouble getting started with. Brainstorm some triggers that might help you get started—they’re prompts to do something right away. Some triggers can include reminders on your smartphone or calendar, or keeping your musical instrument in a visible place where you’ll remember to practice.
  6. Next, brainstorm some nudges you might use to catch your attention and help you remember to do what you intend to do. For example, creating a comfortable place to do homework might make it easier to go there first.
  7. Share your ideas with each other, then decide what nudge or trigger you’re each going to try in the coming week. Then ask each other how it’s going through the week. See if you get the kind of chain reaction you hope for in terms of focusing more time or energy on achieving your goals.


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Learn About It

Set Family Goals Together

Families play a big role in young people’s futures. Parents want our kids to have good jobs, good relationships, and good health. We hope they make a difference in our communities and world. We want them to be responsible, happy, and fulfilled. We want them to be and become their best selves. Many things affect our future. Many challenges are beyond our control. Yet, families can work together—and make progress toward—positive family goals, even in the face of setbacks and challenges. It starts with being goal oriented. Examine research on the importance of setting goals and what it takes to bring goals to reality.


What Is Being Goal Oriented?

Becoming “goal oriented” is the starting point. Distractions and difficulties are part of life. These skills and attitudes can help our kids and our families work through obstacles:

  1. Being self-aware, which includes being able to manage thoughts and feelings so you can focus. This is called “executive function,” which is explained in this article for parents.
  2. Being future oriented, which includes having goals and a sense of hope and purpose.
    Planning, which includes the skills to build bridges between what your child wants (setting goals) and actually moving toward those goals.
  3. Taking initiative, which means taking actions toward future goals—not just waiting for things to happen.

These attitudes and skills help kids and parents in the present and the future. Whether we face small or big challenges, these skills and attitudes will help all of us flourish.

How Goal Oriented are Today’s Youth?

A gap often exists between young people’s future goals and their planning skills to “get there.” A survey of 89,000 middle and high school students by Search Institute found that many young people have a positive view of the future, believe they can overcome challenges, and have a sense of purpose. Yet they lack planning and decision—making skills, and they don’t consistently delay gratification for something they really want—all these factors are part of being goal oriented.

Statistics on the goals of today's youth

SOURCE: Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., & Leffert, N. (2011). A fragile foundation: The state of developmental assets among American youth (2nd Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

The Challenge of “Executive Function”

Setting and working toward goals requires high-level mental tasks such as self-control, discipline, creativity, and flexibility, which researchers describe as “executive function.”9,10 Without these skills (or if they are overwhelmed by stress and challenges), we can’t really focus and do whatever is automatic or easiest to do at the moment. The challenge for families is that these skills take years to develop. They don’t mature until at least the late teen years.9 Children’s brains can get overwhelmed with the demands on these still—developing abilities. Sometimes we think they’re being lazy or defiant. But those “attitudes” may just be “side-effects” of struggling with overload.

Why Does Being Goal Oriented Matter?

A future focus helps young people in a few ways. First, it helps them put their current activities, challenges, and priorities in the spotlight. Then it helps them manage their daily lives with an eye on the future. Researchers see many benefits of a future focus, including these:

  • Young people who learn to manage their feelings and actions to achieve longer-term goals do better in school. They have better friendships, go to college, get good jobs, make more money as adults, and have fewer health problems.4,5
  • Young people with high levels of hope are better adjusted, more satisfied with life, and do better in school.1,2 They tend to avoid violence and risky behaviors.7,8 They are better at moving past stressful events8 and solving problems.8
  • When young people imagine good futures for themselves they gain a sense of their “possible selves.” They are more likely to set high expectations and be more motivated. They make plans and take action to work on their goals, and ignore things that distract them.6
Goals in the Face of Challenges

Focusing on goals can be hard for some families.

  • For some families, the future doesn’t seem so bright because of personal issues. These issues include depression, mental illness, addictions, or a major loss. In some cases, bad experiences or poor choices in the past limit the future.
  • For others, the future doesn’t seem positive because of community or social challenges. These challenges include poverty and discrimination. Neighborhood violence or few opportunities can also be a problem.

Still, a focus on a positive future can make a difference. Young people may focus, for example, on how to adapt and be strong in the face of adversity. Young people may join with others to work toward social change.

In these cases, young people need parents, friends, teachers, and other adults who challenge them to grow, provide support, and expand possibilities for their future.

Research Sources

Learn About It

  1. Gilman, R., Dooley, J., & Florell, D. (2006). Relative levels of hope and their relationship with academic and psychological indicators among adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 166–178. doi:10.1521/jscp.2006.25.2.166
  2. Lopez, S. J., Rose, S., Robinson, C., Marques, S. C., & Pais-Ribeiro, J. (2009). Measuring and Promoting Hope in Schoolchildren. In R. Gilman, E. S. Huebner, & M. J. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp. 37–50). New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Luyckx, K., & Robitschek, C. (2014). Personal growth initiative and identity formation in adolescence through young adulthood: Mediating processes on the pathway to well-being. Journal of Adolescence, 37(7), 973–981. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.07.009
  4. Mischel, W., Ayduik, O., Berman, M. G., Casey, B. J., Gotlib, I. H., Jonides, J., . . . Shoda, Y. (2011). “Willpower” over the life span: Decomposing self-regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6(2), 252–256.
  5. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., . . . Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693–2698.
  6. Oyserman, D., Bybee, D., Terry, K., & Hart-Johnson, T. (2004). Possible selves as roadmaps. Journal of Research in Personality, 38(2), 130–149. doi:10.1016/S0092-6566(03)00057-6
  7. Scales, P. C., & Leffert, N. (2004). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development (2nd Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.
  8. Stoddard, S. A., Zimmerman, M. A., & Bauermeister, J. A. (2011). Thinking about the future as a way to succeed in the present: a longitudinal study of future orientation and violent behaviors among African American youth. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48(3-4), 238–46. doi:10.1007/s10464-010-9383-0
  9. Carlson, S. M., & Zelazo, P. D., & Faja, S. (2013). Executive function. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of developmental psychology, Vol. 1: Body and mind (pp. 706-743). New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4–12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959–964. doi:10.1126/science.1204529.Interventions.
  11. Abrams, L. S. (2005). Negative trends, possible selves, and behavior change: A qualitative study of juvenile offenders in residential treatment. Qualitative Social Work, 4(2), 175–196. doi:10.1177/1473325005052392

Talk About It

Try It

  1. Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. A., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2013). From fantasy to action: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) improves academic performance in children. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 745-753. doi: 10.1177/1948550613476307
  2. Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2011). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning (working paper). Seattle, WA: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  3. B. J. Fogg’s Behavior Model. Visit behaviormodel.org
  4. Carlson, S. M., & Zelazo, P. D., & Faja, S. (2013). Executive function. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of developmental psychology, Vol. 1: Body and mind (pp. 706-743). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  5. Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4–12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959–964. doi:10.1126/science.1204529.Interventions.
  6. Sagan, C. (1980). Cosmos. New York, NY: Random House (p. 4).
  7. Luyckx, K., & Robitschek, C. (2014). Personal growth initiative and identity formation in adolescence through young adulthood: Mediating processes on the pathway to well-being. Journal of Adolescence, 37(7), 973–981. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.07.009
  8. Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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