Goal Setting for Middle School Students: Why Now?
Grades 6–8: It’s K–12’s middle child, but plays a critical part in future planning. Jen Roberts breaks down the importance of goal setting for middle school students.
Life after high school may seem like a long way off to the average middle schooler, but it’s a lot closer than they think, and these formative years are the perfect time to begin setting goals that will enable their future success. Goal setting in middle school plays a critical role in the college and career trajectory.
The importance of college and career readiness (CCR) in education is not disputed and has become a key priority in the United States; however, in many instances, CCR programs begin at the high school level, ignoring the importance of middle school.
“Career awareness has only been given lip service in middle schools, from my point of view,” says John White, a retired middle school principal. “Kids (in middle school) are at their most advantageous mental state of acquiring languages, acquiring skills, doing things. We’re trying to make them all Einsteins so they can go to college, but we don’t offer enough career stuff…nothing that students can really go out and do.”
Why Should Students Start Thinking About Their Future in Middle School?
The middle school years are a critical time for students and their education. In addition to the changes in personal growth that occur in these formative years, it is also the time when disengagement in education and academics begins to occur.
Students in middle school are at the prime age for learning and growing in their education. It’s important to capitalize on that, especially since “doing well in middle school is one of the best indicators of whether a student will succeed in college.”
When middle school students can connect what they are learning in the classroom to their future aspirations, they feel more invested and perform better. A study conducted by the University of Chicago found that attendance and GPA in middle school are better indicators of future success “than test scores or background characteristics, such as race and neighborhood poverty level.” Students who are invested in their learning attend school, which sets them up for success in high school and beyond.
Many students understand the importance of high school as it relates to their college and career aspirations, but they fail to see how their education in middle school relates. They often make this connection when it is too late, and they wish they would have done more.
When I was a high school English teacher, I had many students who at the end of their sophomore year realized that their grades had limited their college options. They experienced this, “now what?” feeling and were left scrambling to improve their grades in their final two years of school so they would have more options for college and beyond.
By thinking about their future aspirations in middle school, students will have a better sense about what it takes to achieve them. They will see a pathway that begins by taking certain classes in middle school, and they will have the motivation to do well in these courses.
They can also begin to seek out opportunities to hone their interests. In her article, “Middle School Key to College, Career Pipeline,” Michelle Maitre shares a story about a student who had two apprenticeships in middle school.
Having these experiences enabled the student to see the value in his schoolwork, “I didn’t realize that all the classes I had were that important or beneficial to anything I wanted to do.” This is the sort of insight we want all students to have, which is why exploring college and career opportunities and goal setting are so important at the middle school level.
What Does Goal Setting for Middle School Students Look Like?
- Explore. Goal setting for middle school students begins with career exploration. Create opportunities to help students discover careers and college majors that would interest them. This exploration can occur in many ways.
- Sort. Help students sort through the career options in a realistic way. It’s easy for students to set their sights on careers like medicine and law because of the high salaries, but it’s important that students understand what it takes to make it in those fields. Help students think about careers that match their interests.
- Plan. Once the students narrow down their potential career paths, help them create a realistic plan. If a student wants to be a chef, help them think about the skills and knowledge that are needed to be a chef. Connect these skills and knowledge to classes that they can take and out-of-school opportunities where they can gain insight into the daily demands of the profession.
- Be Flexible. As students better understand themselves and their strengths and interests, their career goals might shift. Support students as they gain a better sense of self and allow them to adjust their plans accordingly.
How Can Teachers Support Goal Setting for Middle School Students?
- Introduce careers. It’s important to remember that not all students have parents at home who can expose them to different career options. Take every opportunity to connect classroom learning to future career aspirations. Invite guest speakers, read articles that relate to specific careers, or simply mention careers that connect to the regular lessons.
- Provide students opportunities to self-reflect. Journaling and open-ended questions will help students reflect on their strengths and what they like. Educators should provide opportunities that help students better understand themselves. If there is a specific career choice you think would be good for a student, mention it and encourage the student research it and let them tell you what they think about it.
- Be supportive. Sometimes the most effective thing an educator can do is to offer positive feedback. Let a student know that you think they are a great communicator or have a great knack for asking insightful, investigative questions. This will help them feel confident and could guide them to careers that they may have not considered.
Goal setting in middle school helps students connect their learning and sets them on a path to success for their high school years. It’s a critical time, as this self-exploration can build a student’s confidence and help them create a trajectory to their future career.