Teaching Goal-Setting and Self-Monitoring to High School Students

Goal setting and self-monitoring are two of the most important skills I teach as a high school special education teacher. The bonus is that, while I’m teaching skills that are valuable and transferable in themselves, my students also become more focused and motivated to learn my course content. I’ve included some printable resources at the end of this post to share some of the resources and tools I use to embed teaching goal setting and self-monitoring into classroom routines.

The students I serve all have disabilities and have been identified as at-risk for dropping out of school or leaving school without meeting diploma requirements. Most are disengaged from school activities and some have chronic truancy. Their needs are complex, and many have issues outside school that sometimes seem insurmountable, like homelessness, involvement with juvenile justice, unmet healthcare needs, and teen pregnancy or parenthood. The teachers and administrators who refer them often describe them as unmotivated, since many seem to have given up any hope of succeeding in school.

My students have something else in common: They all have goals. They all have aspirations for the future. What they don’t always have is the ability to clearly articulate their goals and keep themselves on track to succeed. While we may all experience these same difficulties to some degree, the students I serve are more likely to have deficits in what is termed executive function, a set of cognitive skills related to the ability to self-regulate and set or follow through on their goals. So by explicitly teaching them how to set clear goals, follow through, and reflect on the process, we teach them critical skills that can transfer to every area of their future lives.

Teachers all know that we must explicitly explain our objectives for each lesson, and we’ve all been observed and evaluated on how many times we point out those objectives to the class while we teach. But isn’t it even better when the students themselves approach the lesson with their own learning objectives?

So how do I get students to write and monitor their goals?

  1. My first job is to convince them that the content I’m teaching is relevant to their lives. Since almost every student I teach wants to live independently and have his or her own money one day, we start with resources like www.mynextmove.org to learn what kinds of jobs they’re interested in and the requirements for the jobs they want. Most jobs require a high school diploma, and many also require additional certifications or diplomas, so the majority of students accept the idea that gaining credits toward graduation is necessary. I want much more from them than this in the long run, but this is a good place to start. Once they agree they need to earn the course credit, I share the course standards with them (often broken down into more easily understood units) and have them identify what they most need to learn and write their goals based on these standards.
  2. I also talk to students about what makes school so discouraging and I’ve heard them say over and over that they are tired of failing and not understanding what is going on in the classroom. From there, I can usually convince them that if I can help them get caught up and learn skills they missed in earlier grades, their classes will be less stressful. I have them look at their unit grades and test results to identify the skills that are holding them back. These prerequisites form the goals for many students.
  3. Some students don’t buy in to the importance of learning the course content, so I take a different approach. I often share the employability skills needed to get a job they want, and they might write their goal based on those skills. Here is a description of some of those skills, again from http://www.mynextmove.org

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4. Once the student has a goal in mind, we start drafting and revising our written goals. We keep improving the goals until they are clear and attainable. I ask students to self-assess their own written goals using a rubric, and I provide specific feedback as they revise.

5. Once the goals are written, we don’t just tuck them away to be forgotten. The students regularly assess their progress toward meeting the goals. We use a variety of journal reflections, checklists and exit slips to monitor how they are progressing and how they can keep growing and learning.

Printable Resources

  • This is my “go-to” goal setting worksheet that I modify for different settings and student needs. I have tried to word it to encourage the students to set personal learning goals instead of performance goals. Here is a link that compares the two types of goals.  I don’t ask the students to set learning goals for the whole year. They start a new set of goals with each unit they begin. The top half of this form is for writing the goals, and the bottom is used to self-monitor progress: MyClassGoals  Here is an example of one completed:
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  • I use this rubric to provide feedback on student goals, which they can use for revising and polishing: SettingGoalsRubric
  • Some students need more explicit instruction to understand differences between the expectations in different settings. This is a form I use to brainstorm expectations: Self-AssessmentMeetingExpectations Here’s an example of one that has been completed.
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  • Once we’ve clarified the expectations, I create quick self-assessment checklists for students to monitor their behavior toward meeting those expectations. Self-evalExpectations
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  • Some of the kids I serve with autism need some visual reminders to keep themselves on track in their general education classes. Here is an example of a self-monitoring sheet with visual reminders:
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The powerpoint presentation I recently used when presenting this information at the TN Edu CTE Institute is available here: Leech-Embedding Personal Goal Setting and Monitoring in the Curriculum

As always, I’d love any feedback on these tools.




Student Voice

student voice

My first teaching  job out of college was in an early childhood classroom for toddlers with multiple disabilities. What really hooked me on teaching, made me certain that this job was for me, even that this job was me, was watching (no, not just watching…being a part of…can I presume that I was actually helping?) those little ones communicate their first words. Whether that first utterance was through speech, sign language, or augmentative communication didn’t matter. It was the power of that first foray into student voice that inspired me. When I reflect over the 25 years since I walked into that toddler classroom, student voice has always been what’s kept me here.

The student voice I’ve supported has taken many different forms in the various classrooms I’ve taught. In that first class, it was the thrill of power that I saw in the eyes of the child who got to choose her own snack instead of having to take whatever was put in front of her. Even better was the power that came from that first defiant “NO!” that actually worked to stop some other kid, or possibly even adult, from bothering her. That’s what our voice is – power. Who are we without power? Personally, I know that I’m no one without it.

A few years later, I took a job in an inner city middle school as a special education teacher in a newly mainstreamed classroom during the years that Tennessee was closing almost all of its segregated special education schools and integrating the classrooms into neighborhood schools. As was the custom of the time, our room was put in a basement space with a separate entrance, bathroom, and even lunch schedule, so that our integration was in name only, except that, under the radar, some really incredible fifth grade teachers were willing to partner with us and include our kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities into their regular fifth grade classes.

One day, Marcus, one of my students, returned from his fifth grade class fired up from a lesson on the civil rights movement, fuming as he pointed out parallels between our situation there in the basement and what he had learned in class. I saw I wasn’t even going to get started on the lesson I’d planned for the day, so I encouraged him to use his indignation to write a letter to the school principal. His writing skills were limited and slow, and I had to help him with some spelling, but he was determined, and eventually finished the letter. I put it in the principal’s box in the mailroom, hoping the man would be able to decipher at least part of the message. The next day, Marcus was called to the principal’s office. I don’t know what was discussed, but within a week, our classroom was relocated to the regular fifth grade hall and our lunch schedule was changed to coincide with that of the other fifth graders. Literacy, I realized, was another powerful form of student voice, and I was privileged to get to teach it.

For the past few years, I’ve taught high schoolers who are identified as most at-risk for dropping out of school. In our intake meetings, these young people say that school just isn’t for them. They don’t feel part of our school culture. If it weren’t for strictly enforced truancy laws, they say they wouldn’t stay a single day. When questioned, they tell me they don’t really feel like anyone wants them at school in the first place, and no one cares what they think or feel about school, so they can’t figure out why everyone is so bent to make them show up every day.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a group of my students to participate in a student advisory council with our state Department of Education’s Office of Healthy, Safe and Supportive Schools. The Office asked to hear from “unheard voices” in our school, so we picked a group that represented a variety of those voices, including a young parent, an English Language Learner, a student with a strong vocational pathway, and even a couple of kids who just don’t want to be in school. The team of young people we selected said they couldn’t believe it when they were chosen. They said they had never had anyone ask their opinion before and have never been chosen for a council or team of any kind at school. Although they agreed to participate a few weeks ago when the opportunity was offered, a couple of them told me today that they might even chicken out and not show up tomorrow. It seems overwhelming. I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m just too curious to see what a little power might do.

We Need Branched, Not Tiered, Diploma Pathways


Some of the education reformers responsible for pushing measures like annual standardized testing, accountability tied to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the American Diploma Project are beginning to backpedal on their promise that “all students can achieve at high levels” in light of the mounting evidence that, although students are now taking higher level coursework, completing courses with more rigorous standards, and graduating from high school at higher rates than ever before, high school achievement and college and career readiness have not improved.

In one recent example, Education Next, the voice of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an online forum called “Rethinking the High School Diploma” advocating a tiered diploma system that would issue a top tier diploma to students who pass CCSS aligned standardized tests, and the same tired old American diploma we have been issuing for decades for all those who don’t pass the tests.

From the Education Next forum:

“The one with the gold star will signal college readiness, Common Core style. The other one will signal much the same as today’s conventional diploma, mainly that one has passed a set of mandatory courses to the satisfaction of those teaching them.”-from “Different Kids Need Different Credentials”by Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)

With this solution, it sounds like they aren’t really interested in improving outcomes for anyone, are they? They just want to hand a “gold star” to those who demonstrate readiness to pursue a 4-year university path. With AP coursework, dual enrollment credits, class rank, GPAs, and ACT/SAT scores, those kids get plenty of gold stars already. Selective 4-year universities aren’t asking for more measures to evaluate their applicants.

The young people with unmet needs are those who aren’t earning the credits and scores to get into 4-year universities and are leaving high school with a generic diploma that doesn’t award any specific qualifications to help them transition into quality post-secondary settings. The needs of employers and post-secondary training settings also go unmet by a single diploma that doesn’t provide any meaningful information about student abilities. We don’t need more gold stars. What we need are:

  • quality pathways into viable careers,
  • inclusive education leading to challenging and meaningful outcomes for every student, and
  • diplomas that specify what students are qualified to do after school completion.

Chester Finn likens his “gold star” tiered diploma vision to international models:

“…it’s somewhat similar to the practice in today’s England, where you can complete your schooling with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but if you’re bent on university, you stick around to earn a more-demanding A-level certificate.” from “Different Kids Need Different Credentials”by Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)

I spent the 2013-2014 school year in England researching post-GCSE diploma pathways in England on a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, so I know Finn’s statement is misleading on an important point about English education: After GCSEs (taken when students are finishing the equivalent of US 10th grade), young people in England don’t just leave education and training if they don’t pursue A-levels. The British system offers a broad choice of education and training options for upper secondary students, including a robust and well-supported apprenticeship system, many types of vocational and technical schools that award industry-recognized qualifications, and support programs for young people who need to improve their basic academic skills. There are also applied learning pathways for those who do well on their GCSEs that can be at least as demanding as A-level coursework and can even lead to university degrees, like high-level apprenticeships and technical colleges.

Sure, there are plenty of elitists in England, especially within Parliament, who spout this same rhetoric about A-levels being the “gold star” option and all other options being for the losers who can’t get top scores on their GCSEs. But almost all of the educators, trainers, students, and employers I spoke with recognized the value of British vocational and technical education. Most said they wished their vocational education system could be even more robust, like those in other parts of Europe, say Switzerland, for example.

So instead of a tiered diploma, where 4-year university qualifications are seen as superior to those lesser pathways, I suggest branched diploma pathways leading to the wide range of post-secondary outcomes our country needs for strong social and economic growth. I have written before that a bachelor’s degree or above isn’t necessary for the success of every individual, and that universal attainment of bachelor’s degrees is unlikely to be beneficial for our society as a whole.

However, unlike the reformers who’ve decided to give up on students who struggle to pass CCSS aligned tests, I still believe that all students can achieve at high levels. The difference is that my definition of “high levels” isn’t limited to scores on standardized tests, or to the attainment of university degrees. Achievement at high levels happens when young people are able to pursue their life goals and contribute to their communities in the myriad ways we need to create a sustainable, innovative, and inclusive society. That’s only going to happen when we value and support branched pathways to diversified outcomes.

Postscript: For an example of branched pathways, here is a graphic of those offered by the Ministry of Education in Singapore:

Singapore Education Journey

Found Messages

Summer is a time to gather and clean out cast-off student binders so that I can stock my closet of gently used school supplies for next year’s class. In the process, I sift through notes left behind by anonymous high schoolers. I find notes of love and friendship, even of occasional excitement (though always about something outside of our schools walls). Some of the notes are just mean, and I quickly crumple them up and hope the writer develops more kindness and empathy with age. But more often, I read voices crying out in despair, captives pleading for release.

The notes worry in the corners of my mind. Read More »

Speaking from Experience: Special Education Teacher Retention

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This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

I’m something of an oddity. Ask anyone – especially my teenaged students. But as much of an oddity as I am on a personal level, I’m even more so on a professional one. I’ve been a classroom special education teacher for over 20 years. According to several sources I’ve read (here’s one), special education teachers leave the field at a rate nearly twice that of general education teachers, with a large number moving from special education to general education. Those figures are pretty astounding considering that almost half of all teachers leave the field of teaching within the first five years.Read More »

Speaking from Experience: The Importance of Relationships

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMThis post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

As the coordinator of an alternative special education graduation program in a large rural high school, I serve the students who are at highest risk for dropping out of school or leaving school without meeting Tennessee’s diploma requirements. My experience supports the research evidence, for example here and here, that one of the most important components of successful drop-out prevention is cultivating relationships with students.


Read More »

Speaking from Experience: Top-Down Initiatives

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This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

During my 20+ years of teaching, I have been required to implement more initiatives that I can count. Most of these have been based on research that has shown that “good schools do ___” or “good teachers do ___” or “high achieving students do ___”. In short, they are based on the “what works” mentality. Researchers gather evidence that correlate a certain set of actions with a certain set of positive school qualities. Then, a school system, state, or even entire country decides to implement this action in a broad stroke. Many of these may have begun as good ideas, but eventually almost all top-down initiatives have had limited success because of poor implementation.Read More »

Speaking from Experience: A Series

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMData-driven decision making has been all the rage in education for the past few decades, but, as Larry Cuban points out here, there is little evidence that this trend has led to any better outcomes for American schools than teacher decision making. While documentaries, media attacks, and political rants continue to assert that we teachers are incompetent and apathetic, and that years of working in classrooms makes us even more so, we now have growing evidence that, in fact, teachers with classroom experience do make a difference for our students.

Lately I’ve been reading more writers who even suggest that experienced teachers might know more about what helps students learn than multi-billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates and the Koch brothers, or basketball players like Arne Duncan. We teachers may have some ideas about why the panels of “experts” who write standards and tests, lead conferences, and design evidence-based curricula haven’t been able to make lasting and meaningful improvements in our schools. Maybe we should begin to listen to experienced teachers.

But, they lament, it’s hard to find classroom teachers doing more than complaining, making excuses, or following self-interest. There are some writers, like David Greene, who share their many years of classroom experience with us. But no one of us can speak for all teachers, since we are all different people working in different settings, with different students, and teaching different content. We need to hear from a broad spectrum of teachers.

So, this begins a series from my perspective as a classroom special education teacher. I’ve taught in public school classrooms for 18 years now, with an additional three years teaching in a private non-profit classroom and few others as a classroom consultant, among other education-related jobs. I’ve seen trends come and go. I’ve seen successes and failures. I’ve seen the repackaging of the same and the promotion of the ridiculous.  I constantly read about education, think about solutions, try out new possibilities in my classroom, and pick and choose the successful pieces to add to my teaching repertoire. And despite all this, I still face each day feeling that I have so much more to learn if I am ever to do my job effectively.

In this series, I will share observations about the general trends I’ve seen in education over the years. It will be my narrow view from where I have been teaching.  I won’t share “what works”, but rather, what has worked for me at which times, with which students, and in which settings, and why I think some other efforts may not have worked so well.