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Learn how support youth in setting their own goals.


  • Why is it important for youth to set goals?

  • When should youth set goals?

  • How do youth set goals?

  • Planning for action

  • How do you review and adjust mentoring goals?

Why is it important for youth to set goals?

From time to time, everyone experiences difficulty getting started on the path to success. Each of us has a unique set of strengths that help us, as well as challenges that hinder us on the way. Goal setting helps us separate our strengths from weaknesses and make realistic plans for improving our lives.

Goal setting provides focus and context to a mentor pair. Once you have established a relationship with your protégé, the two of you together can start deciding on goals for the relationship and the coming year.

  • You may wish to develop a contract for your relationship, outlining personal, and social and educational goals for both the short term – the next month, the next six months, the next year – and the long term – two or three or five years down the road
  • You can periodically assess your protégé’s progress in reaching their goals
  • You can celebrate when your protégé reaches goals or achieves something significant

When should youth set goals?

The purpose of most mentoring programs is to help youth reach their goals.   While it may seem that goal-setting should be one of the first things that happens in a mentoring relationship, that’s not always the best strategy.  The various forms in the Tools part of this section are useful, but they’re long and call for a certain amount of soul-baring. They can also be intimidating or off-putting to a youth, especially if their reading skills are poor, or they have low self esteem. If they are to fill out these forms honestly, they have to believe that you, as a mentor, will respect their decisions and their aspirations.

For that reason, it’s important that you firmly establish your relationship before you start any formal goal-setting. Protégés need time to get to know and trust mentors before they’re willing to reveal themselves and share their goals and dreams. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk with your protégé about the need for setting goals in some areas – school is a good example – but they have to see you as something more than just another adult trying to get them to do things they don’t want to do before they’ll actually buy into goal-setting, and approach it seriously.  These are their goals, after all, not yours, and they have to believe that, and believe that you care about helping them to achieve them before they’ll put in full effort.  It’s far better to take some time and have the young person set goals they believe in, care about, and are willing to work toward than to have them pay lip service to the process, with no intention of doing anything about it.

How do youth set goals?

The main thing to remember is that your protégé’s goals must be their own, not goals someone else has set for them. Even extremely lofty goals should be respected, and you can show your protégé how to break down that goal into smaller steps on the way to reaching the goal. For example, a good education is an important first step in becoming president of a corporation.  Perhaps more to the point, doing tonight’s homework is the first step toward getting a good education.

Characteristics goals should have

  • Conceivable: The protégé should be able to define her goal and see it clearly, so she can understand what the steps are to achieve it.
  • Believable: The protégé must believe she can reach her goal.
  • Achievable: The goals the protégé sets must be within his strengths and abilities. For example, somebody who has never lifted weights before probably should not set a goal of a 300 lb. bench press by next week.  (That could be an achievable long-term goal, however.)
  • Controllable: To the extent possible, the protégés reaching the goal should not depend on someone else. For example, getting a job may depend on the job market and your protégés parents' approval. However, talking to her parents about getting a job or developing a resume are things your protégé can control.
  • Measurable: The goal should be measurable by a certain time or quantity. If the goal is to get an "A" in algebra, then the protégé should know what grades he needs to get on tests and assignments.
  • Desirable: The goal should be something your protégé really wants to do, not something she feels she must do, or should do. For example, earning a living is something that we have to do, while learning to play baseball may be something we would like to do.
  • Help you grow: The goal should never be self-destructive or be destructive towards others or society. You should help your protégé to distinguish between constructive and destructive goals.

Common methods used in preparing youth for goal setting:

Now that you know the basic characteristics of goals, we will discuss some methods you and your protégé can use to prepare to set some goals.

A note: The surveys in the Tools part of the section (and many others that you’ll find) are long and comprehensive. They ask for a great amount of honesty and self-reflection on the part of proteges. Some teens will find this stimulating and thought-provoking, but others – and many younger kids as well – will see it as a perhaps-impossible chore, an invasion of privacy, or yet another way to remind them of their failings. We’ve already discussed the need to establish a firm relationship before formally addressing goal-setting, but sometimes even this may not be enough to overcome resistance to this kind of task.

There are at least three ways around this situation. Which you use depends on individual circumstances and the character of your protege, your relationship, and the context surrounding the activity. One is to use a long survey and spread consideration of the form and of goals over several meetings, with goal-setting taking up only part of each, and at least some of the rest being devoted to a fun activity. Another is to find a more manageable structure to use: your organization may already have one.

The third is for you and your protege to develop your own goal-setting process, after some discussion about goal-setting and why your protege may want to engage in it. In many ways, this is often the best alternative. It ensures that the protege buys into the task, and sees it for what it is – a way for them to think about their life and aspirations, and to make plans to reach their goals. It encourages honesty on their part, again because they are planning the process, and also because they can see it as to their advantage. And it acts to further your relationship, because it’s a partnership: rather than something being forced on them by yet another adult, it becomes a mutual exercise in respect – for their potential, and for your ability and desire to help them realize it.

  • Youth concerns survey: A questionnaire that asks the youth to evaluate certain aspects of her life, such as family and social relationships, school achievement, and personal capacities. For an example of a youth concerns survey, see the Tools section.
  • Skills inventory: A survey/questionnaire that asks the youth to mark off proficiencies in job, professional, and academic skills and rate their importance to him. In the Tools section you can find a sample skills inventory.

It's a good idea for you and your protégé to fill out the concerns survey or skills inventory together. As soon as the surveys have been completed, the two of you can discuss your protégé’s priorities and preferences. During this discussion, you should:

  • Define challenges the youth faces, including personal goals the youth would like to realize and barriers to reaching those goals
  • Make long- and short-term objectives to help approach personal goals and overcome challenges
  • Brainstorm different strategies your protégé might use to reach the objectives
  • Select a point of departure to start the goal-achievement process
  • Discuss ways to celebrate progress made in meeting objectives
  • Decide how to evaluate progress on reaching goals, and how to decide when changing goals is necessary

The product of your discussion should be an action plan that contains an illustration of short- and long-term objectives, dates around which they will be completed, strategies to use in achieving them, people to contact for help, valuable resources, and means by which to celebrate completed tasks. As you can see, each action plan is highly individualized.

During the goal setting process, it's your job to help your protégé recognize and clarify personal strengths, weaknesses, and barriers, and to help them prioritize preferences and set up realistic tasks that can lead to small successes from which further work can be completed. The most powerful learning experiences are those that are doable, but make you stretch.  In most cases, that’s what objectives should be like.  You want the protégé to succeed, but also to feel like they had to work to do it.

Remember, the most valuable tools that you can use during goal setting are:

  • Respect (let the protégé decide the direction of goal-setting)
  • Patience (give the youth time to make up her mind.)
  • Encouragement (support the protégé’s decisions and applaud his initiative)

Even if goal setting takes place at the start of the mentor relationship, it really is an ongoing process. You, your protégé, and program staff will monitor pair progress throughout the life of the mentoring relationship and make recommendations for changes or modifications that need to be made. If there’s not much progress, you and your protégé may have to reevaluate your goals or brainstorm for alternate strategies to complete the action plan.

Planning for action

After your protégé has finished identifying his goals, it's time to talk about an action plan. A good action plan will help your protégé recognize all the steps he needs to take to meet his goals. It also helps your protégé prepare for the difficulties he might face. You'll want to discuss:

  • What actions are needed to reach the goal
  • Who will take those actions (if someone besides the youth is involved)
  • When the actions will be taken
  • Resources needed in support of the action
  • Difficulties your protégé might face, and possible solutions
  • People your protégé should talk to about their plans

Help your protégé make an action plan for each of the top priority issues they identify in the Youth Concerns Survey.

How do you review and adjust mentoring goals?

Throughout the course of the mentoring relationship, your protégé’s goals may change. The two of you may find the goals you have set are too challenging, not challenging enough, or simply no longer relevant to your protégé’s life. Even if the goals don't change, you'll want to keep track of the progress your protégé makes toward her goals, as well as additional steps, if any, she should take in order to reach those goals.

To help your protégé review and, if necessary, adjust her goals, there are several things you can do:

  • Encourage your protégé to track her own progress toward her goals. For example, if her goal is to get an A in Algebra, she can create a wall chart or table that lists each test score she gets and what scores she needs to receive in order to meet her goal.
  • Record your protégé’s steps toward his goal in a journal or logbook, and record achievements and goals met. You can also keep photographs, slides, and charts of his progress toward his goals.
  • Periodically meet with your protégé to review successes, discuss places where she fell short and help her understand why that happened, and evaluate her progress.

Celebrating successes

All of us need to feel that our accomplishments are noteworthy. Recognizing big and small efforts will motivate your protégé, add fun to your relationship and the goal-setting process, and give your protégé something to anticipate. Celebrating is a nice way for a mentor pair to sit back and enjoy the collaboration. Ways you can reward progress include:

  • Setting aside a meeting for a fun activity that your protégé chooses
  • Sponsoring or asking the program to sponsor a semi-annual picnic, party, or awards ceremony recognizing protégé achievement
  • Presenting your protégé with a certificate or blue ribbon of achievement
  • Giving your protégé a gift certificate or something else meaningful
  • Publishing a newsletter or sending out an internal press release announcing your protégé’s progress
  • Give lots of verbal praise - there's nothing quite like receiving compliments from your friends

Protégés may work hard but have difficulty recognizing the progress they make, causing them to lose hope and motivation. They may also be used to having their actions go unnoticed or rewarded by the adults in their lives, leaving them to feel like they can't change their situation or like no one cares. That's why celebrating successes is so important to the mentoring relationship. Remember: Every kind of effort deserves an A.

In Summary

In order to make progress, your protégé needs to set goals that are challenging yet achievable. You and your protégé should identify and decide which are the most important goals they should try to reach.

Online Resources

Young People Empowered to Change the World is an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based in social justice principles in which young people are trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them.

The National Mentor Partnership's Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication details research-informed and practitioner-approved standards for creating and sustaining quality youth mentoring programs and consequently, impactful mentoring relationships.

How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program Using the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring is a planning toolkit with tools, templates and advice for implementing the  Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication.

Print Resources

Basualdo-Delmonico, A. M., & Spencer, R. (2016). A parent's place: Parents', mentors' and program staff members' expectations for and experiences of parental involvement in community-based youth mentoring relationships. Children And Youth Services Review, 616-14. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.11.021

Rhodes, J., Liang, B., & Spencer, R. (2009). First do no harm: Ethical principles for youth mentoring relationships. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 40(5), 452-458. doi:10.1037/a0015073

Campus Partners in Learning. (1990). Resource manual for campus-based youth mentoring programs. Providence, RI: Brown University.

Freedman, M. (1993). The kindness of strangers: adult mentors, urban youth, and the new volunteerism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kanfer, F. (1995). A Mentor manual: for adults who work with pregnant and parenting teens. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.