Setting Spiritual Goals

A few years ago, I taught a child who struggled with managing his emotions in group settings. He was unhappy about his outbursts and wanted to act more calmly so other children would partner with him on activities. I helped him set a goal (going 30 minutes without sulking or yelling) and taught him a calming strategy (deep breathing) to use when he started to get wound up. Within two months, he was controlling his anger enough that others felt comfortable inviting him to join their group.

Psychologists have long known that setting goals is an essential part of changing behavior. Adults and children need to know what they are striving for if they realistically hope to see results. This applies to spirituality as much as other aspects of life. Children do not just magically become good moral decision-makers able to balance personal well-being and social responsibility. Instead, they grow spiritually when they intentionally focus on cultivating specific skills and aptitudes that support ethical and holistic living.

A useful framework for helping children set spiritual goals is what psych professor Gabriele Oettingen calls the WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) method. Try building this approach into your program so that kids learn the importance of goal-setting and making plans to become the spiritual person they hope to be.

Wish. The first step is for children to identify their spiritual goal. What do they wish to develop or change about their spiritual identity? Perhaps they want to be more respectful of those who are different from them, keep their cool in stressful situations, or become better collaborators. Encourage them to talk about the ‘why’ behind their desire. What is motivating them to make this change? Knowing the reasons for a spiritual goal can help them work toward it more effectively.

Outcome. The next step involves visualizing the successful completion of their goal. What does respecting differences, keeping cool, or collaborating well actually look like to them? For example, respect for some children might mean ‘live and let live’ and for others it includes learning about and expressing appreciation for different perspectives. Getting more specific about each child’s goal increases the likelihood of accomplishment.

Obstacle. Third, children need to identify the potential obstacles to achieving their goal. What has kept them from practicing respect, calm, or collaboration in the past? What personal biases or traits might continue to get in their way? Are there any past instances where they were successful? What was different about those times? A frank exploration of personal, sociocultural, and even physical (time/space) constraints and opportunities provides a clearer picture of the path to change.

Plan. Finally, goal achievement requires an effective plan. A good place to start is with any successes identified in the previous step. How can they replicate or build on those factors? What strategies can they use to address the remaining obstacles? Perhaps they need to learn a new vocabulary for expressing respect, try out some calming practices, or question their assumptions about who is a good collaborator. Whatever steps they choose, encourage them to stop and reflect periodically on how well their plan is working and adjust it as needed for greater success.

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