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Personal Bests in the Classroom - A Lesson from Sport

Personal Best (PB) goals, often associated with the glittering achievements of sports stars, are now finding their way to the classroom, and they are making a difference in academic achievementProfessor Andrew Martin from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney has recently released a study investigating the role of personal best goals in the achievement and engagement of students with and without ADHD.

Personal Best Goals Help Children with ADHD
Professor Martin was originally inspired to apply PB goals to education after observing athletes after a competition.  Despite not winning an event, (he likens this to not achieving first or second place in class) he noticed that athletes often still left the field with smiles on their faces and maintained their dedication and applied effort to their sport.   He subsequently researched the potential benefits of PB goals with a general student population, and then examined the potential benefits of PB goals for students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

The 3400 Australian high school students in the recent study completed a survey about their application of PB goals to areas such achievement and behavioural engagement with schoolwork. NAPLAN results (Australian school assessment of literacy and numeracy) were used as a measure of academic achievement. Results showed the positive role of PB goals in ADHD students' achievement, homework completion, planning, and persistence. Professor Martin explains that “Not only did PB goals benefit ADHD students in achievement and engagement, but in many cases the benefits of PB goals were greater for them than for non-ADHD students."

What are Personal Best Goals?
PB goals give students a specific focus to improve their schoolwork and do better than their previous efforts, rather than competing with other classmates’ achievements.  For a student with ADHD it may be unrealistic and demoralising to compete with non-ADHD students in the classroom where performance is ranked. 

Professor Martin explains, “When success is personally defined, it is generally more achievable and accessible.  It is meaningful and desirable to us.”  Giving the example of improving on homework performance by setting a goal of doing more than you did last week, he explains, “You know how much homework you did previously, so this week’s target is known.  You can’t always know how much homework other students are doing.”

Using Personal Best Goals in the Classroom and at Home
While Professor Martin’s study included high school students, there are potential applications for PB goals to be used with younger students.  Professor Martin advises that parents and teachers can build the idea of setting personal best goals into discussions with students, so it “becomes part of the narrative” about achievement at school.

Students can complete their goal setting in conjunction with parents, teachers, psychologists, school counsellors or other people who have input to their education such as tutors.  In the early stages of using PB goals with students with ADHD, Professor Martin recommends teachers initially pick an area of learning in which there are not too many challenges, the student desires improvement, and where success is likely: consider it a “training wheel” phase, he advises.  After experiencing initial success, teachers can expand the areas and complexity of the goal setting process. To be effective, the PB goal setting should be kept specific, so the students are clear about what strategies they will use to achieve the desired result.

 An example of a PB goal for academic achievement may read something like:-

 My PB is to better my reading.  I aim to be more organised with my time so I can read 5 pages per night after dinner time.  First I will select an appropriate book from the library.  Then I will discuss the book with my mother.  Then I will find a quiet, comfortable place to read.  Then I will…and so on.

 An example of a PB goal for engagement at school may read something like:-

 My PB this week is to reduce the number of interruptions I make in Science class. I aim to ask a question instead of saying “I don’t get it.”  First I will sit closer to the front of the class.  Then I will focus my attention on the teacher.  Then I will raise my hand to ask a question.  Then I will...and so on.

While Professor Martin is enthusiastic about the value of PB goal setting he explains that this would be one tool in a range of educational strategies to help students reach their academic potential.

PB Student Worksheets and PB Teacher Score Sheets can be downloaded from Professor Martin’s website.