Planning Ahead for Success: Goal Setting for Students With Emotional and Behavioral Challenges

By Elaine Gould, M.Ed.

May/June 2011 Link Lines

Children in the United States are dropping out of school at alarming rates, with the highest incidence occurring immediately following the ninth-grade year (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009). While this fact is alarming for all students, students with emotional and behavioral disorders have the highest dropout rates, show the poorest in-school and postsecondary outcomes, and are more likely to be disengaged from school than students in any other disability category (Stout & Christenseon, 2009; Eisenman, 2007).

 In order to keep students engaged in school and on the path to graduation, educators must help students make connections between what they do in school and their post-school options. To ensure that options are aligned with students’ interests, preferences, and strengths, students should be involved in setting goals and making decisions about their educational and postsecondary goals (Carter, 2010). In high school, educators expect students to take an active role in their educational planning, so it makes sense to begin teaching middle school students the skills they need to meet these expectations (Carter, 2010).

 The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI) is an evidence-based, student-directed learning strategy that teachers can use to guide students as they set goals, develop action plans, reflect on outcomes, and modify goals when necessary. Teachers give support and guidance throughout the process and provide students with opportunities to autonomously learn and practice the skills. Therefore, students remain engaged in the learning process while creating plans to achieve the outcomes they desire (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007).

The following chart illustrates how the teacher guides the students through the three phases of the SDLMI.

SDLM                                                                                                                                                 (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007) 

Individual student’s educational goals should be:

(a)  Meaningful and reflect the student’s interests, abilities, and needs;
(b)  Attainable, while still presenting a challenge to the student;
(c)   Observable, allowing the student to recognize when he or she has reached the goal;
(d)  Measureable, so the student can measure progress towards the goal; and
(e)   Achievable during a specified period of time. (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007).

It takes time for students to develop the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their desired outcomes. By involving middle schoolmss students in setting academic, social, and behavioral goals related to their postsecondary goals, they become engaged in educational planning and in building the foundation for success in high school and in adult life.

For student goal books and other project materials based on the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction, visit the Kentucky Youth Advocacy Project website.

To read more about using the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction with your students, read Promoting Causal Agency: The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction 


Carter, E. (2010). Self-determination and transition-age youth with emotional or behavioral disorders: Promising practices. In E. Cheney (Ed.), Transition of secondary students with emotional or behavioral disorders: Current approaches for positive outcomes. (pp. 51-71). Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Cohen, J., & Smerdon, B. (2009). Tightening the dropout tourniquet: Easing the transition from middle to high school. Preventing School Failure, 53, 177-183.

Eisenman, L. (2007). Self-determination interventions: Building a foundation for school completion. Remedial and Special Education, 28, 2-8.

Stout, K., & Christensen, S. (2009). Staying on track for high school graduation: Promoting student engagement. The Prevention Researcher, 16(3), 17-20.

Wehmeyer, M. L., & Field, S. L. (2007). Self-determination: Instructional and assessment strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.