Enhancing Adolescent Brain Development through Goal-Setting Activities

Article excerpt

Effective goal setting is a critical sociocognitive developmental exercise that enhances human functioning across the life span (Bandura, 1997; Schunk, 2001; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). Social learning, social exchange, and self-regulation theories all shed light on how the goal-setting process can build self-efficacy, social networks, and even brain development itself. Emerging evidence from neuroscientific studies on human brain development supports speculation that exercising executive functions and social cognitive skills (such as setting and working toward goals) during adolescence may shape brain function across the life span (Blakemore 8: Choudhury 2006; Giedd, 2004). Client-driven goal setting has long been a basic tenet of social work, but practitioners should think beyond the concrete aspects of goal achievement and view the goal-setting process itself as a means to enhance cognitive and social development.

This Practice Update examines a simple, low-cost tool for facilitating client-driven goal setting that was developed by LifeWorks Teen Parent Services (TPS), an intensive case management intervention for pregnant and parenting adolescents. A thorough examination of the literature reveals that, on some level, goal setting is included in a number of adolescent pregnancy programs with proven track records for effectiveness. Demonstrating the utility of goal setting in diverse settings, these programs' formats vary widely to include nurse and mentor home visitation models, school-based group brief therapy models, and community-based models, to name a few (Black et al., 2006; Brown, 1999; Harris & Franklin, 2007; Isaacs, 2007; Tabi, 2002). Yet in the literature, details remain vague about how and why goal-setting exercises should be incorporated to ensure consistency in service programs intended to promote decision making, social problem solving, interpersonal relationship skills, and self-efficacy. The centerpiece of the LifeWorks TPS goal-setting approach is a simple, fill-in-the-blank worksheet. Its open design and individual client focus give it a universal quality and make it relevant for various populations and diverse social service settings. It is particularly useful for interventions that serve pregnant and parenting teenagers, in which the arrival of a new baby sparks a crucial need to accelerate the development of parenting skills, social support networks, and self-sufficiency.


Social learning, social exchange, and self-regulation theories all shed light on how the goal-setting process can build self-efficacy, social networks, and even brain development itself. Cognitive self-regulation is a critical function that organizes thoughts, feelings, and actions toward goal attainment. Self-regulation is conceptualized as having multiple sequential phases related to goal attainment--forethought (identifying the goal and the necessary action steps), performance control (carrying out the steps and monitoring performance), and self-reflection (evaluating one's goal progress and adjusting strategies as needed to ensure success) (Schunk, 2001; Zimmerman, 1998). Short-term, task-oriented goals are preferable to distal, long-term ones because they deepen the cognitive experience by providing individuals clear markers of progress and allowing them to judge their performance (Bandura, 1982).Whereas distal goals can be vague and elusive (for example, I want to be financially stable), proximal subgoals provide immediate incentives and guides for action (for example, I will submit five job applications by Sunday). The achievement of short-term goals serves as a vehicle in the development of learning, mastery, coping skills, self-motivation, and self-direction. Tangible goal achievement can also serve to ameliorate feelings of anxiety, despondency, and futility associated with an inability to influence one's environment (Bandura, 1982).

Social exchange theory sheds light how and why the client-case manager team approach to goal setting helps clients expand social support networks and resource connections (Cook & Rice, 2003). …


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