Are Dreams Goals without Deadlines? Do goals SMART!

By: Joy Wimberly and Kristin N. Johnson

Many of you may have seen the meme which states, ‘Dreams are goals without deadlines” or maybe you have seen the meme that states, “Dream it. Wish it, Do it.” According to the memes, attaining your goals is simple. Get a deadline and do it! If only it were that simple! If you are setting goals for yourself or writing a goal for a child, there are some guidelines you should consider. Goal setting can be difficult if you do not attend to SMART aspects of a goal. SMART goals were created by Arthur Lazarus to help understand and create behavior goals in the workforce (2004).


  • Research has shown that specific goals result in greater outcomes than nonspecific goals (Corker & Donnella; 2012; Kleingeld et al., 2011).
  • When setting goals, behaviors should be operationally defined in a specific manner, so that anyone can easily identify what to measure. Moreover, behaviors should be positively stated, what to do (e.g., eat vegetables) as opposed to what not to do (e.g., don’t you dare eat that DONUT!).
  • Additionally, one should specify the setting or condition that the problem behavior is likely to occur (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).
    • An example of specific behavior goal would be as follows: Given a 3rd grade level reading passage with three paragraphs (condition), Marie will read (WHAT TO DO) each paragraph and answer questions with 80 percent accuracy on four out of five of the passages.
    • Here is another example. When on the playground (setting), Mark will keep hands and feet to self (what to do) for 90% of opportunities for 4 out of 5 opportunities.


  • Behavioral goals should also be measurable, including specific criteria so that it can be determined when goals are formally reached (Jung et al., 2003).
  • When describing a behavioral goal, it is important to describe actions that can easily be observed and measured not inferred (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).
    • My mom and I always cooked together when I was young. My mother would say, “Add a couple of handfuls or this, a pinch of that, etc.” It would drive me NUTS! Why? Because it wasn’t precise measurement.
    • If I walked around the neighborhood, it could be measureable but if I walked 5,000 steps that is more accurate measurement.
    • “John hit his friend and ran around the room” versus “John is annoying.” Another example, “Joy worked 3 hours out of her 8 hour day” versus “Joy is lazy.”


  • Goals can either be based on a predetermined goal or based on a baseline performance. Baseline is defined as measuring the behavior before intervening or trying something new.
    • For example, the doctor will take your blood pressure or blood work to get a baseline of your health before the doctor prescribes medication.
    • If you want to walk more, you need to take a baseline of how much you walk now before you set a goal. If you walk 5,000 steps on average per day you would not set a goal of 10,000 steps every day starting tomorrow!
  • Goals that are performance-based, are determined by examining the student’s baseline performance and increasing that goal gradually.
    • For instance, if the student was performing at 35% in baseline, a good starting performance based goal would be 40%.
    • Let’s go back to the walking goal. If you reliably walk 5,000 steps a day a more reasonable short term goal would be 5,250 or 5,500 (5–10% more than your baseline performance.
  • Preset goals are typically set to a criterion of 80% (e.g., Campbell & Anderson, 2011; Swoszowski 2013). In other words, the person needs to meet at least 80% in order to meet their goal, regardless of how they have performed in the past.
  • While there is a plethora of literature that utilizes a goal criterion of 80% (e.g., Campbell & Anderson, 2011), research suggests that in general, when goals are based on baseline performance they are more effective (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).
  • If the goal is set too high initially, the person may not consider the goal is attainable or worth the response effort to engage in the behavior (Lane et al., 2012).
  • Heward suggests initially that goal should be higher than the average baseline performance, but also lower or equal to the student’s highest percentage in baseline (1980).
  • The rationale is that the percentage is low enough so that the person can initially access reinforcement and then the criteria is gradually increased as the student continues to meet their goal (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007; Lane et al., 2012).


  • According to Cooper and colleagues, behavior change that results in positive, meaningful outcomes have social validity (2007).
  • It is important to modify behavioral goals based on the individual needs of the student, so the behavioral changes that are made are relevant to the student.
  • Additionally, Bruhn and colleagues suggest having students participate in the goal-setting process, which may in turn increase social validity while concomitantly improving behavioral outcomes (2016).


  • Finally, goals should be timely, include a specific time frame of when the goal is anticipated to be formally reached (Jung et al., 2003).
    • For instance, “John will read 100 words with 80% accuracy by this spring. It is important to visually analyze data during the specified time to determine the data’s stability, before making any criterion or phase changing decisions (Cooper et al., 2007).

Setting goals are very important to determine if you or a child is making progress! In education, goal setting is very important to know if a child who is at risk is making progress with the efforts to close the gap. My Behavior Assistant has a goal setting feature that follows the SMART rules!

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