Planning with Teens: Whose Goals are These Anyway?

by Aleeza Lubin

“Begin with the end in mind.” The phrase made famous by Stephen R. Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” reminds us that we need to know where we’re going so we can plan a strategy to get there. In Yeshiva University’s “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education“, Beth Cousens outlines the importance of goal-setting as an experiential education “best practice,” but too often, we assume that goals are one-size-fits-all. We mustn’t forget the distinction between organizational goals and participant goals. It’s good to have an organizational, big picture in mind, but those of us who spend our days thinking about participant experiences must look beyond the measures of our own, professional success and consider what we want our participants to achieve. When we help position our participants for success, we are more likely to succeed.

How does this play out with teens, and why is it so challenging? We want participant buy-in, but the reality is that not many 16-year-olds wake up saying, “here are my goals for the day.” We have to make the language of goal-setting relevant to them. Involving them in the process doesn’t mean coming up with goals and then gaining teen approval. And not surprisingly, we won’t be successful by sending an email asking teens to share their goals, either. Most wouldn’t even know where to begin.

I was leading a leadership session a few months ago and I asked the group the following question: “If I want to leave the hotel, which way should I go?” Some were confused, but ultimately someone said I should walk out the door, down the hallway, make a left, continue until I get to the lobby, then make a right out of the hotel doors. I clarified, asking, “So I shouldn’t walk out of this room and make a right?” Again, there was a moment of confusion before someone said, “That won’t help you get out of the hotel.” And then the light bulb went off – we have to start at the beginning.

When we start asking teen leaders, “What do you want your friends saying, thinking and doing at the end of this program experience?” we can remind them that we need to know exactly where we want to go and what we want to achieve so that we can plan for it. Teens have incredibly thoughtful goals in mind; they just don’t have the language to articulate them. We have to guide them to it.

The most common response I get when I ask participants what they want to achieve is, “To have fun!” I recently got that response from a group of teens planning BBYO chapter programs. I then asked all four teens to write down what “fun” meant to them and I got four different answers. By asking some prodding questions and peeling back the layers of what they meant, we actually had four different understandings of what “fun” could be:

  1. Teens meet new teens and develop strong connections to new people.
  2. Teens develop a space where Jewish values can be explored through a connection to local community organizations.
  3. Teens develop a greater sense of sisterhood through programming that shows they can rely on each other and will be supportive of each other in times of need.
  4. Teens engage in physical activity while raising money and awareness in support of a local cause.

Given that goals need to be shared, and that there can be more than one understanding of a goal, why do we find that, as Cousens states, “often, goals are set at the most senior level of the organization?” Could it be because we don’t trust those on the ground, particularly our participants, to set meaningful outcomes? If we are truly going to foster leadership development, we have to take on the role of guide. We must devote the time to helping them formalize their ideas, not cut them out of the process. By doing so, we will simultaneously set up future Jewish leaders for success and our organizations will find their work more on point. In the spirit of Covey, wouldn’t that collaboration be the ultimate way to “think win-win?”

Aleeza Lubin is a Director of Jewish Enrichment for BBYO.