Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

3 Questions to Uncover Students’ Hidden Potential

How to help young people find their purpose
By Scott Barry Kaufman — January 03, 2024 2 min read
How can I help students figure out what's important to them?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How can I help students figure out what’s important to them?

I answered this question recently, along with others, for Character Lab in a Tip of the Week:

How do you define purpose, and why is it important?

I define purpose as having an energizing goal that is meaningful to you. When you have a purpose, there’s often a fundamental reordering of your most central strivings. Things that may have mattered to you before don’t seem to matter as much anymore and things that didn’t matter may have moved up in importance. The goal itself is energizing, not depleting. You’re not thinking, “I have to do this.” You want to do it.

How can teachers help young people think about purpose?

Teachers can ask questions that help kids figure out what’s most important to them. Here are some examples: Through the course of your day, which things are the most intrinsically enjoyable to you or just feel great? Which ones not only feel great but also make you feel like you’re learning and growing in some way? When you wake up in the morning, what are some of the first things you think about that you’re excited about doing during your day? These kinds of questions help disentangle what goals they feel they should have versus the goals they genuinely want to have.

Does focusing on your own goals make you selfish?

On the contrary. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in his 1962 book Toward a Psychology of Being, “Self-actualization . . . paradoxically makes more possible the transcendence of the self, and of self-consciousness and of selfishness.” Finding your purpose can help you think beyond the self and connect to the larger world.

What do people often get wrong about purpose?

In the classroom, we sometimes treat our subject matter—math, grammar, history, and so on—as the most important thing in the world. If a student is more interested in something else, we disapprove. We overlook the other sparks and talents they have. So I think we should all—from teachers to parents to even friends—try to spot the potential and the seeds of a higher purpose that are often quite evident but ignored.

We all want to feel like we’re uniquely making some impact in the life that we’re living. Sometimes, teenagers can act out in ways that scream, I want to matter. The more we help kids focus and channel their energy, opinions, and thoughts, the better. Even the exploration process can make them feel a greater sense of agency, as though they are the author of their lives and not just passive recipients of their environment.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Nobody Wants to Look Stupid: Resources for Teaching About Executive Functions
Executive functioning is a learned skill, explains an educational therapist. Here’s how to teach it to your students—and yourself.
Lexi Peterson
4 min read
Little girl inside head of woman papercut vector illustration. Psychology, inner child, human individuality and memory of childhood healing concept
iStock/Getty Images
Student Well-Being Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Teens’ Tobacco and Nicotine Use?
Answer these seven questions about students’ nicotine and tobacco habits.
1 min read
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
Steven Senne/AP
Student Well-Being Q&A A Superintendent Explains Why Her District Is Suing Social Media Companies
Student mental health and behavioral issues have become a major drain on district resources as social media use has risen.
3 min read
Teenage girl looking at smart phone
Student Well-Being A Mental Health Screening Saved Students’ Lives in This District
A district that deployed a universal mental health screening was able to intervene immediately with five students who had suicide plans.
4 min read
Vector illustration of a counselor or psychologist holding a clipboard in one hand and an umbrella above in the other over an anxious woman who is tucking her head into her knees with a tangled line hovering above her head.