Individual Differences in Achievement Goals among Young Children


  • This research was supported by NICHD Postdoctoral Training grant no. HD07205 to the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The authors are grateful to Dorothy Black, Joelle Greene, and Audrey Wessler for help with coding and analyzing the speech data, and to Kathleen M. Cain for helpful comments on the manuscript. We thank the parents of the children who participated in the study and the teachers and administrators of the Lower School at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for their support. We also greatly appreciate the thoughtful comments of three anonymous reviewers.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Patricia A. Smiley, Department of Psychology, 550 N. Harvard Ave., Pomona College, Claremont, CA 91711.


Smiley, Patricia A., and Dweck, Carol S. Individual Differences in Achievement Goals among Young Children. Child Development, 1994 65, 1723–1743. Developmental research has generally not found evidence of helpless responses to failure in young children; a prevailing view is that young children lack the cognitive prerequisite for helplessness. However, recent evidence suggests that even preschoolers are vulnerable to helplessness in some situations. In the present study with 4- and 5-year-olds, we tested a goal-confidence model that predicts achievement behavior during failure for older children. We first categorized preschoolers' orientations toward “learning” or “performance” goals based on their preference for a challenging or nonchallenging task. As for older children, goal orientation was independent of ability and predicted cognitions and emotions during failure. Further, consistent with the model, within a learning goal, children displayed the mastery-oriented pattern regardless of confidence level, whereas within a performance goal, children with low confidence were most susceptible to helplessness. These behavior patterns were found on a second task as well. Thus, our findings show that individual differences in achievement goals emerge very early.