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Improving Outcomes Among Employment Program Participants Through Goal Attainment: A Conceptual Framework

November 30, 2017
Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment
Goal-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS), 2014-2020 | Learn more about this project
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  • Published 2017


Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are increasingly interested in the role that self-regulation and goal attainment may play in the ability of low-income adults to get and keep a job. Findings from three broad areas of research fuel this interest. The first suggests that setting and pursuing goals, which can foster positive outcomes in a variety of contexts, requires the ability to self-regulate emotions, thoughts, and behavior (Deci and Ryan 2000). Second, there is growing evidence that conditions associated with poverty can hinder the development and/or use of self-regulation skills (Mullainathan and Shafir 2013). Third, there is evidence that self-regulation skills continue to develop and improve in adulthood (Blair and Raver 2015).

This document presents a conceptual framework suggesting new approaches to improving economic self-sufficiency and well-being outcomes for low-income adults participating in employment programs. Grounded in research on the importance of goals and the factors that contribute to attaining them, the framework suggests interventions that seek to improve participants’ self-regulation skills and behaviors that can help them to achieve their goals. It also suggests ways that programs can change their practices to make it easier for participants to use their skills and increase the likelihood that they will reach their goals. Practitioners, policymakers, and researchers interested in exploring innovative strategies to promote self-sufficiency can use this framework to test new approaches. Creating new programs or incorporating these approaches into existing ones has the potential to address barriers to employment and improve the success of traditional education and occupational skills training.

Research Questions

  1. 1 How does existing research describe the psychological processes associated with goal achievement and differentiate between related constructs?
  2. 2 What does existing research say about improving goal achievement behavior in adults?
  3. 3 What can we learn from existing programs that apply this research?


Despite progress over more than 20 years to improve employment outcomes for low-income adults, self-sufficiency remains elusive for many families. The conceptual framework presented in this document presents a new approach that draws on psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science to suggest ways to help adults with limited incomes find jobs and stay employed. The framework includes three interconnected components that can influence employment-related outcomes: self-regulation skills, the goal achievement process, and the environment in which people live and work and programs operate. It also provides concrete programming options for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners interested in designing new interventions in the context of employment programs.

Key Findings and Highlights

Self-regulation and goal attainment are promising areas of focus for employment programs. In our conceptual framework, self-regulation skills enable people to prepare for behavior change and to set, pursue, and evaluate goals (together, these actions are referred to as the goal achievement process). Engaging in a goal achievement process enables people to attain their personal employment-related goals, which eventually can lead to increased well-being and self-sufficiency. Aspects of the environment, including the program environment, can support or hinder the use of self-regulation skills and a person’s engagement in a goal achievement process. Evidence-informed interventions for strengthening self-regulation skills and goal achievement do exist, though none have been rigorously tested in the context of employment programs for low-income individuals. Employment and other programs funded by public or private agencies may be candidates for incorporating and testing these interventions, not only to build knowledge of whether and how they work, but also to provide an evidence base for the theoretical relationships presented in the framework.


This report is based on the following sources: (1) a synthesis of literature on the relationship between self-regulation, goal attainment, and the environment and on how programs have been or could be adapted to promote goal attainment; (2) consultations with experts, practitioners, and other stakeholders; and (3) telephone interviews and site visits to programs currently implementing interventions focused on improving self-regulation skills or goal attainment.


Anderson, Mary Anne, Jacqueline F. Kauff, and Elizabeth W. Cavadel. (2017). Improving Outcomes Among Employment Program Participants Through Goal Attainment: A Conceptual Framework, OPRE Report #2017-90, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last Reviewed: December 18, 2018