Writing Effective IEP Goals and Objectives: Suggestions for Teachers and Parents

Daniel Dage


Note from the author: This article is part of a larger series about Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the IEP process in which I go over each part of the IEP in-depth and describe the process from both a teacher perspective and a parent perspective. By far, this article seems to be the most read and searched for of the entire series. However, in actual practice I have not attended many IEPs where the goals and objectives were actually the subject of enough scrutiny by the attendees. Most of the time, the biggest issue of contention is during the discussion of placement.

What most parents (and an embarrassing number of teachers) don’t realize is that goals and objectives are what are going to drive the students’ placement and services during the coming school year. While a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) is the most abused part of the IEP, the goals and objectives are among the most neglected. My youngest, Percy, just had his IEP and while the objectives are different, the criteria for mastery and method of evaluation are all exactly the same; three out of four opportunities, and teacher observation. All the way down. Most teachers simply mark in 75-80% all the way down for criteria. This pretty much renders the objectives as written in the IEP as useless. Because when progress reports come out, teachers are going to eyeball the objective’s progress and make it up as they go out of the air.

Let’s take a sample goal of increasing academic skills and the supporting objective of reading sight words. “Thomas will read 10 sight words.” The criterion is at 80% and the method of evaluation is teacher observation/data collection.

What direction does this give Thomas’ teacher next year? All it says is that he will read 10 words with 80% accuracy. So does he master the objective the first time he reads 8 out of 10? And how is the teacher teaching and tracking this?

Let’s turn this ugly duckling around. Thomas is still going to read 10 words, but now the criteria for mastery is to read 8 of 10 words over 5 consecutive sessions. Now I have a much better idea of what mastery really looks like. And I’m going to evaluate progress using discrete trial data. Now when it comes times to teach this, I know discrete trial is the format of choice. My objective now has the components of a basic lesson plan and Thomas’ next teacher can have a clearer idea of what is to be taught and how to do it.

How about a different goal: Thomas will remain on task for 20 minutes. His caseload manager will put in 80% and have “data collection/teacher observation” as the way to evaluate progress. That objective is all but useless. I have absolutely no way to tell whether he has mastered this or made progress or gotten worse. And there’s no hint of how to teach him to stay on task. The teacher is simply going to pull something out of their butt in order to say he has mastered this by the end of the year. It is a crock of crap.

If you are a parent, look at your child’s goals and objectives in their IEP. If they all have the same criteria and have the same method of evaluation, you are being sold a worthless bill of goods. If they all have a mastery criteria of 80% and nothing else, the goals are rubbish. “Teacher Observation” is shorthand for “pulling results out of my posterior.” “Data collection” is shorthand for “pulling a pencil out of my posterior and using it as a magic wand to make results appear by magic.” If you are a special education teacher and trying to skate by on this, you are wasting your time. It may seem easier to do this, but in the long run you are going to pay dearly. You can not teach from this, much less evaluate how your teaching is working. It’s better to have a few well-thought out objectives than a dozen haphazard ones.

So how can we redeem this objective? Certainly, staying on task and attending are worthy goals if a student has difficulty with this. Think. How long are they attending now? Chances are, you don’t really know. It varies, depending on the task. A student may attend for hours on the computer or video game, but not be able to remain on-task for five minutes for written seat work. So let’s concentrate on seat work. Okay, you’ve already improved your goal by defining the conditions in which you plan on observing and teaching it!

“Thomas will remain on-task during independent written seat work.” Now you know when to observe. Not during circle time or recess, but during those times he has to be sitting down and writing something. Now let’s keep going and improve it more. Is 20 minutes too long? For younger students, it might be. If he is having serious problems, five minutes might be more realistic. But we’re going to find out. How are you going to figure out how well he is doing now? You are are probably going to want to time him. Think again. Take a five minute session and divide it into 30 second intervals. During each 30 second interval, he is either sitting and writing or he is off-task. Track how many intervals he is on-task versus off-task. Let’s say he is off task for half of those intervals. You now have a good idea of how to write this goal. We can still use 80%, but we need to be more precise. Think about how you will get him from 50% to 80%.

“Thomas will remain on-task for 5 minutes with nonverbal prompts and cues.” The criteria will be 80% of intervals over 5 sessions and the evaluation method will be using interval data. Now when you revisit that IEP 3 or 4 months from now you not only know what to teach but have some idea of how you teach and measure it. Making mastery over several sessions gives a better indication of true mastery rather than a whim. If he does master this you can either extend the length of time or up the criteria from 80% to 90%.

Teaching special education involves a high level of sophistication and expertise. Some knowledge of data collection and precise teaching methods is crucial to writing meaningful goals and objectives.

Parents, much of this may seem like Greek to you. But if I present you with an Excel graph of your child’s progress, you will be able to see how your child is doing and anyone can see how quickly or slowly your child is getting it. Success is everyone’s goal, but monitoring and measuring it is the job of the teacher. That’s why the good folks in the county pay us what they do.

You also see why I don’t like too much vagueness. This is why we end up with these senseless tests and calls for accountability from the Feds, because of sloppiness that serves no one. The problem with these tests is that they do not measure ongoing progress. If they fail a test in 3rd grade, they will be tested next in 5th grade after 2 years and after being handed off to 2 different teachers. But at least the tests give some degree of accuracy at a given point in time. In special education, the process needs to be continuous with some degree accuracy. And those new teachers who are being pulled off the street with no training have no idea of how to do it.

Unfortunately, most parents do not have the level of expertise necessary to correct sloppy objectives, much less write good ones of their own. But what they can do is demand accountability. When mastery of previous goals is discussed, ask to see supporting data, such as data sheets and/or a graph. Better still, you might consider asking for these during progress report time. A teacher making stuff up will be forced to either fly right or they will have to make even more stuff up. And making up data is not as easy as it sounds. You will probably be classified as a “problem parent” and might not get a Christmas card from your child’s case manager. But you will end up with a better IEP.

As a teacher (or teacher wannabe) putting this extra thought and effort in the IEP today will help you teach better in the fall. You reap what you sow, and sowing crap in the spring will yield more crap in the fall. One other reason to put this level of work into your objectives is that all of them will comply with alternate assessment criteria. They are supposed to be well-defined and measurable. ALL of them need to be measurable and thinking about how to measure them will help write a better goal.

I want to add one more note to any teachers who might be reading this: Do not try writing meaningful goals the night before the meeting. It simply can not and will not happen. Goal drafts can be started as early as the first progress report when you look at goal mastery and revise it as the year goes on. By the time of the annual review, you should already have an idea of where the student is and where they should be going. You can help yourself and the rest of the committee by submitting both a copy of the goal drafts and a copy of the previous year’s mastery to parents up to a week ahead of the meeting. This gives parents enough time to think about the goals, review them and then add their own suggestions. If parents have suggestions, they can send the draft back, you revise and then send it home again. In just a few rounds, you may end up with goals both parties agree to and you can simply ratify the goals and objectives at the meeting. An added benefit is that it can help parents participate and buy into it. If the student is old enough, don’t forget to include them in this phase as well. Bringing both parents and students into the process during the drafting process can lessen anxiety for everyone as it minimizes surprises.

Writing IEPs is a difficult process. I’m not trying to make them more difficult as much as making them more meaningful. Right now, the way most objectives are written, they are rubbish and an absolute waste of time.

Here is Daniel’s entire IEP series:

A version of this essay was originally published at http://specialed.wordpress.com