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"SMARTER Steps Guide to Creating Smarter IEP Goals" book written by Kelly Ott and Lara Wakefield on a wooden table with a folder and a coffee mug

How to Write Specific IEP Goals: Part 1 from S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps®

March 6, 2016Lara Wakefield

How To Write Specific IEP Goals: Part 1 

by Kelly Ott, MHS, MEd, and Lara Wakefield, PhD from S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps®, LLC

(The following is an excerpt from the SMARTER Steps to IEP Goals webinars from the SMARTER Steps membership site):

When thinking about the Specific part of the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps IEP Goal acronym, we need to remember that this is the meat of the goal.  It’s the “action” and the “place”.   For example, this is not simply a dog jumping.  This is a Weimaraner retrieving a frisbee from the Pacific ocean.  We need that specific description in the goal.

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Specific IEP Goals: SMARTER

How do we know what is supposed to be in an IEP goal? We need to remember that the federal mandate from IDEA says “Every area of need in the Present Level of Academic and Functional Progress must be addressed in the IEP.” Notice, it does not say there must be an IEP goal for every area, it states that it must be addressed.

So, this is when teams need to decide if the area of need could be addressed with an accommodation or modification instead of an IEP goal.  Or, maybe the need is addressed with assistive technology or through an in-service as support to personnel.   Determining which areas will be addressed within an IEP goal is the first step.

Now, some states DO have a statement that says

“IEP Goals Are present for each special education and related service”

So, you need to find out how your district interprets that?

That statement can be interpreted two ways.  You can have a global IEP goal with the services tied to that single goal.  Each team member would have a responsibility in that goal.  On the other hand, it could be viewed as three separate IEP goals.  If at all possible, you want to aim for that global IEP goal. 

True story of a student from a district that interprets the rule as “separately”.

The team members each wrote goals separately and had this in the student’s IEP.

    • APE  IEP Goal is for following directions to complete stretches
    • Language IEP Goal for following one step directions
    • Reading IEP Goal for reading one step directions to demonstrate comprehension
    • Math IEP Goal for completing one step problems accurately

The student had 4 IEP goals essentially addressing the same skill set.

It’s great that everyone recognized the need for this student to follow one-step commands as a priority, but it seems fragmented and redundant that each one developed a goal addressing the same skill set.  This student had many other concerns in reading that could have been addressed, same with math.  Also, it seems like APE should be working towards physical education type of skill set. 

Remember when you are developing this Present Level that you have considered “educational impact”.  The federal law says that educational impact encompasses academic AND functional areas.  So, when teams say “They don’t need a social language IEP goal because they have good grades.”... that is ignoring 50% of the law.  You must assess the functional impact in some way.  If a student needs social IEP goals or emotional skill set training (related to their disability) then that must be addressed.

In September of 2014, at Acton Public schools in Massachusetts,  the hearing officer found in favor of the parents of a student with autism.   The most interesting statement in the due process report from the hearing officer was

“the sufficiency of a student’s IEP is not measured solely by academic success … an IEP that provides FAPE must promote a student’s development in all areas of need.” So, if you are not looking at all areas of need, then you are not providing FAPE (free appropriate public education).

So, what happened to the student?

His parents placed him at a private school for children with special needs and the Acton school district was ordered to pay private tuition for him for a school year.  So that was a financial impact on the school district. I’m sure that tuition was not cheap.

Another issue that is important to remember relates to the academics part of the law.  Grades are only one indicator of academics.  You need to delve into what is required for the student to maintain the grades.  Are they accessing tutoring? Do they spend 2 hours on homework every night?  Do they sit in class not knowing how to do it, but then have their Mom help them every night when they go home? Do they require extensive cues and in-class help ? Are they consistent in their performance? Or, did they start off with an A and now they are barely “passing”.  Those are important considerations when you are trying to figure out the specific skill sets to target for a student.

Be extremely careful what you put in the Present Level. Ask yourself “what areas are disabling this child to access their educational environment?” The present level should not be a pet peeve listing of all the things a child can’t do or all the little behaviors that irritate the teachers. Also, parents may come with a list of 27 things their child can’t do and expect there to be a goal for each one. 

We highly recommend using a structured prioritization questioning format among staff and parents to determine the most essential underlying skills to address for that IEP year in a goal and/or through accommodations and modification. Some children have many concerns, but we caution against making IEP goals for too many concerns as that only leads to stress and failure for everyone.

School staff can address the lower priority concern areas over the year in classes or therapies, but they do not necessarily need to be set up as IEP goals that are being measured that year.  Too many goals creates IEP stress. If teams talk with parents and use a prioritization method, then this can be documented in the IEP present level or uploaded as an attachment.

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Specific IEP Goals: Prioritize

The Prioritization Worksheet from SMARTER Steps is a helpful tool to help IEP teams have a collaborative goal development process.  Check it out on the Teachers Pay Teachers site:


Coming Soon: Part 2: How to Develop Specific IEP Goals

Kelly Ott, MEd, MHS, CCC-SLP Co-Owner, SMARTER Steps®:  With over 20 years experience as a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, consultant, educator and administrator, Kelly has served children and adults with a diverse range of speech, language, swallowing, learning, and communication needs. She has provided direct speech pathology services, specialized tutoring services, educator professional development training, business communication and presentation training. Kelly is dedicated to providing students, educators, and parents with specialized strategies for achievement.

Lara Wakefield, MHS, PhD, CCC-SLP Co-Owner, SMARTER Steps®: Lara has over 20 years of experience as a Speech-Language Pathologist and Parent Advocate with a focus on children with special needs being socially competent with their peers. Lara has conducted research in the areas of educator collaboration for classroom-based services. Lara assists families and professionals with exploring the research behind evidence-based practices and determining the various educational options available for each child.