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How Can I Develop SMART IEP Goals for Behavior Problems?

by Pam Wright

Debbie writes:

First, it was a pleasure to attend your Special Ed Law & Advocacy Conference in Bridgewater NJ last month. It was also a pleasure to sit with you two at lunch.

In a nutshell, my son is 7 years old, going into 2nd grade next year. He is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, and Anxiety Separation Disorder. He has been receiving Special Education Services since age four.

His strengths are in Fluency/Comprehension and Spelling. His weaknesses are in the Personal & Social Development area. His placement is in a self-contained/ small class setting for Language Arts Literacy and Mathematics and in mainstream classes with adult support for all other subjects.

I want to learn to create SMART IEP goals for his areas of weakness. I am having a hard time figuring out how to make to make behavior goals SMART – specific, measurable, use action words, realistic, and time-limited. I appreciate suggestions or examples.

In Personal & Social Development, the grading key on his report card is “N” (needs improvement). This year, the school put in place a Behavior Mod program based on “1,2,3 Magic”

Examples of my son’s problem behaviors:
Does not follow directions
Does not follow school & classroom rules
Does not listen attentively
Does not refrain from calling out
Does not refrain from excessive talking
Does not use time constructively
Does not work cooperatively in groups

(from Pam) Thanks for your note. We enjoyed the folks who attended the Bridgewater program too. The food at Maggiano’s was outstanding. I’m afraid some people had trouble staying awake after lunch. <sm>

You put your question under “How to Post a Comment.” I’m going to make it a “post” so more people will read it and benefit from it. My answer is longer than I like for the Wrightslaw Way blog, but I can’t answer your questions in a few words.

I have a question: You say the school implemented a behavior program based on 1-2-3 Magic. To implement this program in school, the teachers need to be trained. One of the co-authors of 1-2-3 Magic provides professional development. There is research that supports the 1-2-3 Magic training program for parents. I didn’t find any research about the program’s effectiveness in schools. On the web site is a statement that children with ASD and Aspergers “usually need more intensive and specialized training to help them develop reciprocal social interactions and language skills.”

Your question: How can I develop SMART IEP goals for behavior problems?

The process is the same for any goal – academic or behavioral. You need to clearly define the target behavior. (Note: the behavior should be described in nonjudgmental terms.) The school needs to gather baseline data on the behavior for the Present Levels of Performance before developing specific measurable goals.

A word about appropriate goals: Your child is 7 years old. He has Aspergers Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, Opposite Defiant Disorder, ADHD, and Anxiety Separation Disorder. The behaviors you listed are symptoms of these neurological conditions. At age seven, these behaviors are not under his control. He will need a great deal of help from highly skilled teachers and therapists, parents, and others. Together, these adults will need to teach him how to bring these behaviors under control. This isn’t going to happen overnight, or in one or two years.

Remember: SMART IEPs includes an “R.” “R” stands for “realistic and relevant.” You and the school need to be realistic about behavior goals for a 7 year-old with a myriad of problems based on neuro-behaviorial conditions.

You included a list of problem behaviors. Is this your list or the school’s list? All the problems or goals are written in negative terms:

* Does not follow directions
* Does not follow school & classroom rules
* Does not listen attentively
* Does not refrain from calling out
* Does not refrain from excessive talking
* Does not use time constructively
* Does not work cooperatively in groups
* Does not work well independently

As written, several problems listed are not specific or measurable.

For example: “Does not listen attentively.” This statement is not measurable. We can’t observe if a child “listening attentively.” We will have better luck if we rephrase that goal to “paying attention.” We can observe how often the child is paying attention in a specific period of time, then develop a series of goals to help him improve in this area. To be measurable, we must be able to observe it or count it.

Take this goal> “Does not use time constructively.” Again, the statement is written in negative terms. How can we tell that a child is not using time “constructively”? We can’t. But if the goal is changed to “Increase the # of minutes (or other unit of time) that he is on task,” you can get baseline information for the Present Levels by observing the amount of time he is on and off task.

You make behavior measurable by defining the factors surrounding the behavior. These factors include:

* Precipitating events (i.e., “when asked to work independently”)
* Environmental factors (i.e., “when dealing with female authority figures”)
* Other observable patterns (i.e., after lunch, “always on the playground,” “in math class”)

You can also make behavior measurable by defining the results of the behavior (i.e., “removal from the classroom increases the negative behavior.”)

To learn more about SMART IEPs, read Chapter 12, SMART IEPs, in “From Emotions to Advocacy” (pages 115-130). If you don’t have the book, you can download that chapter for free:

Also, read “IEPs for Children with Behavior Problems” by Pat Howey:

Since you attended the Bridgewater program, you may remember that many of these statements were made in Pete’s elementary school report cards – he doesn’t pay attention, talks too much, wastes time, is fussy and too free with his fists, etc. That was in the early 50’s. I think teachers, especially special education teachers, are more knowledgeable about these issues today, but there are always exceptions.

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36 Comments on "How Can I Develop SMART IEP Goals for Behavior Problems?"


The school psychologist toolbox (website) has a bank of IEP goals on behavior that are a good starting point.
I would suggest looking it up.


I am a special education teacher. I have just recieved a child that was made ED and placed in my ED/SDC class. The child scored high on all asessment test. Showed progress on Proficent on all state testing but doesn’t come to schol consistently. When he comes he is stoned. Depending on the amount he uses prior to school will determine how functional he will be in class. He readily admits to being stoned. I give him the general education curriculm with no accomodations because he can do it provided he is sober. The goals that were written are school consistency and transistion goals. Does the IEP need to have academic goals? Is this child a special ed child?


What did you decide? Did you write academic goals for this student? Curious, same position.


hi. you probably know by now. but the student does seem t have a disability though it doesn’t sound like it academic. rather socio emotional.


If you do a search for “School wide positive behavioral supports” you will find a research based plan that helps children develop positive behaviors in school. All the other ideas are great but you have to use lingo that the schools will respond to and understand.

Any plan has to be well written, and easy to implement for it to work. The teachers who are involved with your child have to understand the plan, why it is important to your child’s success in school, and have the resources they need to implement the plan. Depending on your child’s age and cognitive ability it should be one that they buy into.

Work on the most important goals first and build from there. If you attack all at once the child will be overwhelmed and not feel successful. A behavioral plan should include a few goals which are easy for the child to attain


When will you be coming to Northern NJ?


Our child has Reactive Attachment Disorder. We have asked each year for an IEP. I was fortunate enough to stay out of work and use my degree in education to teach him reading, writing, and math skills. His behaviors, taking a knife to school, threatening and assaulting children, voicing suicidal and homocidal thoughts does not constitute and IEP. At our CFT Meeting this past week, we were told that there wasn’t enough difference in scores, so he could not have an IEP. The principal said we cannot ask this year because it’s too late; however the therapist says differently. My concern is that if our son flies through the test, he will fail. If he had one on one testing, he would do much better; however the school team wants to remove our son as soon as his testing is over. This won’t help his score, but will leave his class in peace.