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What You Need to Know About IDEA & IEPs:
Present Levels of Functional Performance & Functional Goals in IEPs
by Pat Howey, Paralegal and Advocate

Question: Help! Our child's IEP team refused to include any functional goals in the last IEP. When we said we would have to request another IEP meeting to resolve this issue, they agreed to include a few functional goals. I am afraid this will happen again. What can I do?

Answer: Since history tends to repeat itself, you are wise to think this may happen again.

Write a polite thank you letter that describes what you requested, what the IEP team said about not including functional goals in the IEP, and what the team finally agreed to provide.

Assume your letter will be read by a school administrator who has the power to make decisions so it's important to include relevant information about your child's unique needs and your concerns. To learn more about this strategy, read Preparing for IEP Meetings: Providing Information & Sharing Concerns.

You need to know what IDEA requires for present levels of functional performance and functional goals in IEPs. Don't assume the members of your team have read the law and regulations.

The requirements about using present levels of functional performance to develop functional goals in IEPs for all children with disabilities are in the federal special education law (IDEA), the federal special education regulations, and the Commentary. You'll find the requirements to use present levels of functional performance to develop functional goals on pages 99 and 245 of Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition.

Question: What does the word "functional" mean, as in "functional performance" and "functional goals"?

Answer: "Functional" means nonacademic, as in “routine activities of everyday living.” This definition should help all IEP team members understand that the purpose of the IEP is to prepare children with disabilities for life after school. The definition should also help team members to understand that teaching children how to "function" in the world is just as important as teaching academic skills.

The Commentary to the Regulations answered a question about defining functional skills as follows: "It is not necessary to include a definition of "functional" in these regulations because we believe it is a term that is generally understood to refer to skills or activities that are not academic or related to a child’s academic achievement. Instead, "functional" is often used in the context of routine activities of everyday living." (Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46661)

The Commentary clarifies that the child's IEP should be based on the child's individual and unique needs. The IEP describes what the school will provide, given the child's unique needs for specific functional skills.

Question: What are examples of functional skills?

Functional skills are skills an individual needs to live as independently as possible. Functional skills describe the routine activities of everyday life -- communication, mobility, behavior, social skills, and daily living skills. Or you can begin by listing categories of functional skills:

  • Life Skills
  • Functional Academic Skills
  • Community-Based Learning Skills
  • Social Skills

"We do not believe it is necessary to include examples of functional skills in the regulations because the range of functional skills is as varied as the individual needs of children with disabilities." (Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46661)

Question: Can you share a few ways to measure functional skills ?

Answer: To measure the child’s present levels of functional skills, the school needs to evaluate these skills. IDEA has requirements for tests and assessments in an evaluation. The school must use "a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child, including information provided by the parent."

The Commentary to the regulations says: "We also decline to include examples of how functional skills are measured because this is a decision that is best left to [the school] and based on the child's needs . . . However, it should be noted that the evaluation procedures used to measure a child’s functional skills must meet the same standards as all other evaluation procedures, consistent with § 300.304(c)(1)." (Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46661)

Question: What does the word "appropriate" mean when used to refer to a child’s participation in "appropriate" activities? (Regulation § 300.320(a)(1)(ii))

This clarification emphasizes the need to focus on the unique needs of the child. An “appropriate” goal or activity for one child may be completely inappropriate for another child. Children are like snowflakes; no two are alike.

"The word "appropriate" in these regulations does not have a different meaning from its common usage. Generally, the word "appropriate" is used to mean "suitable" or "fitting" for a particular person, condition, occasion, or place. (Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46661)

Question: Must all IEPs have a functional performance statement or functional annual goals?

Answer: Yes. This is required by law, regardless of whether the ultimate goal of the IEP is to teach the child functional skills or academic skills.

"Section 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I) of the Act requires an IEP to include a statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance." (Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46662)

Find Answers to Your Questions in the Wrightslaw: Special Education Law E-book

We opened Wrightslaw: Special Education Law E-book and searched for three terms: functional performance, functional skills, and functional goals. [Click Edit - then Search or Find]

"Functional performance" was used 28 times, including:

In Findings and Purposes, page 47

In Prohibition on mandatory medication, pages 84 and 225

In Reevaluations, pages 95 and p 240

In Evaluations before a change in eligibility (and the requirement that the school provide the child with a summary of academic achievement and functional performance if the child is no longer eligible because of graduation with a regular diploma or the child ages out of special ed), pages 98 and 240

In Requirements for IEPs, pages 99 and 245

In Requirements for the Statement of Individual Appropriate Accommodations to measure the child's academic achievement and functional performance on state and district testing, pages 100 and 246.

We found the terms "functional skills" and "functional goals" five times.

To learn the requirements for using present levels of functional performance to develop functional goals in IEPs, see pages 99 and 245 in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition. Order the book

Find Answers to Your Questions in the Commentary

When the Department of Education published the regulations to implement IDEA, they also published an “Analysis of Comments and Changes” (Commentary) to the regulations. The Commentary in the Federal Register begins at page 46547 and continues through page 46743.

The Commentary provides definitions and discussions of legal terms in the IDEA statute and regulations, and often clarifies the “plain meaning” of a term. If you are doing legal research or looking for the answer to a specific question, the Commentary is an invaluable resource. You can download the full text of the Commentary as one document or as eight smaller files on different topics from

More Resources about IDEA & IEPs

IDEA: What You Need to Know About IEPs for Children with Behavior Problems - IDEA and the special education regulations include specific requirements for IEPs of children whose behavior impedes their learning or the learning of other children, including training teachers to use positive behavioral interventions and strategies.

Roadmap to IDEA: What You Need to Know About IEPs & IEP Meetings How did IEPs change under IDEA? What does the law say about developing, reviewing and revising IEPs? Who may be excused from IEP meetings, when, how? When can the child's IEP be changed without an IEP meeting? What services must be provided when a child transfers to a district in the same state? A different state?

IDEA: What You Need to Know About IEP Team Members & IEP Team Attendance Learn about IEP team members and IEP team attendance, when team members may be excused from a meeting, and what parents and the school district must do before a team member may be excused.

10 Tips: How to Use IDEA 2004 to Improve Education for Children with Disabilities - Parent attorney Wayne Steedman explains how IDEA creates a higher standard for a free, appropriate public education and how parents can obtain better IEPs for their children. Learn how to include research based methodology in the IEP and ensure that the IEP goals are comprehensive, specific -- and measurable. Wayne advises you about pitfalls to avoid and offers advice about how to resolve disputes without resorting to a due process hearing - and what you should do if you cannot resolve your dispute.

Meet Pat Howey

Pat HoweyPatricia Howey has supported families of children with disabilities since 1985. She has a specific learning disability and became involved in special education when her youngest child entered kindergarten. Pat has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have a variety of disabilities and she has used her experience to advocate for better special education services for several of them.

Pat is a charter member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and served on its Board of Directors. She has been a Commissioner on the Tippecanoe (County) Human Relations Committee, a graduate of Leadership Lafayette and Partners in Policymaking, and is a member of the Wrightslaw Speakers Bureau. She has been on the faculty of the College of William and Mary Law School’s Institute of Special Education Advocacy since its inception in 2011.

Pat has an A.S. and a B.A. in Paralegal Studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She is an Indiana Registered Paralegal and an affiliate member of the Indiana Bar and the American Bar Associations.

In 2017, Pat closed her advocacy practice and began working on a contract basis as a special education paralegal. In January 2019, she joined the Connell Michael Kerr law firm where her duties expanded to assisting with federal court cases.

Read more of Pat's answers to questions submitted by people just like you in Ask the Advocate on Wrightslaw.

"Changing the World -- One Child at at Time"

Contact Information
Patricia L. Howey, B.A., IRP
POB 117
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117
E-mail: specialedconsulting | at |

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