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Writing IEP Goals

by Ruth Heitin, Ph.D., Educational Consultant

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Creating an IEP with a team of people who are all there to design a good educational program for one unique child can be a pleasure. It can also be very productive. When the whole team has the same level of understanding about IEPs, it is even better.  Sounds like crazy talk?  Just ask those who have seen it happen.  The big winner here is the child.

A Lesson in Writing IEP Goals

An IEP is good educational programming.  Good IEPs set the standard for good education.  Each part of the IEP addresses an important part of educational planning.  The IEP team focuses on the unique educational needs of an individual student.  The goals reflect the child’s needs.  Designing well-formed goals is an important part of writing an IEP.

“How do I find examples of good IEP goals?”

Marie, the mother who asked this question, had attended several IEP meetings for her child. She did not think the goals the IEP team proposed were good. Yet, she didn’t know what good IEP goals look like.

If you are a teacher, you may have the same questions. Good IEPs set the standard for good teaching. Each part of the IEP addresses an important part of educational planning.

IEP goals must be individualized. Rather than relying on sample goals, you need to learn how to write IEP goals that meet the unique needs of a particular child.


We all set goals for ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not. Our goals can be as simple as getting to work on time. They can be as complex as budgeting our expenses. We know what we need to do, and we set out to do it.

An IEP goal is not unlike a personal goal. With an IEP goal, we create an educational program for a child with special needs. An IEP goal describes what we hope the child will achieve, or the intended outcome of instruction.

The outcome is stated as an action we expect to see. Goals must be measured in an objective way. We have to be able to see the action or count it or score it. When we state goals clearly as actions, measuring progress comes naturally from the goal. A goal must establish a criterion for acceptable mastery.

In short, when we write instructional goals we have to know what the child needs to learn and what action we want to see. We have to measure progress toward the goal. Finally, we set a level of mastery that we expect.

We use standardized tests and informal assessments to measure a child’s progress toward the goals.  We can do tallies or checklists or give tests specific to the action we seek. Anyone who looks at the measurement should be able to understand it. And, all those who review the measurement should be able to come to the same conclusion.

Learning how to write individualized IEP goals is an important first step in developing your child’s IEP. IEP goals should also be SMART and based on good educational practice.

SMART IEP goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Use Action words
  • Realistic
  • Time-limited

Educational research will help you identify essential skills in the core academic subjects of reading, writing, and math. When you know the sequence of skills for a subject, you will know how skills build on each other. You can identify gaps in skills – skills that your child hasn’t mastered and needs to learn.

Think about how children learn math. A child learns how to add and subtract. Then he is ready to learn how to multiply and divide.

Before you can develop measurable IEP goals, the child’s skills must be measured objectively. Objective data about a child’s skills are the baselines for goals. This data also should show progress, or lack of it, when measured over time.

We tend to use the terms “goal” and “objective” to mean the same thing. In IEPs, there is a distinction between them. We write annual goals. Objectives are the short-term steps to reach


In 2000, the report of experts on the National Reading Panel explained the research in reading. This included more than 10,000 research studies.  All this information helped form a better understanding of reading and what works in teaching (see  The findings from the research changed reading instruction forever.  In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (see  The results of the research were included there, too.

Reading instruction requires explicit, intensive, and systematic instruction in the five necessary components of reading instruction:

  • Phonemic Awareness - the ability to hear and sequence sounds in spoken words.
  • Phonics - the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
  • Fluency - the ability to read text accurately and quickly.
  • Vocabulary - the words students must know to communicate effectively.
  • Comprehension - the ability to understand and gain meaning from what has been read.

Learning to read requires a child to learn specific skills in sequence. Children who have difficulty learning to read have deficiencies in phonemic awareness skills. A child with weak phonemic awareness skills will have difficulty learning phonics skills. This child will not be a fluent reader. If the child does not master phonics and fluency, he will not be able to master vocabulary and reading comprehension.

One young teacher made a banner to illustrate the sequence of reading skills.  This came from the specialized program she was using.  As students learned a skill, she would advance them down the banner.  This made it easy for her to write specific reading goals.


After children master math operations skills (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing), they learn how to use reasoning to solve word problems.

One of my clients, Jane, had this math goal in her IEP:

Jane will use problem solving strategies to solve 2 step word problems with + and – (0 – 999) and x and division (0 – 12) on 3/4 trials.

This is NOT a good IEP goal. Why not?

The intended outcome might have been for Jane to solve two-part word problems. But this goal says she needs to learn to use problem-solving strategies. The goal does not state whether she will be able to solve problems. Worse, this goal includes all math operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing), making the goal overly broad.

Jane’s math goal is not SMART. It is not specific or measurable. It does not use action words, and is not realistic or time-limited.

How can we revise this goal to make it SMART?

According to Jane’s IEP, using objects helps her to solve problems. A better goal for Jane might be:

Using real money, Jane will be able to show how much money she has after she receives two weeks of allowance, and how much money she will have left after she buys one object, with 75 percent accuracy measured twice weekly each quarter.

Now, the goal meets the five criteria for a SMART IEP goal.


Achievement in written language requires many skills. Mechanics help make thoughts clear. Word usage and sentence structure help make the writing interesting. Good thought expression sends the desired message.

In Jane’s IEP, her writing goal read:

Jane needs to write a paragraph, with a topic sentence and at least 4 detail sentences, on one given topic using her editing checklist measured twice monthly.

So, if Jane writes that paragraph, has she achieved that goal?

By the way it was written, the intended outcome is that Jane only “needs” to write a paragraph to meet the goal.

A better writing goal for Jane is:

Jane will write and edit a five-sentence paragraph that addresses a given subject twice a month. Each paragraph will include a topic sentence, at least four details and a conclusion. She will earn a score of 75 percent or higher on a writing rubric for each writing assignment.  There will be at least four writing assignments per quarter.

Tip: Rubrics are useful scoring tools that measure a child’s progress. A writing rubric includes the criteria and standards used to assess a child’s performance on writing assignments.

The revised goal is specific and measurable. It uses action words, is realistic, and time-limited. The revised goal is SMART!

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Meet Dr. Ruth Heitin

Dr. Ruth HeitinRuth Heitin is a Special Education Consultant serving students with special needs and their parents – evaluating students, consulting with families and schools, and serving as an expert witness in legal proceedings. Dr. Heitin has served as an expert witness in mediations, court trials and more than 40 due process hearings.

Dr. Heitin’s doctoral degree is in Special Education Administration. She has been certified as a general education teacher, special education teacher and elementary school principal.

Ruth has been a speaker with Pete Wright in Wrightslaw training - All About IEPs. She is also a contributor to the Wrightslaw newsletter, the Special Ed Advocate, as well as authoring articles in other educational publications.

Contact Info:

Ruth Heitin, Ph.D.
100 West Howell Avenue,
Alexandria, VA 22301

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