The Most Critical Component of Your Child’s IEP

by Molly Matava on 04/06/2012

Goals are arguably the most important part of an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Yet during an IEP meeting, the most contentious discussions often center around services. I’ve had many parents ask me, how do I get this service or how can I get more sessions of that? My reply is, “Show me your goals.” Goals in an IEP should be the determining factors for services, accommodations, and ultimately, placement. They provide the road map for your child’s year long “trip.”

Spend the Time to Create a Custom Map




Realistic and relevant


Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals is a well-established acronym. I’ve used these principles in my own life in everything from expanding my career to working out at the gym. Setting IEP goals is no different. While you can find goal ideas on many websites and school districts often have “boilerplate” goals based on the many IEPs they develop, consider these as starting points. IEP goals should be tailored to fit your child’s individual needs.

You Have to Know Where You’re Starting From to Set a Course for Success

In order to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, you first need to know where you’re starting. In IEP discussions, this is called “present levels of performance,” and you need to establish these in all areas. The IEP has a standard list including Academic, Communication, Gross/Fine Motor, Social Emotional/Behavioral, Health, Vocational, and Adaptive/Daily Living Skills. I also like to consider Executive Functioning, Transition, and Self-Advocacy skills. If your child is five years old, you might think these last three don’t apply quite yet. There can be age appropriate goals in these areas, but it will likely require some research to understand them and to make the case to the IEP team to include them.

School staff should have their own information based on different factors including progress towards current goals (both met and unmet), general education and special education testing, and observations. I often suggest that parents write their own Parent Report to present at the IEP. This can include the standard “strengths” and “deficits” but it should go beyond the basics. Here are some examples:

  • Amount of time spent on homework and level of parent assistance: This can be quite different than the other students and is important to note. Excessive time could indicate deficits in attention, processing speed, executive functioning or fine motor, and may require goals or accommodations in the IEP.
  • Behaviors at home: Some children are able to maintain good behavior all day and break down when they get home.
  • Social observations at home and in community settings: For students on the autism spectrum, goals should be written across settings so that skills are generalized.
  • Learning profile: Do they learn best through multi-modes of see, touch, do; do they need extra time to process verbal instructions; do they benefit from written instructions?

Have a Map to Each Place You Plan to Visit

For every area of need, you should write at least one goal. I’ve had school members resist writing goals for a student because they were “embedded in the curriculum.” In my experience, if it’s not written down, there’s no way to measure progress and no means of accountability. Remember, goals drive services, so be sure all areas of deficit are adequately covered.

Some school districts write goals to state standards. Check your Department of Education for a copy of the standards for your state. These are educational mandates that have been developed as a result of No Child Left Behind (Elementary and Secondary Education Act—ESEA) which was developed in 2001. For IEP planning purposes, be careful about writing goals only to the standards because they can be somewhat narrow in scope. While some school districts only write goals to the standards, others say “this child can’t possibly meet the standard in this area, so let’s not set him up to fail.” I don’t accept either of these positions and neither should you. Push for specific data to establish baselines and meaningful progress to put your child on the road to success.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to effectively monitor goals. Regardless of when your annual IEP is, you need to be considering progress towards goals as the school year comes to a close.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Harryman April 26, 2012 at 11:02 PM

Great write-up. As a parent of two special needs kids, I can say this is very good advice and insight. Parents should not underestimate the effectivity of services and the goals set to direct them.


Danny April 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Great post Molly. It is helpful when the parents present their information to the IEP team about the home life and the activities the child does outside of school. I like how you went over S.M.A.R.T because it helps the parents and the schools to know what the parent’s plan is for their child. I like how you mention Executive Function and Self-Advocacy skills because those are one of my top things I work on with my students because when the kids become adults they will need to know how to advocate for themselves in college, workplace, and in life, and also having the Executive Functioning skills is important to help them to be successful.

Great ideas on helping the parents on services and goals.


Molly Matava April 29, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Coming from a special ed teacher, those are high compliments! Thanks!


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