Writing Good IEP Goals

Categories: Data | Interventions | Resources

Let’s all zoom back in our time machines to undergrad when we learned the do’s and don’ts of IEP writing. It seemed so straightforward that we couldn’t ever imagine how someone could write an IEP goal the wrong way. We silently vowed to ourselves that we would ensure to always have detailed and amazing IEP goals that were measurable and objective. Now jump back in that time machine to the present moment. You have written approximately nine thousand IEPs this month alone. You are literally drowning in paperwork. You fly through the motions on each IEP in get-it-done-mode. I’ve been there. I get it. Sometimes we get so far removed from the point and purpose of something, that we need up doing it unintentionally completing wrong. So let’s get back to the basics on our good ole’ IEP goals.  Better IEP goals will make for better lesson planning, better curriculum mapping, better teaching, better parent/teacher collaboration, and better progress. 

Look at your student's current level of performance.

The first letter of the IEP stands for individualized. The IEP goals are driven by the child’s current skills. So figure out what your student can do. Check out this post on my favorite assessments and this post on informal assessments. This is why the IEP writing process needs to get started so far ahead of those dreaded compliance dates. This can take some time. I always recommend writing the compliance dates in your yearly calendar and then two months ahead of that write in assessment dates so you can get starting on getting some assessments done. 

Plan what you will teach them next.

This is the five million dollar question now isn’t it? Sometimes it can be very tricky to figure out where to go next. Developing that skill sequence is something that special ed teachers (aka curriculum creators) are responsible for. The ABLLS is extremely helpful in showing what skills to target. You can also reference your state standards to view skill sequence options. 

Refer to grade level state standards.

These are the big money problem areas right in a row. You need to reference your student’s grade level state standards while creating your goals. I know that can be a daunting and intimidating task but lets ease this anxiety. If you are in a CCSS state, you can reference the Essential Elements which are specific statements of knowledge based on grade level CCSS. 

Whether you are referencing state specific standards or Common Core, you want to “unpack the standard.” There I go, throwing buzz phrases around again. Unpacking the standard means taking an in-depth look at what is included in the standard. Each standard contains so many skills – we want to look at what are all the skills included. You also want to analyze what are all of the component skills (or building blocks) needed to complete that skill. If your child were to demonstrate mastery of this standard, what are all of the skills he needs to know how to do? I am constantly asking that question when reviewing standards. This process is aligning my student’s current skill set and which skills they should learn next with state standards. 


Let’s review a quick example before we fall down this rabbit hole forever. Let’s take this 4th grade standard: Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.2). For my student who is nonverbal and not yet a reader, we are going to delve a little deeper on what major concepts are being discussed here. For identifying the main idea, we are looking at answer “what” questions and finding the most important part of a story. We can create a goal similar by using visuals to answer “what” questions and identify the most important part of a picture. The basis for this goal addresses the underlying concept in this CCSS. 

Make it specific.

After you have your general idea of the concept you are going to teach your student, you need to make it specific. We talk loads about teaching our kids to answer wh- questions but you should apply those same who, what, where, when, and why questions to your IEP goals. Who is working on this goal? What will the student do? Use specific action words (see below) to say exactly what the child is doing. Avoid vague words like learn, think, feel, etc. Where will the student accomplish this task? What materials will he use? When (how often) will he demonstrate the skill? 

Make it objective.

Specific and objective really go hand in hand. And they are both best friends with observable. Those action verbs we listed above are all specific as to what the student is doing and they are also observable and objective. You can see a student write. You can observe a student tell you something. You cannot observe value something, think something, or know something. You want the IEP goal to be something that everyone can see being accomplish and you want the it to be specific enough that teacher A and teacher B both see the same thing. Johnny will write a lot of words is not specific or objective. Johnny will write 10 words is better. 

Make it measurable.

I know we all know about IEP goals being measurable. But what does measurable really mean? And how can we make measurable meaningful? Some goals are written spotlessly, perfectly measurable but you know what? You will not use that measurable criteria because it’s either too complicated or doesn’t fit

So how can we make measurable meaningful? Check out this post on writing measurable goals – a MUST read. You need to think about how you will be taking data on this goal. Will you be doing discrete trial, fluency, or trials throughout the day? Base the ‘measurable’ mastery criteria on how you will be taking data. Start there. As far as what the mastery criteria entails – what does mastery look like? 70% mastery criteria drive me NUTS. Doing something correctly 70% of the time is not mastery. If you crash your car 3 times out of every 10 car trips – have you mastered driving? Think about what mastery will look like.

Mastery may include some prompts – that’s okay. Full independence on a task may not work for all students. But be careful of the frequent offender – “minimal” and “moderate” prompting. Does that sounds objective and measurable to you? NOPE. If you are including prompts in your measurable and objective IEP goal include exact prompt number and types of prompts. Jenny will complete the entire task of washing her hands with no more than 3 verbal or gestural prompts in under 3 minutes. Specific. Observable. Measurable. Boom. 

Types of Criteria to Include: 

  • # correct out of certain # of trials or opportunities
  • percentage correct
  • frequency (number correct in a specified time period – ie. 25 per minute)
  • prompts – use adult prompts as a measurable criteria


for all criteria: how many days must this criteria be reached to be considered mastered? Consecutive of nonconsecutive days/sessions?

Be cautious when using percent correct as your measurable criterion. Percent does not give that much information and can be subjective. 80% correct on 4  trials is very different than 80% on 100 trials. Also how long are these trials taking? Completing 4 math problems in 10 minutes is very different than 4 math problems in 30 seconds. Would you consider those two students having the same level of mastery? Even though both had 100% accuracy. Nope. 

You want a complete stranger to pick up this goal and know exactly what it looks like and what you mean!

It’s a lot work writing good IEP goals but once you get them done they will help drive your instruction and you will be able to track progress so much easier! 


  1. I love very much your website. I am interesting in your writing good IEP goals. I do many IEP during the year.

  2. Hi Sasha,
    I’m an OT and I am having a difficult time understanding what exactly criteria “trials” mean! I see students for individual and or group sessions in a 6 day cycle. I don’t like to put in percentages as they are hard to measure so I’ve alway put in 4/5 on 4 consecutive occasions. Now after much discussion with teachers and other therapists their interpretation of 4/5 trails means that I will need to have a student complet (example) 5 worksheets in a 30 minute session, impossible! I was always taught that 4/5 trials meant that every session the student would complete a worksheet. Please interpret: trials=…. occasions=….
    Thank you!

  3. Great question! I think it can be interpreted either way so depending on the skill may need some clarification in the goal. For your situation, I would use occasions or even sessions. Hope this helps!

  4. Thank you for writing this post on IEP Goals. Teacher Education Programs really need to spend a whole course on the IEP process so preservice teachers feel comfortable and confident creating IEPs for their future students.

  5. Yes, absolutely! Thanks for reading 🙂


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