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SMART IEPs (Step 4): Write Measurable (Not Abstract) Goals

Individualized education program (IEP) goals cannot be broad statements about what a child will accomplish. Goals that cannot be measured are non-goals. Learn how to help the IEP team devise specific, measurable, realistic goals.

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A SMART IEP is an individualized education program that is: specific, measurable, filled with action words, realistic and relevant, and time-limited.

Attitude statements are non-goals

A parent wondered if “commitment to academic success” was an appropriate goal. IEPs often include attitude statements, i.e., “have a good attitude,” “display a cooperative spirit,” or “develop healthy peer relationships.”

You cannot measure an attitude. An attitude is a state of mind that exists within an individual. Attitudes are not measurable, nor are attitudes observable to outsiders.

You must be able to describe an outcome to know if the goal has been met. How will you know if an attitude goal is met? Can you measure Johnny’s “better attitude?” No. Can you observe “commitment to academic success?” No.

Perhaps we agree that Johnny has a better attitude. On what do we base our opinions? Dr. Robert Mager, author of books about goal analysis and measuring educational outcomes, explains that we base our opinions on circumstantial evidence.

We use circumstantial evidence to decide if Johnny’s attitude has improved. If Johnny displays behaviors that we associate with a good attitude, we conclude that Johnny’s attitude has improved. Examples: Johnny smiles often. Johnny stopped yelling at the teacher and his classmates. Johnny offers to help others. These are observations, not subjective beliefs.

How to deal with attitude goals

Assume your son Johnny has behavior problems in class. The IEP team proposes to change Johnny’s behavior. You agree that this is an appropriate goal but you have concerns about the educators’ ability to devise specific, measurable, realistic goals to address the behavior. clear goals and objectives. What can you do?

Ask questions (the Columbo strategy)

Use the Columbo Strategy. Ask questions: “5 Ws + H + E” questions. (Who, What, Why, Where, When, How, and Explain.) Tell the school staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question. (Do you see why we call this the “Columbo Strategy?”)

What is Johnny doing? How often? When? Ask more questions. Listen attentively to the answers. If you use “5 Ws + H + E” questions skillfully, you may be able to help school personnel shift from reporting their feelings and beliefs to reporting their observations.

From the team members’ comments, you can make a list of behaviors. What behaviors will they observe? Who will observe these behaviors? When? How often? As you continue to ask questions, the team members will make statements that describe observable behavior — circumstantial evidence.

Finally, his teacher says, “Johnny pinches his classmates at least two times an hour.” Good! Now you have data. You have Johnny’s present levels of performance in pinching to use as a starting point.

You ask, “What change in Johnny’s pinching behavior do we seek?”

The teacher may say, “Johnny should never pinch anyone.” While this may be true, you need a baseline starting point before you can develop a goal and measure improved behavior.

After some discussion, the team formulates this goal: “During the next two weeks, Johnny will pinch classmates no more than once every two hours.” Now you have a goal that allows you to measure changes in Johnny’s pinching behavior.

Anticipate resistance from educators if you criticize abstract goals and request observable goals and objectives. When you encounter resistance, use this strategy suggested by Dr. Mager.

Ask the resistant person to describe the child’s negative, undesirable observable behaviors. Make a list of these negative observable behaviors that need to be changed. When you finish your list, turn the list around and use the list to describe desired positive behaviors. These positive behaviors are “circumstantial evidence” that can be used to determine that the goal has been reached.

Make behavior measurable

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

  • precipitating events (“when asked to work independently”)
  • environmental factors (“when dealing with female authority figures”)
  • other observable patterns (“after lunch,” “always on the playground,” “in math class”)

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

Non-goals: states of being

Many IEPs include goals that cannot be measured. Examples: to appreciate music, to understand weather, to have a better attitude, to develop a love of reading, to show respect for authority.

Non-Goal: The student will appreciate classical music. To accomplish this non-goal, the student will listen to classical music three hours a day, for one month. How can you assess “appreciation of classical music?” How will independent observers know if the student appreciates classical music? The goal focuses on a state of being. You cannot measure a state of being.

Non-Goal: The student will understand the workings of a gasoline combustion engine. Do you want the student to understand a gasoline combustion engine? How will you know if the student understands a gasoline combustion engine? Do you really want the student to be able to repair a gasoline combustion engine? Do you want the student to be able to take an engine apart and put it back together? Do you want the student to be able to diagnose a malfunctioning engine?

Parent exercise: learn to write goals

Make a list of statements that describe what you expect your child to know (knowledge) and what you expect your child to be able to do (performance).

Select one statement. Write one goal that is specific, measurable, uses action words, is realistic and relevant, and is time-limited. Use words that describe the intended outcome. For example, “Mary will be able to …”

Write the performances that will show that your child has mastered the goal. As you read these statements, you see how they become more specific:

  • My child will learn to read.
  • My child will learn to read at the fifth grade level.
  • After one year of individualized tutoring an hour a day, my child will read at the fifth grade level.
  • After one year of individualized tutoring an hour a day in the acquisition of reading skills, my child will read at the fifth grade level, as measured by the global composite score of the Gray Oral Reading Test.

Your independent consultant or evaluator can give you reasonable timeframes for remediation. Do not set your goals too low!

Parent exercise: learn to write SMART IEP goals and objectives

Go through the most recent testing on your child. Make a list of your child’s educational achievement scores in reading, writing, mathematics, and spelling.

Revise your list and write your child’s skills in objective measurable terms. Use data from tests (i.e., percentile ranks, standard scores, grade—or age-equivalent scores).

List your child’s baseline skills as present levels of performance. Example: “My child reads a passage of text orally at the 10th percentile level as measured by the Gray Oral Reading Test.”

After one year of special education, where should the skill be? Write this statement as a measurable goal. For example: By May 15 [one year later], my child will be able to read a passage of text orally at the ___ [insert the appropriate increased percentile or grade equivalent level] as measured by the Gray Oral Reading Test.

You need to focus on the skills your child needs to acquire. These skills may include communication, social skills, academic skills, or knowledge and skills in other areas affected by your child’s disability. You need to determine how you can objectively determine the child’s baseline levels of performance and how to measure the child’s progress.

To learn more about IEP goals that are appropriate for your child, you must learn about your child’s disability. You must learn how to measure changes in skills. When you master these tasks, you will be able to write measurable goals and objectives.

Used with permission from Wrightslaw(opens in a new window). Wright, P. and Wright, P. (2006). Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition. Hartfield, VA: Harbor House Law Press, Inc. Excerpted from Chapter 12, retrieved from
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