Tag Archives: measurable

Science-Based Decision-Making in Special Ed

Last month, I wrote an article for Special Education Advisor, a blog operated by some folks located in Chatsworth, CA who are?dedicated to helping parents of children with special needs. You can see the article by clicking here.

The title of the article is “Tying the Science of Special Education to the Law.” Both science and law are fact-based disciplines (or are supposed to be), so this is a big issue for KPS4Parents, these days.?I’m not going to repeat the whole thing here. You can link to it to see what I wrote.

The point is that there is a huge disconnect between the science of special education and the law of special education. As KPS4Parents approaches its 10th year of operation, we are looking at how best to focus our efforts based on what we’ve learned so far and this seems to be the critical nexus where our attention should be focused.

Somebody scientific informed the development of the IDEA. Congress couldn’t have come up with language like “measurable annual goals” and “present levels of performance” without someone who understands the science of it all chipping in.

One of the issues we’re looking to combat on a systemic level is the watering down of the term “measurable” by the public education system. There is only one definition of “measurable” and it doesn’t include ballpark estimations framed as percentages of accuracy. Real percentages are calculated from measurable data. IEPs are required to be reasonably calculated to render meaningful educational benefit, which, again, means using reliable empiricism.

School districts try to argue that they are not bound by the same degree of rigor as scientific research, but the term “measurable” comes from the use of empirical methods ??la science. Hello!!!!!

It has always killed me that our public schools expect 3rd graders to produce science fair exhibits that include a hypothesis, methods (including for measurement), and results in a manner consistent with scientific method but the same school districts that teach this will do everything they can to exempt themselves from the same standards of accuracy when it comes to their duties to educate children with disabilities. Why specialists with advanced degrees think they are?held to a lower standard of technical accuracy than the average 3rd grader is beyond me.

In any event, this is going to be something to which I’ll be devoting a lot of attention. I’ll be doing a lot of research and posting my findings as I go along. I may also be assisting in the development of a legal treatise on the subject, which could be constructive in preventing and resolving special education legal disputes in which measurability is at issue.

If you have any background knowledge on how the scientific terminology of the IDEA ended up in the regulations, please share! You can post your feedback below.

Data Sheets for IEP Goals Must be Individualized, Too


09/25/2011 – UPDATE! Instead of resorting to paper-based data tracking sheets, consider using Goalbook instead. Now in beta – sign up for your free account today at http://goalbookapp.com.


One of the most common search queries that puts people on our web site is for data sheets to use to measure a child’s progress towards his/her IEP goals. The fact that people are looking for pre-written data sheets speaks to the larger issue of anything in IEPs being canned or pre-written.

The term “IEP” stands for Individualized Education Plan. Individualized. As in, tailored to the individual. You don’t tailor an IEP by using pre-written, canned content.

That isn’t to say that you can’t use a basic skeleton of pre-written material as your starting point, but just as goals have to be tailored to the individual needs of the child, the data sheets that measure progress towards that goal must also be tailored to suit the goal. It depends on how the goal is formatted as to how the data sheet should be devised.

For example, if you had a goal that read: “When given a worksheet of 10 single digit subtraction problems per trial, [Student] will accurately calculate the correct answers with at least 80% accuracy in 4 of 5 consecutive trials within a 2-week period as measured by work samples,” then you don’t need a data sheet, per se. You’re using work samples to measure progress towards the goals.

That said, the scores on each assigned worksheet could be conveniently tracked on a single data sheet just to keep the outcomes all in one place. If the worksheets are already required of the student as part of his/her math curriculum, then presumably the grades on each will be recorded by the teacher in a grade book or a computer-based grade tracking system, as well.

But, if you have a “stranger danger” goal that reads: “Following the pre-teaching of one social story per trial, where each social story pertains to a unique situation that calls for [Student] to determine when he should say something to another person, [Student] will appropriately role play speaking or refraining from speaking to the other person as appropriate and what he should say when speaking in 4 of 5 consecutive trials within a three-week period as measured by data collection,” you’re going to have to have a data sheet.

A data sheet could include a table that has a column for the social story titles, a column for the date that each social story was presented and role played, a column indicating how many role-plays it took for the student to correctly give an appropriate response, a column indicating how many prompts were necessary for the student to correctly give an appropriate response, and a column for teacher comments. It might look like this:

Title Date # Role Plays # Prompts Comments
Stranger Wants Money for Beer 09/12/09 2 3 verbal, 1 gestural The first time through, [Student] needed prompting, but after we discussed how he might have handled the situation differently following 1st role play, he was able to complete 2nd role play w/o prompting.
Clown is Giving Out Balloons at the Mall 09/15/09 4 5 verbal [Student] had a hard time grasping that, at age 18, getting a balloon from a clown in the toddler play area at the mall is not age-appropriate. He understood what the role-play required, but he really wanted the balloon and it took 4 role-plays before he demonstrated the desired response. I’m not sure he would respond appropriately in the actual situation.

Just as goal-writing can be likened to science experiments, so can data sheets. Think about every science fair experiment you did as a kid in school. What was required? You had to delineate the steps of each experimental trial and collect data on your outcomes. This is no different. Your data sheets should collect data on what you’re trying to measure, which means you’re going to have to tailor them to each goal for which they are written.

Click here to download a podcast version of this blog article.


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Podcast: Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 1

On December 13, 2008, we originally published “Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 1”. Throughout this school year, KPS4Parents is recording many of our past text-only articles as podcasts so that busy parents, educators, and interested taxpayers can download them and listen to them at their convenience.

As always, feel free to comment on our content. We appreciate the input of our readers and listeners to bring you the information you seek. You can either comment below or email us at info@kps4parents.org.

Click here to download the podcast “Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 1.”

Podcast: Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start

On December 11, 2008, we originally published ““Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start: Understanding the IEP Process.” As we move through the school year, KPS4Parents is recording many of our past text-only articles as podcasts so that busy parents, educators, and interested taxpayers can download them and listen to them at their convenience.

As always, feel free to comment on our content. We appreciate the input of our readers and listeners to bring you the information you seek. You can either comment below or email us at info@kps4parents.org.

Click here to download the podcast, “Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start: Understanding the IEP Process.”

Writing IEP Goals for Behavioral Issues

Update (4/11/13):  The link below to our former Ning community no longer works. We have moved our IEP goal-writing forum to http://kps4parents.org/main/community-outreach/iep-goal-forum/.


Writing IEP goals for behavioral issues can pose a particular challenge. Unlike academic goals, which should be tied to State standards for academic performance and more easily lend themselves to measurable language, behavioral goals aren’t tied to a pre-described set of criteria of what students should learn; at best, they relate to rules about what students should not do at school.

Behavior has been poorly dealt with in our school over the decades since mandatory schooling was first implemented back during the Industrial Revolution. Mandatory schooling itself was used as a behavioral intervention to address a huge juvenile delinquency problem that arose after child labor laws were passed that prevented parents from putting their children (as young as 6) to work in the factories. This left large numbers of unsupervised children roaming the squalid, poverty-stricken streets of the inner city factory workers’ neighborhoods. Suffice it to say that they often came up with some pretty inappropriate ways of keeping themselves occupied.

Child advocates at the time pushed for mandatory schooling to take these trouble young people and convert them into quality citizens of a growing young nation. As seems to be the case with every age, innovations in business and industry were applied to the concept of large-scale public education and the current system was designed to emulate the assembly line. Teachers were regarded similarly as workers on an assembly line, passing students from one grade to the next (except those that failed QC). More and more so, teachers were increasingly women looking for less dangerous work than what was available to them in the factories. Being that the women at the time had fewer rights than men and were often not knowledgeable in the ways of self-advocacy and the assertion of their rights, they were often more easily exploited as workers than male teachers. So, just as the workers on the assembly lines of the factories began to engage in collective bargaining and organized labor unions, teachers began to do the same. At the time, these unions served to protect workers and teachers alike from exploitation. Today, it’s a different political climate.

Nonetheless, taking the lead from the business world, the assembly-line nature of public education began pushing children through the system, many of whom who were already causing problems because of their behaviors. I mean, it was their behaviors that led to mandatory schooling in the first place. The response to their behaviors by the adults responsible for educating them was fairly typical for the times: spare the rod and spoil the child. It was highly punitive. Children were punished for inappropriate behaviors but there was no effort to systematically teach them the appropriate behaviors they should have engage in, instead. In other words, the interventions at the time focused on the structures of the behaviors – that is, what the child had actually done – as opposed to the functions of the behaviors – that is, why the child had done it. This left many, many children with unresolved issues and no means to see them addressed, causing the perpetuation of troubling conditions.

In defense of the educators at the time, these children’s parents were often even less capable in rendering proper guidance to their children. Factory workers often worked 14 to 16 hour days before going home to horrible living conditions in a crammed up tenement with their ten kids and were in no position to offer effective parenting and guidance at the end of the day to that many children. They were dependent upon the public school personnel to help them during the daytime with their children’s needs.

Fast forward to today and you still have an assembly-line type system in the general education setting. In fact, unless something is “wrong” with you such that you require special education, you aren’t entitled to an education tailored to the way you actually learn. Behaviors are still largely dealt with in a reactionary fashion with punitive responses to inappropriate behaviors after they have already occurred, though there is a burgeoning movement to finally implement positive behavioral interventions on a school-wide basis rather than on a child-by-child basis. Even still, all schools maintain disciplinary records for each student, which speaks to the culture of public school administration and its perception of children who behave inappropriately at school. If there still weren’t such a punitive mindset, they would be called behavioral records or something else non-judgmental.

Just because a kid does something that’s inappropriate doesn’t automatically mean that the kid wanted to do something bad or wrong; very often it’s the situation that the child just doesn’t know what else to do, is engaging in trial and error to try to meet a want or need without thinking things through (which may not even be possible depending on the stage of childhood development the kid happens to be in at the time), or is crying out for help in whatever ways will be heard. Behavior is largely a function of communication; the trick is being able to understand the message.

So what does all of this have to do with writing behavioral goals? Well, a lot. It’s difficult to write behavioral goals for many people because they are still caught up in the antiquated punishment model of behavioral intervention, which evidence shows may curtail a specific behavioral incident in the short-term, but does nothing in the long-term to prevent problem behaviors from developing again or growing worse and more sophisticated over time. Because so many people in public education have been trained to look at behaviors as challenges to their authority rather than signs of things that need to be addressed, it’s hard for them to conceptualize the proper formatting of behavior goals. Parents usually have no formal training in this area either and get caught up in the momentum of the punitive mindset, not necessarily sure that the schools’ approach is appropriate but not knowing what else to suggest.

The thing with behavior goals is that they have to describe what a student is supposed to do in order to determine that the goal has been met. But, most people still think in terms of what the student should not be doing and will write things like “By 12/10/09, [Student] will decrease vocal outbursts in the classroom by 90% as measured by observation,” which is a poorly written goal on an uncountable number of levels. What the goal should do is describe and target the appropriate replacement behavior. So, it could read something like, “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.”

Now, here in this example, it’s implied that the reason the child was engaging in noisy outbursts because he was becoming overwhelmed by noisy distractions presented by others. This is significant! Most behaviors are engaged in to either get something or get away from something, regardless of whether those behaviors are good or bad. Behaviors serve specific functions to the individuals who engage in them. Purists in the field of behavioral sciences tend not to really classify behaviors as good or bad, but more in terms of appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstance, adaptive or maladaptive, or successful and unsuccessful. Reinforcers are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that increase the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that are likely to decrease the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are not automatically presumed to be punishment.

Think about it. If you’re at a restaurant and want fettuccine alfredo, you don’t say, “Give me a t-bone steak, please.” You ask for the fettuccine alfredo. If you were to ask for a t-bone steak, and the waiter brought you a t-bone steak instead of fettuccine alfredo, the consequence of receiving a t-bone steak would decrease the likelihood of you asking for a t-bone steak the next time you wanted fettuccine alfredo. Getting the t-bone wasn’t punishment. It was just the natural consequence of you asking for something other than what you really wanted.

But, what if you don’t know the name of the dish you want? You can describe it to the waiter (“Yes, I’ll have those flat noodles with the creamy sauce and that spice that’s usually only used in snickerdoodles and spice cakes,”) and hope he understands, or you can just order something else that really wasn’t what you wanted just to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing the name of your favorite dish in front of your dinner companions and the waiter. At that point, though, your behavioral priority became avoiding embarrassment rather than getting the food that you wanted. When cast in that light, inappropriate behaviors start to make more sense.

With our example goal here, the only way we could have known why the child was engaging in the inappropriate behavior of verbal outbursts in the classroom was to have conducted an appropriate assessment of the child’s behavior. This assessment, in this example, would have revealed that the child – who has ADHD and an auditory processing disorder – was getting auditory overload whenever the noise level in the classroom increased during busy activities and, being highly distractible to boot, was incredibly challenged to remain on task. The verbal outbursts were the result of his frustration at not being able to concentrate and being so caught up in the moment of being overwhelmed and lacking in coping skills that it didn’t occur to him to ask his teacher to let him do his work some place more quiet. We’re talking about a child with compromised learning skills, here, not a 45-year-old adult with years of experience at effectively solving problems.

The goal describes the desired outcome, but what probably also needs to be in this child’s IEP is a positive behavior support plan that spells out what his issues are and how to deal with them. The only purpose the goal serves is to measure whether or not he acquired the replacement behavior over the course of the goal’s annual period. In our example goal above, the use of the break card has to be explained somewhere.

Sometimes IEP teams unnecessarily knock themselves out trying to write a succinct enough goal that captures all of the relevant elements without it becoming the world’s longest run-on sentence when something like a particular strategy must be employed. My favorite solution to problems like this is to develop a separate protocol that gets attached to an IEP as another page of the document and then have the goal refer to it.

For example, our example goal being used here refers to a break card but doesn’t make clear what that is or how it should be used. The goal could be re-written to read: “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card according to the protocol found on page 12 of this IEP to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.” Then page 12 of the IEP could be a one-page description of the protocol. In the alternate, if a positive behavior support plan is also attached to the IEP and the break card system is described in it, then the goal could reference the positive behavior support plan.

The important thing is that the goal has to be customized to fit the unique circumstances of the child involved. We get a lot of hits on our web site from people looking for pre-written goals, but I’m telling you that this is totally the wrong way to go about it. You’re not going to find canned goals that fit a particular circumstance involving a particular child, particularly when it comes to behavior. The goal has to target the specific area of need as identified in the present levels of performance and describe in measurable terms exactly what the student has to do in order to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skill. The goals of any child’s IEP have to be tailored to his unique needs and you don’t get a customized outcome with “off-the-shelf” goals. Rather than looking for pre-written goals that will fit a specific child, look for examples of goals and learn to understand the process and the logic behind how goals are written.

With behavior goals, target the acquisition of the desired behavior rather than dwell on reducing the undesired behavior. Gather baseline data on how often the child engages in the desired behavior at the time the goal is written and the degree to which he is expected to engage in it at the conclusion of the goal, which should be an increase over how often he engages in it at the beginning.

For example, if the baseline is that the student does not currently use a break card system to appropriately remove himself from a noisy and distracting environment to a quiet place where he can complete his work, then our example goal above represents a marked improvement. If the child begins using his break card system to escape the noisy, distracting environments and completing his work in a quiet area, then he’s not standing in the midst of the chaos yelling his head off.

By engaging in the appropriate replacement behavior, he inadvertently ceases to engage in the inappropriate behavior. Once he realizes that he is being met with a more beneficial outcome by using the break card system than he was by yelling out in class, he’ll have no reason to go back to yelling out in class. Over time, the skill can be refined to the point that the student is able to afford himself the trust of his teacher to excuse himself at his own discretion, without the need for overt signals to the teacher like break cards, to a quiet area to do his work and no one will think anything of it. A behavior goal in this area of need will eventually no longer be necessary.

I’ve seen kids overcome behavioral challenges in a year or less with good behavioral supports. I’ve also seen kids fall deeper and deeper into a hopeless pit of despair in the absence of good behavioral supports. And the degree of disability has little to do with it. It’s all about the quality of the behavioral interventions, including the goals. As long as the goals target the desired behaviors, are written in a measurable way that relates directly to relevant and accurate present levels of performance, and work in tandem with any behavioral protocols and/or a positive behavioral support plan in the IEP, you should be met with success.


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Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 2

In our posting, Writing Measurable Annual Goals?- Part 1, we talked about what goals are, the purpose they serve, and how they relate to present levels of performance. In today’s posting, we’re going to talk about the federal requirement that goals be measurable and how measurable goals can be written.

I cannot emphasize enough how critically important it is that goals are clearly and succinctly written in objective, quantifiable terms. In order for anything to be measurable, it must deal in absolutes and the language must mean the same thing to anyone who reads it.

First I’m going to give examples of unmeasurable goals and then I’m going to give you examples of measurable goals. I want you to contrast and compare them against each other.

Examples of Unmeasurable Goals:

[Student] will demonstrate understanding of language concepts by naming items within a given category with 80% accuracy.

Now pretend you have to implement this goal. First you’ll notice that this sentence contains two verbs: “demonstrate”  and “naming”. This is confusing. The piece that reads “will demonstrate understanding of language concepts” is superfluous and misleading. Including this language implies that something greater is going on here than that for which the language of the goal really provides.

There is another place on the goal page where the type of goal can be indicated without cluttering up the language of the goal itself. The language of the goal should describe what exact task the student is supposed to perform and nothing more.

If you eliminate this unnecessary bit to render the goal down to only what outcome the student needs to demonstrate, you’re left with “[Student] will name items within a given category with 80% accuracy.”  This is incredibly vague.

Does the student only have to do this once during the entire year that the IEP is in effect in order to have met the goal? If so, has he really mastered any new skill ? If not, how many trials must he perform at 80% accuracy in order to determine that the targeted skill has been mastered? How is the 80% calculated? How is any of this supposed to be measured? How many items must the student name within a given category? From how many categories will he have to name items? I’d also prefer to see the words “at least” immediately precede “80%” so that the student is expected to achieve “at least 80% accuracy,” which is different that saying flat-out the target is 80% and no more.

[Student] will write 15/26 letter sounds when dictated orally.

Again, this is vague. While we have some numbers in here, the goal overall is not measurable. How many trials must the student perform in order for it to be said that he mastered the targeted skill? And which 15 of the 26 letter sounds must he write? The way the goal is written, he’d only have to perform as described once during the entire year the IEP is in effect and the goal could be said to have been met. That doesn’t mean that knowledge was gained or a skill was acquired. It could be a totally random fluke.

I’d also like to see “at least” precede “15/26” for the same reasons indicated above under the previous example, along with clarification of which 15 letter sounds he’s supposed to learn. It shouldn’t include the ones he already knew when the baseline data was taken for the present levels statement.

In the classroom setting, [Student] will follow an individually designed visual schedule of his daily activities with minimal verbal prompts as measured by observation record achieving 80% accuracy.

Here, this sounds pretty okay except for the measurability. At least you have a decent idea of the spirit of the goal, but how many is “minimal”? Is the 80% accuracy meant to be averaged over the course of the year or just within the final stage of the goal? If it’s just the final stage, how long of a period of time is that? How is the 80% calculated? Is it a flat-out 80% or at least 80%?

In my many years as a special education advocate, I’ve come to realize that “achieving 80% accuracy” has become the arbitrary language that gets plugged in by default because it sounds measurable to parents, most of whom really don’t understand the measurability requirement or how it can actually be satisfied. It implies that some kind of calculation must be taking place or you wouldn’t be able to arrive at a percentage and 80% sounds like a high enough number that most parents will think the goal is reasonably ambitious.

But, when you start picking apart the language of the goal to turn it into a math word problem, you realize that there are too many unidentified variables to do any kind of calculation that can result in any kind of a percentage. Far too often, the percentage isn’t really the result of measurement; it’s a “guesstimation.”? Teaching staff will say, “Oh, I’d say he was about 75% accurate.”? There is no measurement in a situation like this at all.

To arrive at 80%, you need 4 out of 5, 8 out of 10, or 16 out of 20, etc. things done a certain way for the math to work out. This is where the number of trials and the number of presentations per trial becomes important.

When you get into reading and writing goals, this becomes even more complex. You need to specify the grade level of the passages to be read or written or use other terminology that describes the complexity of the language that the student is expected to read or write. You cannot use vague language like “at his instructional level” without identifying what the student’s instructional level is in the present levels of performance statement.

Really, that kind of language should be avoided altogether because the purpose of a goal is to move the student forward. If the goal is expecting the student to be performing at the same instructional level at the end of the goal as he was performing at the beginning, this generally means that he?isn’t actually expected?to progress.

The only real way to use this kind of language is to make sure there is also a goal in the IEP targeting the increase of the student’s instructional reading level and collecting data on progress towards that goal throughout the same annual IEP time frame so that the instructional reading level is known while any other goals that require presentation of text at the student’s instructional level can be appropriately adjusted as the year progresses.

Sometimes goals are poorly written because the school members of the IEP team really don’t know how to write them. Other times, they are deliberately keeping the language vague so that there is little that parents can actually hold them to. If the student fails to progress, it’s hard to point to the goal and say he didn’t meet it if it was vaguely written. Some school team members deliberately write weak goals so that they aren’t accountable to much.

Examples of Measurable Goals:

When presented with a worksheet containing 20 numbers, [Student] will correctly identify the place value of each number independently (tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousands) in at least 4 of 5 trials over 2 consecutive weeks as measured by work samples.

This is nicely written. There is no way that two different people could pick this up and walk away with different understandings of what needs to be done.

Given a picture of interest, [Student] will be able to independently write 2 sentences (no dictation or adult prompting) using correct punctuation and capitalization in at least 3 out of 4 trials in a two week period as measured by work samples.

Again, this is really succinct clear language that describes an outcome that can be easily measured. It’s evident what the student has to do to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skill.

When given a reading passage at the end of first grade level about a topic of interest, [Student] will orally answer factual questions correctly by giving a sentence of at least 3 words in at least 3 out of 5 opportunities per trial for 4 trials within a 2 week period as measured by teacher made test.

This is a little convoluted, but you still arrive at the same place no matter how you look at it. Goal-writing isn’t meant to be Shakespeare. You could rearrange the words so they flow more smoothly, but the targeted outcome is still explained even as it is.

When you compare these last three examples against the first three, you can see the stark differences. The first three are vague and don’t really tell you what you’re supposed to do. The last three describe specific outcomes that can be measured.

The first two examples of the unmeasurable goals don’t even explain how they will be measured. The third unmeasurable goal example uses “observation record” as its method of measurement, but you have to be really careful with this.

Just like an arbitrary percentage without any indication of how it is actually supposed to be calculated is really just an estimate rather than a measurement, the term “observation” is often used as an arbitrary indication of how progress will be measured. In and of itself, “observation” isn’t any kind of measurement at all. “Observation” is simply looking at something.

An “observation record” is only as good as the kind of data it’s meant to collect and if that data isn’t described in the goal, whatever is recorded is likely to be unmeasurable.? I prefer that, instead of observation records or logs, there are data sheets and the method of measurement is indicated as “specific data collection,” but I’ll go along with “observation record” if the language of the goal is clear on what will be recorded or a copy of the observation record to be used is attached to the IEP as one of its pages, so there’s nothing left to anyone’s imagination as to what is supposed to happen.

If the goal is written in measurable terms, then the data sheets can be fairly simple check-off lists or tally sheets. Comments and anecdotal observations should supplement the data to provide context, but they shouldn’t replace the data.

We hope this makes goal writing make more sense. Please post your questions and comments. We realize this can be complicated and want to make sure you understand. As an added resource, you can visit http://www.calstat.org/iep/.


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Writing Measurable Annual Goals – Part 1

In our last posting, we talked about present levels of performance. If you haven’t read that yet, read it first before reading today’s posting because you have to understand present levels before you can understand goals. More to the point, you have to understand what a child’s present levels of performance are before you can start even thinking about writing goals.

As stated before, your present levels of performance are your stepping-off points. If an IEP were a race, your present levels would be the starting line and the annual goals would tell you where the finish line is. The annual goals of an IEP describe your desired outcomes- what it is the IEP team believes a child is capable of learning over the course of a year.

Goals are written every year but assessment is only required once every three years. This means that unless additional assessment is done in between triennial assessments, you’re only going to have fresh baseline data from standardized assessments once every three years. The other two years, you’re going to have to pull your present levels from informal assessments and the child’s progress towards the prior year’s IEP’s goals. I’m going to start out with the very beginning of the process, when a child gets an IEP for the first time and move forward from there.

Beginning with the initial assessment data, the IEP team has a fresh body of data to work with that, if the assessment was done properly, tells you pretty much everything that’s going on with a particular child. It will identify the child’s relative strengths and weaknesses, including the areas of deficit that need to be tackled by the IEP. The goals should tackle the areas of deficit for sure.

Some challenges a student faces may not warrant specialized instruction so much as they may simply require accommodation. For example, a child with a circadian rhythm disorder may receive as an accommodation an alternative schedule to the regular school day. That by itself has no bearing on the content of the child’s instruction. The curriculum doesn’t change on the basis of the child’s disrupted sleep/wake cycle. But,when instruction is provided is changed on that basis.

If the same child also happens to be severely autistic, then you’re looking at the content of the instructional component and not just when it’s being offered. Goals address what it is that you’re trying to teach the child. Accommodations help you get around obstacles that would otherwise interfere with pursuit of the goals.

For example, let’s say you have a 5th grade student with average to above-average intelligence who has an auditory processing disorder, a visual processing disorder, ADHD, and a physical anomaly of his hands – he’s missing the distal interphalangeal joints (top knuckles) of his index and middle fingers on both hands. Let’s say that this child also has a history of behavioral challenges in the classroom.

Comprehensive assessment reveals that the student has problems with visual tracking and saccadic eye movements This means that as he reads, his eyes do not smoothly jump from word to word. He has to visually re-orient every time he leaves one word and tries to fixate on the next. This also impacts his writing as he tracks what he’s trying to put down on paper.

However, his writing is further compounded by the physical anomaly of his hands. So, as he’s trying to watch his words go down on paper, his whole arm starts to hurt because he can’t do the fine finger manipulations necessary to achieve letter formation. He’s got to move his whole arm and upper body.

However, yet again, these combined processes are even further compounded by the fact that the child has an auditory processing disorder. Reading is an auditory process until the reader has memorized enough words on sight, thereby building a huge sight-word vocabulary. Children still learning to read or with relatively low reading skills will still have to think about how a relatively complex word sounds when they write it.

All of us do that to a point. We all can throw down “the” and “is” without any thought, but “sphygmomanometer” is another issue. Even after all these years following my 11th grade vocabulary class, I have to sound that one out.

So, imagine this child trying to receptively read the questions on a worksheet while his eyes are jumping everywhere but where he needs to look and process what the visual symbols sound like (which is an unnatural act in the first place) when he has a hard time processing sounds. It’s a gamble as to how much of what he read he’ll comprehend accurately.

Then have him write something about what he just read while trying to formulate his output based on the sounds of language in his head, which he has to translate into visual symbols that he writes backwards and upside-down because that’s how he saw them, while also trying to move his fingers, hand, wrist, and arm in a way that will produce legible handwriting.

Add in the distractibility, impulsivity, and inattentiveness inherent in ADHD, and then ask yourself why this child engages in behavioral outbursts every time he’s given a paper-pencil task. He’s attempting to avoid a tortuous experience. He’d rather get in trouble and get sent to the office than be put through that hell.

The goals you write for a child with needs like this are multifaceted. The problem a parent can face with a child with these kinds of needs is that you run up against a bias on the basis that he’s actually a pretty smart kid and?it may be?easier for the adults at school conclude that he’s just a poorly behaved little monster and nothing more. None of his multiple disabilities by themselves are all that severe. But, when you put them all together,?they create a recipe for disaster.

A child with these kinds of issues needs therapeutic intervention to address the underlying foundational skills that support academics. His goals need to include visual tracking, cross-Corpus Callosum communication of data presented through the auditory array, and exercises to build strength in his arm to withstand the additional work the arm has to do to support handwriting (taking into account that accommodations will also be provided to eliminate handwriting where it’s not necessary to the mastery of the curriculum). He also needs goals in reading, written expression, math (particularly for lining up problems properly so that calculations are accurate), keyboarding, organizational skills, self-advocacy, and behavior.

Because services are only provided to support IEP goals, it is imperative that all areas where services may be needed are discussed in terms of whether or not a student needs goals in those areas. If you’re thinking the student might need speech-language services, then you have to ask “What deficits does the child have in speech-language? What skills need to be taught in order to eliminate or reduce those deficits?” The answer to the second question gives you your material for your goals. If you can’t think of a skill in a particular domain that needs to be taught, then there isn’t a goal to propose. If there’s no goal to propose, there’s no service in that domain to provide.

Better yet, don’t go in thinking about what services a child needs. Figure out the goals first and then figure out what services are going to be necessary to see the goals met. That’s the proper format, anyway.

My point here is that not all goals are going to be rooted in academia and it’s not esoteric to write goals that tackle things like cross-Corpus Callosum communications. The brain is divided into two hemispheres?- the left and right. The two hemispheres are joined together by a neurological bridge of sorts called the Corpus Callosum. When both sides of the brain are involved in processing, the data between the two sides travels back and forth across the Corpus Callosum. This is also referred to as interhemispheric communications or interhemispheric processing.

If a child struggles with tasks that require cross-Corpus Callosum communications between the two hemispheres of the brain, as is often the case with auditory processing, then exercises that cause the brain to practice that kind of neurological activity are therapeutically warranted. This can include having the child bounce on a personal exercise-style trampoline while alternating between hands throwing balls up in the air and catching them. The child could also use a program such as Earobics, Fast Forword?, or Interactive Metronome.

But, if any programs are used, such as those mentioned above, goals need to be written describing what the desired outcome is for the use of each program. The goals will need to target the deficit areas for which the program is being provided based on the baselines that were measured during assessment.

Once you get a solid IEP written with sound, measurable goals, then it’s just a matter of providing the services that will see the goals met and collecting sufficient data along the way to measure how much progress the child is making. Once the year is up and it’s time to write a new IEP, the child’s present levels should be known in terms of the progress made towards the goals worked on for the last year. If you had a sufficient body of goals in all areas of unique educational need that were well-written and generated empirical data that tells you exactly where the child stands versus where he was a year ago, you’re in pretty good shape for writing the IEP for the year coming up.

If the child has made so much progress that it’s time to tackle a whole new skill set that’s the next level up from the goals he just finished, you may need to collect new baseline data in the area of the next skill set. When you’re scaffolding up from foundational skills such as letter-sound recognition, for example, to putting series of letters together to form sounds that are parts of words, you’re really jumping from one type of mental processing to another.

It is one thing to figure out the respective sounds made by “T” and “P” but it’s another thing to stick a vowel in there, string them all together, and come up with top, tip, and tap. Heaven help you when someone throws in an “S” or an “R” and you’ve got to do consonant blends like stop and trap. Because these next-level steps call upon the brain to do something more complex than what it did before, you’ve got to figure out exactly how well the brain can handle that kind of processing before embarking upon a goal so you know how much complexity is reasonable to expect at the end of a year’s worth of work.

Our next posting will actually focus on measurability, specifically. We already talked about this quite a bit when we covered Present Levels of Performance. In our next posting, though, we’ll focus on the formatting of properly written goals and share some resources with you for goal writing.


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