How to write good IEP goals

Special education teachers generate hundreds of thousands of IEP goals a year. If you’ve been reading IEPs for longer than a week, you might have noticed that some of those goals turn out better than others. 

Some IEP goals are straight-up dumpster fires.

So what differentiates a good IEP goal from a hot mess? What can you do to generate good IEP goals? We’re here to demystify the process.


What makes an IEP goal “good”?

A good IEP goal does one thing: it identifies just ONE skill and tells you how it will improve over the year. 

That’s it.

The road to IEP goal hell is paved with people trying to do more than this, or failing to do this.

In order to complete this task, an IEP goal has to be a SMART goal.

SMART goals are used widely outside of education.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

How do I make a SMART IEP goal?


Step 1 – assess needs

First, you are going to observe and assess your student. You are going to learn where they struggle. Don’t just make things up because the kid qualifies in that area. Base your IEP goals on need.

Let’s say your student qualifies in writing, but in past years they’ve learned strategies that make it so they are at grade level. Don’t write a goal! If they ONLY qualify in writing, it may be time to do a monitor and consult a goal because they may be ready for a 504 or to exit special education altogether.

If you keep writing IEP goals even if they don’t need them, they never exit special education.

That being said, if their disability affects areas they don’t “qualify” in, it’s ok to write goals for how that specific area is impacted.

Maybe they only qualify in reading, but that disability is holding them back from being successful in math because they don’t understand what information is important in story problems and have trouble understanding graphs. It would be totally ok to write a reading goal for English class and another for math-specific reading difficulties.

IEP goal needs

Step 2 – determine the most pressing needs

I can’t think of much worse than getting an IEP with 20 goals in it. In some extreme cases, it may be called for, like when a student has many disabilities and is receiving many different services.

Most of the time, it’s just bad prioritization that makes an IEP include 20 goals.

20 IEP goals are very impractical to track. They’re very impractical to teach along with all the other standards you are responsible for. More goals are not better. It doesn’t make you look more professional.

That’s why you prioritize. Think about how each skill builds on the next and pick the most foundational one.

Especially for behaviors, people have a hard time doing this. Again, pick the thing that is the most adverse to a student’s ability to learn, and that is the goal. Maybe they swear constantly, but they also get into physical altercations that cause them to be suspended.

Pick the physical aggression, as it is the biggest threat to your student’s health, learning, and happiness. The swearing, while not ideal, can be a goal later.

Put out one fire at a time, friends.


Step 3 – make a plan

Once you identify what needs work, you need to know how you’ll work on it. How will these skills be taught, monitored, and adjusted?

Identify how you plan on making this goal into a functional skill over the year.

However you plan on making this happen, congratulations, you have found your measurement tool!


Step 4 – writing the IEP goal

Ok, now you’ve picked a few quality areas of need. You know how you want them to improve over the school year, and you know how you’ll be doing that. You have all the ingredients for a good goal.

Make your IEP goal specific:

A specific goal is something that is ONE SKILL that can be observed and is understandable by another person.

Example of a specific goal:

Student will be able to read a 6th-grade passage at a rate of 140 words per minute.

Example of a non-specific goal:

Student will be able to read more fluently.

Think of all the questions you have after reading the second goal. Read what? How fluently? How fluent are they now? Is 1% more fluently enough to meet this goal?

Any goal that gives you more questions than answers is likely not specific.

Make your IEP goal measurable:

Remember how you made a plan for this goal? You know how you propose that students learn the skill, and how you will know they’re learning the skill? That my friend is your measurement tool.

As is the case with a specific goal, a measurable goal is something observable and quantitative.

Example of a measurable goal:

Student will be tardy to no more than one class per week as measured by teacher attendance logs.

Example of a non-measurable goal:

Student will understand the importance of attending classes on time.

Any goal that says a student will “understand” or “comprehend” is a bad goal. A student shows they understand or comprehend by doing something.

 If you want to know they comprehend what they’re reading, you will use written or verbal comprehension questions. If you want to know that a student understands how to work with others, you will see them participate in group class activities, and you can track that on a log of some sort.

A note about measurements: never use a program your school uses without saying what it does.

I used to get goals that said the student would score a certain number on a STARS assessment. We didn’t have that at my school. I didn’t know what that score would indicate.

Even though it might be slightly more work, turn these random scores into understandable outcomes and percentages because you never know where your student might go, and you want this IEP to work just as well there as it does where you are now.

Make your IEP goal actionable:

In order for a goal to be actionable, it has to be in you and your student’s control to change it.

Goals that take place off the school campus are generally poor goals for an IEP because there is little or nothing you can do to change those behaviors or habits.

I often saw goals about students taking medication. That’s a worthy goal, but it can only be useful if they’re taking that medication on campus.

Likewise, don’t go too big on your goal. You really shouldn’t expect three years of reading growth or go from a student learning to count to a student completing algebra problems by the end of the year.

An actionable goal is one that, using the plan you all decide on, can be achieved.

Example of an actionable goal:

Student will increase their reading comprehension of nonfiction passages from 80% correct on reading comprehension questions at the 4th-grade level to 80% correct on reading comprehension questions at the 6th-grade level.

Example of a non-actionable goal:

Student will increase their reading comprehension of nonfiction passages from 80% correct on reading comprehension questions at the 4th-grade level to 80% correct on reading comprehension questions at the 10th-grade level.

Make your IEP goal relevant:

You probably already addressed this by picking goals that are impacting your student’s learning.

A relevant goal is simply one that helps that student make progress towards their goal of graduating school or completing the program they are in.

I think it should also be relevant to that student’s personal goals.

If they would like to be a veterinarian, it is very important for them to be able to pass their math classes, probably less important for them to be able to deliver oral presentations to a group of 30 students. Of course, if they need to do it to graduate, then it becomes relevant because passing high school is necessary to go to college.

Mainly a goal can only not be relevant if it doesn’t go with the student’s needs. I saw many not-relevant goals that on another student would have been perfectly relevant

Example of a relevant goal:

Student has ADHD and is struggling with personal organization of materials, GOAL: student will use 2 minutes at the end of class to put papers into correct folders as measured by student daily self-tracking sheets.

Example of a non-relevant goal:

Student has visual impairment and is struggling with campus mobility, GOAL: student will use 2 minutes at the end of class to put papers into correct folders as measured by student daily self-tracking sheets.

As you can see, relevance is all about context.

Make your IEP goal time-bound:

This one is easy-peasy. Include a date, or general time this will be done by.

You are writing an IEP goal, so a standard and great way of doing this is to say, “By (this month next year)” and then write the goal. I’ve also seen it as “by the end of the IEP year.” Both of these are temporarily bound. They work great!

Example of a time-bound goal:

By Oct 2021, student will…

Example of a non-time-bound goal:

Student will…


Put it together using this formula:

By (date) (student name) will (specific task, that is necessary for the student to be successful) with (measurable accuracy) as measured by (observable, replicable form of measurement).

Some examples:

By March 2021, Student McStudentface will write their assignments in their planner at the end of each school day, 90% of the time, as measured by a teacher check log. 

By the end of the IEP period, Student McStudentface will correctly solve basic addition and subtraction fraction problems with fractions with unlike denominators with 80% accuracy as measured by weekly informal math assessments administered by their special education math teacher. 


Are these perfect IEP goals? It would really matter what student they were applied to; however, they are GOOD goals because they include all SMART elements.

Additionally, anyone would know what was supposed to happen by the end of the school year. One student will be tracking their assignments in a planner, and the other will be solving fraction problems of a specific type.

Like all of teaching, writing good IEP goals comes from understanding your students.

If you focus on what they need to be successful and follow these simple guidelines, all of your IEP goals will be good.

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Don’t sweat it. You’ve got this!

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