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POAC Autism Services

How To Write The Best IEP For Your Child

The IEP process is overwhelming, no matter how many times you have been through it. We always have to ask ourselves if we are working on the right things, and if we are working on all that we should be. There is so much to know, and so much that we rely on others to bring to the table. This article will try to diminish the confusion and help you and your IEP team create SMART IEPs.

What comes first – the goal or the assessment?

No good goals can come from inadequate assessments. We’ve outlined this in one of our previous articles, “Assessments: Which one is best for your child?” Next, goals must be driven from the results of this assessment. Goals should NOT be based on your child’s age, but rather on his or her current levels and needs. I wouldn’t teach you calculus without first getting you through addition, subtraction, and so much more. I know you want your child to do what his or her peers are doing, but skipping prerequisite skills only leads to slow or rote learning and this doesn’t benefit anyone.  Make sure your child has all the skills needed to begin the goal, and not “I know he can do this,” or “I’ve seen her do it once.” That is not a clear indication that all the prerequisite skills are there. If assessments are done—and goals are chosen based on that information—then your child will be more likely to learn, acquire skills, and master goals annually.

What makes a SMART IEP?

Let’s review what should be in your IEP, using Wrightslaw’s SMART IEPs as well some additional information.

Go find your child’s IEP and come back to this article to review the following. Pam and Pete Wright developed the SMART measurement to ensure IEPs are meeting best practices. They explain each IEP must be:

(S) Specific , (M) Measurable(A) Use Action Words(R) Realistic and Relevant(T) time-limited.

Here’s how the system works:


SMART IEPs have specific goals and objectives. Specific goals target areas of academic achievement and functional performance. They include clear descriptions of the knowledge and skills that will be taught and how the child’s progress will be measured. Look at these two goals. Which one is specific?

Christopher will increase communication skills.

Christopher will increase his use of greetings (saying hello/goodbye and the person’s name) without repetition of the recipient for a minimum of ten times per day.  


SMART IEPs have measurable goals and objectives. Measurable means you can count or observe it. Measurable goals allow parents and teachers to know how much progress the child has made since the performance was last measured. With measurable goals, you will know when the child reaches the goal. Which of these two goals is measurable and observable?

Janine will improve her reading skills.

Using the Reading Mastery program, Janine will increase her present performance by one grade level by the end of the first marking period.

Action Words

IEP goals include three components that must be stated in measurable terms: (a) direction of behavior (increase, decrease, maintain, etc.) (b) area of need (i.e., reading, writing, social skills, transition, communication, etc.) (c) level of attainment (i.e., to age level, without assistance, etc.) SMART IEPs use action words like: “The child will be able to . . .” Which of these goals is specific, measurable and includes action words?

Gary will decrease his aggressive behaviors.  

Provided with functional communication training, Gary will be able to increase his requests for a break using a visual support, in situations that have previously resulted in aggressive behaviors maintained by escape of task, to decrease time spent out of the classroom to less than 30 minutes per day.

Realistic and Relevant

SMART IEPs have realistic, relevant goals and objectives that address the child’s unique needs that result from the disability. SMART IEP goals are not based on district curricula, state or district tests, or other external standards. Which of these goals is specific, measurable and realistic?

Bobbie will improve her writing skills.

Bobbie will improve her writing to have less than 3 grammatical errors and 4 spelling errors per 150 words.  



SMART IEP goals and objectives are time-limited. What does the child need to know and be able to do after one year of special education? What is the starting point for each of the child’s needs (present levels of academic achievement and functional performance)? Time-limited goals and objectives enable you to monitor progress at regular intervals.

From the PLAAFP: During social skills group, Simone engages in a maximum of 3 verbal exchanges on a single topic with her peers.

Annual Goal: Using the Social Skills Curriculum, Simone will increase her verbal exchanges per topic to a minimum of 20 during 30-minute social skills session.

  • In order to ensure that Simone is on target for this increase, incremental steps should be provided that will be documented at each marking period, where Simone should be, and if she is on target for reaching this goal by the end of the year.
  • By the end of the first marking period, Simone will increase her verbal exchanges with peers from her present level of 3 per topic to 7 per topic.
  • By the end of the second marking period, Simone will increase her verbal exchanges with peers to a minimum of 12 per topic.
  • By the end of the third marking period, Simone will increase her verbal exchanges with peers to a minimum of 17 per topic.
  • By the end of the fourth marking period, Simone will increase her verbal exchanges with peers to a minimum of 20 per topic.

If Simone doesn’t meet her first marking period goal, the team should discuss what supports or changes are necessary to ensure she is on track to meet the 2nd marking period goal. We should not wait until marking period four to realize the Simone was not making progress and that changes should have been made.

Do I need a Math Degree to figure this out?

Here’s the recap up till now.  You need a thorough and accurate assessment of your child before IEP goals are written.  IEP goals should meet each of the criteria of a SMART goal. If your child’s IEP reads like – Will improve reading – Will develop listening skills – Will demonstrate the use of coping skills, go back to the top of the SMART section and look at how these can be improved upon.

If you think your child’s goals are well written, they may be, but let’s give it one more look. Where is the criteria for mastery set? How will measurement of mastery be conducted? What setting will the goal be taught in, and where will it be generalized? Who is responsible for implementing the goal? Here’s what I want you to tackle next in your review:

What is the criterion for mastery set at for each goal? Each goal in an IEP has a criterion for mastery, or simply put, when will we know he or she has achieved this goal. Some may read like this: 80% of the opportunities with 4 out of 5 correct, 100% of the first probe of each day for three days, 8 out of 10 times the skill is presented.

Do these look acceptable? It’s easy to be confused by all the numbers, but it shouldn’t be. Lots of numbers and percentages does not equal quality measurement techniques. You may need a math degree to break these down.

80% of the opportunities with 4 out of 5 correct. We’ll use “greeting a peer” as the goal. For the sake of round numbers, we’ll say there are 10 peers, and each morning your child sees all ten. How are “opportunities” calculated? Just the first time they see them? Or every time he/she sees them? Do multiple opportunities count if they already said hello? Wouldn’t saying “hi” to the same child over and over be unusual?

Maybe it’s a hello and goodbye greeting, and only first and last opportunities are counted (does it say that in the IEP?).  This means that your child has 2 opportunities X 10 per day to say either hello or goodbye. 100% of the opportunities would be 20. 80% of them would be 16, but they only have to get 4 out of 5 for those 16.  This means that your child can miss 3 more opportunities, or get 13 out of 20 for this skill to be considered mastered or 65% correct.  Did it mention over how many days? Just once, or for at least 3 days?  Let’s leave all this to the math geniuses.

For the rest of us, let’s just keep it simple:

PLAAFP: Christopher’s current use of greetings is limited to only three staff, and he often repeats hello greetings throughout the day, and rarely says goodbye.

Christopher will increase his use of greetings (saying hello/goodbye and the person’s name), without repetition of recipient, to a minimum of ten times per day, 4 out of 5 days per week as documented in daily data collection.

Closing Thoughts

With all of these criteria, someone has to collect the data to ensure accurate representation on the progress report. Who will be taking the data and how? Does it say, “teacher observation,” in your IEP or does it say, “data collection.” Teacher observation would be an indication that the measurement is subjective based on whether or not the teacher witnessed the skill. That is certainly not best practice. Does it say data collection? That’s better, right?  Hold on!!  Every day? One time per week? What setting? Only in the classroom, or throughout the school environment? Who will collect the data, who is responsible for the goal? The teacher, the para, the speech therapist, OT, who? This should be included. Without data collection, percentages are an estimate of the teacher’s perception of your child’s skills. We don’t need perception; we need facts.

Take a look at the IEP WARNING Signs blog for more on IEPs and what to look for.

For more information on SMART IEPs go read From Emotions to Advocacy by Pam and Pete Wright. You can read the chapter on SMART IEPs here.

Gary Weitzen

POAC Executive Director

Gary Weitzen, the Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, also holds a certified law enforcement instructor title in New Jersey and has 20 years of experience in risk management. Besides managing POAC, he’s spent 15 years teaching life skills to adults with autism. A notable autism advocate, Gary has been featured in major media networks and has a son with autism, Christopher.