The IEP is perhaps the most important document in special education. It is the tool by which compliance is measured and how we document and illustrate growth as students advance in grade level. In recent years, there has been a huge push to ensure that IEP goals are more measurable and that there is a clear way to analyze student progress and make data-driven instructional decisions.

This seems reasonable enough. But often, teachers find that developing and refining the IEP is not so simple. How do you effectively write measurable goals? What exactly are you measuring? In my years of experience as a teacher and consultant, I have found that these two questions go hand in hand. In other words, you can’t write a measurable IEP goal until you first determine exactly what you are teaching (target skill or behavior) and how you’ll know when your students have met that target.

Two Questions Shape Goal Writing and Data Forms

Teachers frequently think they need to write their IEP goals first and then consider how to create a corresponding data form. But if we instead start with two essential questions (what I am teaching and how will my student demonstrate success?), it is much easier to see how the measurable goal seamlessly corresponds with the data-collection form. Take a look at the simple process below that should not only help you write better IEP goals, but also clarify how to collect meaningful data on them.

Step 1

What skill are you teaching?
(Target skill or behavior)

Start with a simple fill-in-the-blank statement:

I want to teach my student __________.

  • Make sure the skill or behavior is concrete and specific.

Step 2

How will I know when they have met the target?

Next, select one of the following that best completes the sentence:

My student would be successful if they were able to perform the skill or behavior __________.

  • With greater or less frequency (frequency goal/data)
  • For a longer amount of time or in less time (duration goal/data)
  • At a higher percentage or greater number of times (percentage or numerical goal/data)
  • With greater independence (level of support or prompting goal/data)
  • In a variety of settings (across settings goal/data)

Step 3

Develop your goal and aligned data-collection form

Once you’ve answered the questions in steps one and two, choose the corresponding goal and data from the ones below and complete the remaining steps.

Frequency Goals and Data Collection

If you determined that the goal for your student is to perform a particular skill or behavior either more or less often, you will be writing a frequency goal and collecting frequency data. This means you are recording and measuring how often a skill or behavior is occurring in a given period of time. The skill or behavior may be one you are hoping to reduce, like hitting, self-injury, or talking without raising a hand. Conversely, it may be one you are hoping to increase, like raising one’s hand to speak or commenting during a collaborative conversation.

If you’ve decided that frequency data is the type of data that will best determine growth, then answer the following questions to help write your IEP goal and aligned data-collection form.

What is my student’s current baseline? In other words, how often are they currently exhibiting the behavior or performing the skill I am targeting? Knowing the baseline will help you determine a realistic goal or outcome.

Next, determine the timeframe in which you want to measure or collect data. Does it make sense to measure frequency every hour or class period, or can you measure the skill or behavior over the course of the entire school day? For example, if you are attempting to decrease a problem behavior that is happening many times over the course of a day, it may make sense to break down the timeframe into smaller chunks, like hours or periods.

After you’ve determined your baseline and when you will collect data, determine your realistic goal for the target skill or behavior. Set reasonable expectations for your student based on the current baseline. For example, if your target skill is to increase a student’s commenting during a conversation and they are currently only doing so once during a 10-minute collaborative conversation, your annual goal might be to increase their participation to six comments in a 10-minute period.

Finally, once you’ve set the frequency goal, decide how many times your student will need to perform that target to demonstrate mastery. Is mastery achieved if they consistently comment six times in five trials? There is no right answer; the goal is based on the individual needs of the student. It is important that the IEP team reach consensus about what mastery is and how it should be demonstrated by the student.

When given picture/symbol support, Desiree will participate in a class group discussion by a) raising her hand, b) waiting to be called on, and c) answering her teacher when called on at least 3 times per class period in at least 5 consecutive trials.

Duration Goals and Data Collection

If you determined that the goal for your student is to perform a particular skill or behavior for a longer or shorter amount of time, you will be writing a duration goal and collecting duration data. Examples include decreasing the amount of time it takes a student to transition or complete a task. Duration goals can also be used to work on increasing the time of a skill or behavior, such as participation in group time or hygiene routines like brushing teeth or washing hands.

If you’ve decided that the skill or behavior you are targeting is best reflected as a duration goal, answer the following questions to help write your IEP goal and aligned data-collection form.

What is the current baseline? How long is my student currently exhibiting the behavior or performing the skill? This will help you determine a realistic goal or outcome.

Next, determine when you want to measure or collect data. Are you measuring duration during a daily routine (i.e., every time they wash their hands or brush their teeth) or during a specific time of day (morning group time)?

After you’ve determined your baseline and when you will collect data, determine a realistic goal for the target skill or behavior. Set reasonable expectations for your student based on the current baseline. If a student currently is only brushing their teeth for five seconds, a realistic goal would be to increase their total time to 60 seconds rather than a full two minutes.

Finally, once you’ve set the duration goal, decide how many times your student will need to perform that target skill or behavior to demonstrate mastery. Is mastery achieved if they consistently brush teeth for 60 seconds in five trials or 10? As with frequency data, there is no right answer; the goal is based on the individual needs of the student. The IEP team should reach consensus about what mastery is and how it should be demonstrated by the student.

When given a visual model and timer, John will increase his total tooth-brushing time after lunch to 60 seconds in 10 consecutive trials over a nine week period.

Percentage or Numerical Goals and Data Collection

Percentage or numerical data is used to measure an increase (in the percentage or number correct of a certain skill). This can be helpful in measuring academic goals like numeral or letter/sound recognition, computation skills, or other discrete skills.

If you’ve decided that the skill or behavior you are targeting is best reflected as a percentage or numerical goal, answer the following questions to help write your IEP goal and aligned data-collection form.

What is the current baseline? Conduct an assessment to determine where your student is currently. For example, can your student name any upper or lowercase letters?

After you’ve established your baseline, determine a realistic goal for the target skill. As with frequency and duration data, set reasonable expectations for your student based on the current baseline. If a student currently knows two of 26 uppercase letters, expecting them to learn all 26 upper and lowercase letters by the end of the year may not be realistic.

Finally, once you’ve set the target goal, decide how many times your student will need to perform that target to demonstrate mastery. Is mastery achieved if they consistently name all 26 letters five consecutive times or nine out of 10 measured trials? Consult with the entire IEP team to determine the level of mastery that makes sense for your student.

Isabelle will receptively identify (from a field of 3) 26 upper and 13 lowercase letters in 90% of at least 10 trials over a nine week period.

Levels of Support/Prompting Goals and Data Collection

Levels of support or prompting goals and data allow you to easily see incremental progress that a student makes toward acquiring a skill. Sometimes, growth may be steady but slow, and other data-collection strategies don’t capture their progress. When writing a level of support or prompting goal, you need to determine what levels of support or prompting (greatest to least support) you will give to the student. Here are examples:

  • Hand over hand or physical prompt
  • Modeling the skill
  • Verbal prompt
  • Gestural prompt
  • Independence

You can vary these levels based on the needs of your individual student. When collecting the level of prompting data, you record the greatest level of support that you provided to elicit the target skill.

If you’ve decided that the skill or behavior you are targeting is best reflected as a level of support/prompting goal, answer the following questions to help write your IEP goal and aligned data-collection form.

What is the current baseline? Conduct an assessment to determine your student’s current level. For example, can your student use a choice board to select a snack and ask for it with modeling or a verbal prompt?

After you’ve determined your baseline, determine your realistic goal for the target skill. Often the target is independence, but that may not be appropriate for your student. Instead, you may choose a greater amount of support like a gestural or verbal prompt as your target goal.

Finally, once you’ve set the target goal, decide how many times your student will need to perform that target to demonstrate mastery. Is mastery achieved if they independently make a choice and request a snack in four out of five trials or eight consecutive trials? Consult with the entire IEP team to determine the level of mastery that makes sense for your student.

When given a visual choice board, Fred will independently make a snack choice from a field of 3 and communicate a request to a teacher in at least 4 out of 5 trials over a nine week period.

Progress across Settings Goals and Data Collection

Finally, you might want to target a skill that is best measured by how that student generalizes it in different settings. For example, if you have been working with a student on asking for help, it might be useful to teach the skill and to collect data on how they perform it throughout the day in various settings. For many, skill generalization can be challenging, so collecting data to determine skill acquisition in different contexts is important.

If you’ve decided that the skill you are targeting is best reflected as a progress across settings goal, answer the following questions to help write your IEP goal and aligned data-collection form.

What is the current baseline? Conduct an assessment to determine where your student is currently performing. For example, can they ask for help in any setting? Where are they most independent?

After you’ve determined your baseline, determine a realistic goal for the target skill. You may want to see your student generalize the skill to two to three other settings or contexts.

Finally, once you’ve set the target goal, decide how many times your student will need to perform that target in each setting to demonstrate mastery. Is mastery achieved if they independently ask for help five times in each of three settings? Consult with the entire IEP team to determine the level of mastery that makes sense for your student.

When given a visual support (i.e., a help picture card), Serena will independently ask for help during snack time, independent work, and at recess in at least 5 consecutive trials over a nine week period.

Writing measurable IEP goals and collecting data on them may feel daunting at first, but beginning with a couple of simple questions about the target goal and measure of success for your student can help point you in the right direction. From there, follow a systematic process to make sure you’ve included essential elements in the goal itself, and data collection becomes much less overwhelming and more meaningful for guiding instructional decisions and ensuring student success.

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About the Author
Helen Fuller Tarkington is a special education teacher who has also worked as an autism specialist and educational consultant. She is a certified Advanced Consultant for the University of North Carolina's TEACCH Autism Program. Her blend of experiences as a practitioner, consultant and trainer has given her a unique perspective and interest in helping teachers efficiently and effectively implement evidence-based practices within the classroom. She holds an M.Ed in Special Education from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.