On March 12, we continued our IEP Exploration series with UCLA’s Dr. Caitlin Solone. This time, we used what we’d learned about creating strength-based IEPs to break down the goal-writing process. Too often, SMART goals — or goals that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound” — don’t incorporate the skills, abilities, and needs of students with disabilities, which is why parents are such vital members of our children’s IEP teams. By taking an active role in the development of our kids’ goals, we can advocate more effectively to help them progress through appropriately challenging assignments. 

We began our exploration by talking about the importance of vision statements — and in particular, why imagining a bright, happy, independent, and fulfilling future is so crucial when we’re designing IEP goals. With the support of Dr. Solone, our Undivided moderators, and all the parents who joined us, we left the exploration with new tools and strategies for approaching IEP goals — whether we’re writing them ourselves or editing goals from the district.

LEARN: How Do You Write an IEP Goal?

Dr. Solone explains that each goal should begin with a vision statement — or what we want out of life for our child, and what our child wants out of life for themselves. (Read more about vision statements in the takeaway from our last exploration!) 

  • Think of your vision statement as the “destination” that you and your child are aiming to reach.
  • When you develop IEP goals, ask yourself: “Will this help my child reach their ultimate goal or destination?” 
  • Remember that IEP goals are checkpoints on the way to that destination, and they can change any time based on what your family needs.

Often, IEP goals are not appropriate for our kids. The goals may lack clarity and specificity, resulting in goal directives that don’t translate for the student or parent, or even to future teachers. The goals may be immeasurable, so they keep getting recycled each year, regardless of whether or not a student has the necessary supports, or even if that goal is right for your child.

For IEP goals to be appropriate, Dr. Solone explains that IEP teams need to “presume competence” in a student — which is why strength-based IEP goals are so important. (Read more from Dr. Solone here!) 

  • When IEP teams focus on the whole child, that child’s abilities and strengths are utilized to help the child master the goal, rather than assuming the child can’t master it because they have nontypical ways of communicating, moving, expressing, learning, or existing in the world.
  • For example, if a student — in this case, Joshua — can’t comprehend grade-level text because a learning disability impacts his ability to read at grade level, Joshua’s comprehension goal can allow for text-to-speech software to read to him.
  • In order to develop strength-based IEP goals, we have to think creatively about solutions that will allow our kids to meet an education goal.

If focusing on improving your child’s goals makes you feel overwhelmed, that’s normal!

  • Dr. Solone explains that many teachers aren’t fully comfortable writing IEP goals either, so as parents, it’s totally understandable for us to need to take our time.
  • In fact, when Dr. Solone was a special education teacher, she estimates that only 1 of 5 parents had ever attempted to write a goal themselves — and that’s why we’re learning how to do it!

GATHER: How to Use Common Core Standards to Write Goals

In California, all special education students must have academic goals written into their IEP that are aligned with the state standards (Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) associated with that child’s grade. In other words, by developing goals that follow educational standards for all students, we make it possible for our children to attain the same skills as their peers, and the right to be in an inclusive environment, if that’s the right place for them to learn. 

You can find Common Core State Standards for grades K–12 here. Regardless of what subject you’re focusing on, the goal writing process remains the same: You’ll individualize each standard to fit your child, then add in the prompts, options, modifications, and accommodations that will help your child achieve that standard. (More on that later!)

Dr. Solone suggests focusing on these specific questions when you’re writing a standards-based goal using Common Core:

1. What do you want your child to do? (And why do you want them to do it?)

  • Answering this question helps you identify the skill you want your child to learn.
    • To do this, consider your child’s Present Levels of Performance (PLOPs), i.e., what skills have they learned or mastered already? What skills do they need to learn?
  • Next, look at CCSS for the specific subject: Which standards reflect skills that will help your child realize your/their vision for the future? (Don’t forget about the vision statement!)
    • First, you’ll look at the task or skill described in the Essential Standards column. Ask yourself, can my child do this thing already?
    • If the answer is yes, go to the task or skill described in the CCCs (Core Content Connectors) column. Ask yourself the same question: Can my child do this thing already?
    • If the answer is yes, go to the task or skill described in the CCSS column.
  • Once you discern which parts of a state standard your child can already do, then you can narrow down what skill you need to work on.

2. What supports will enable your child to meet this goal? 

  • Here is where you’ll specify accommodations or modifications that will allow your child to complete these tasks — whether that’s asking for multiple choice assignments, prompts, AAC devices, the text-to-speech software mentioned in a previous example, etc.

3. How will you know if your child has met the goal? 

  • This is all about finding ways to measure your child’s progress — whether that’s teacher-charted data, observation, specific assessment data, work samples, etc.


BUILD: Using Goal-Writing Templates

Dr. Solone provided us with academic and non-academic goal planners that Undivided members can find here (login required). These templates separate various aspects of goal writing into different sections so that you can hone in and individualize each part of a goal. This includes:

  • Vision statement
  • Goal area (the school subject you’re addressing: reading, math, writing, etc.)
  • Common Core State Standard that aligns with this goal (you can just copy and paste the exact wording)
  • Baseline: this is where you’ll say what your child can currently do related to this target skill, which will help you determine where they'll be able to go a year from now. For example:
    • If this is the CCSS: Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.
    • Then this might be the baseline: Identifies the topic of a text in 1 out of 5 opportunities, when given an array of 4 options with text and pictures.
  • Strengths and abilities: here is where you’ll share your child’s skills or abilities that can help determine the types of supports they’ll need.
  • Target skill: this is where you’ll explain what you want your child to be able to do in one year.
  • Supports: in this section, you’ll list the tools and accommodations that will allow your child to achieve the target skill in one year.

If your child is working at a lower grade level — for example, your second grader’s reading level is closer to kindergarten — you can (and should) still use CCSS as the basis for writing your goals!

  • Dr. Solone explains that you can use each standard as “little benchmarks” and ways to tailor your child’s goal to address the standard, using an appropriately personalized version of that standard. 
  • Essentially, you’re determining what skills are needed to allow your child to eventually reach that goal on their own timeline.

PREPARE: Personalizing Goals

If this seems like a lot of information to sift through, it is! Thankfully, Dr. Solone has some tips to help you hone in on goals and target skills for your kiddo.

  • When you’re lost, circle back to what your child can do.
    • Start at the baseline for a targeted skill and build from there.
    • Use your child’s strengths to carve a path for them.
    • Focus on the supports/prompts/accommodations/modifications that can allow your child to access that goal.
  • Alter your perspective and mindset: We’re changing “My child can’t” into “How can we make this possible?

What does this look like in action?

  • One parent suggested adding this phrase in front of each goal to help frame them: “My vision in writing this goal is for my child to succeed at [insert goal here].”
  • Another parent said her son in preschool struggles with writing, but he loves the solar system. She wants to implement drawing “planets” as opposed to drawing “circles” in his preschool goal. 

SUPPORT: Focusing on What Matters Most

When you’re overwhelmed by state standards, goal framework, and IEP meetings, think back to the “destination” we discussed at the very beginning. What do you imagine for your child’s future? What are you fighting to include in your child’s IEP right now?

We asked parents to answer this second question in one word — here’s what they told us they’re fighting for:

Honesty from the district, Empathy and understanding, Empowerment, Choice, Consistency, Services, Skills, Teamwork, Success

At the end of the day, as parents, we know how to help our families and what we want for our children. When we asked our exploration participants to share what they’d want other parents to know before an IEP meeting, this is what they told us. We hope you’ll bring these words with you to your next IEP meeting:

  • You know your child better than anyone at the meeting and you are their best advocate.
  • You are an equal partner of the IEP team. Don’t be afraid to disagree with what the district proposes.
  • Focus on your child’s interests, strengths, and needs. They deserve it.
  • Remember to breathe.

We are so grateful to every parent who explored goal writing with us, spent time navigating the complex world of Common Core State Standards, and inspired us with creative approaches to goals that recognize their child’s full being. 

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