Back to school means new classmates, new teachers and, for many students with special needs, a new set of all-important IEP goals.
An IEP – short for Individualized Education Program – spells out annual educational goals for children who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents and school staff meet to discuss and set new IEP goals every year, in what can be a nerve-wracking annual process. Here are three questions that special education advocates suggest parents ask to help build stronger IEP goals.
1) What are my child’s current abilities?
Crafting solid IEP goals starts with understanding what educators refer to as present levels of performance – in other words, where is your child academically, socially and physically right now? The answer should rely on objective data from regular testing and evaluations, not subjective beliefs or past trends.
“If we’re trying to decide math and reading goals, we need really solid information about what skills the child does and does not have. It can’t just be, ‘Well, last school year our goal was this, so we’re just going to increase that a certain percent,’” says Sheila Wolfe, a Carmel-based special education consultant. “You have to know exactly where the child is to be able to set appropriate goals.”
Understanding a child’s strengths and weaknesses should also be very specific – for example, parsing out whether a student’s trouble with reading lies in fluency or comprehension. Some evaluations take a few minutes and should be done throughout the school year; others are performed annually or every three years.
If you don’t understand the statistics involved, make sure you ask for an explanation, says Cathy Boswell, regional program specialist with IN*SOURCE – the Indiana Resource Center for Families with Special Needs, a statewide parent advocacy organization. “There are a lot of numbers. Unless you’re an educator, you might not be able to interpret those, so parents need to ask questions when they’re talking about present levels,” she says. “Say, ‘Help me to understand what this means for my child,’ because you can’t make informed decisions when you don’t know what the numbers mean.”
2) Are my child’s goals SMART?
Strong IEP goals are objective and detailed. A common acronym for setting goals is to make sure they’re SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. Other areas that should be addressed in each IEP goal include what services will be provided, by whom, where, when and for how long.
“We want to be very specific. Who’s going to be helping with the goal? Teachers or an outside professional? Where will they be learning those skills? How often will they be receiving those services?” says Keri Shackelford, a regional program specialist with IN*SOURCE.
It’s also important to note that the term “goal” and “objective” mean different things in IEP speak. A goal is the larger target, while an objective or benchmark is a measurable short-term step to reach the goal. It’s crucial that a child’s IEP set up how a goal and its objectives will be measured using an appropriate progress monitoring tool and appropriate frequency, says Wolfe.
“We’re talking about assessments that take two to five minutes, and we’re doing that every two weeks or monthly,” she says. “For our kids, some days they’re ready to test, while others they’re not. But if you’re doing it every two weeks, those outliers will fall away and you will get true data.”
3) Are functional skills addressed in the goals?
In addition to academic progress, IEPs can also address what are known as functional skills, which include things such as social skills, executive functioning skills and behavioral skills. While parents may run into resistance when proposing non-academic goals, experts point out that functional skills serve to support multiple educational objectives.
“If the school has noted that your child has trouble getting organized or misses social cues or can’t tie his or her shoes, we can write a goal for that,” Shackelford says. “Functional skills help get them through the school day, and all of those things help academic progress as well.”
This is where it’s an especially good idea to voice concerns you have about your child’s skills before the IEP meeting, such as when you set up your annual conference. That way, school staff have time to brainstorm ideas and can invite specialized experts, such as an occupational therapist, to the IEP meeting.
As stressful as setting IEP goals for the year can be, experts remind parents that nothing is unchangeable – set a timeframe, watch the data and adjust as needed. “Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect IEP. They’re not set in stone. They can be revised,” Boswell says. “Try what the school wants to try, ask for what you want to try and be willing to work together.
Looking for more guidance? Ask your local advocacy organization for IEP resources specific to your child’s disability. Also check out IN*SOURCE’s “Parents’ Guide to the IEP” (insource.org/resources/iep-meetings/parents-guide-to-the-iep) and Wrightslaw.com’s comprehensive description of various tests and measurements (wrightslaw.com/advoc/articles/tests_measurements.html).