If you’re reading this, you are probably a special education teacher working on writing an IEP goals for one of your students. Welcome! I’ve been exactly in your shoes. I taught self-contained life skills students in Fort Worth and Houston, Texas.This article will teach you how to write IEP goals using SMART goals.


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No matter if you’re here as a new special education teacher or an old pro shaking off the dust from summer vacation, I’ve got you covered on writing IEP goals for your upcoming meeting.

What’s an IEP?

As a refresher, an IEP is a legal document created in collaboration between the school and parents to best serve a student who needs special education services. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. An IEP is an agreement of the services that the school must provide the student as part of his or her Free and Public Education (FAPE). Students with an IEP qualify under IDEA law, which is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.

Do note the word must in the previous paragraph. The goals, accommodations, and supports created in the IEP document are legally binding. They are not suggestions or guidelines. They are requirements.\

What is NOT an IEP?

An IEP is not the same thing as a 504 plan. Generally speaking, 504 plans outline the accommodations needed to support a student at school.  “504” is from a civil rights law that protects all students with handicaps, both intellectual and physical.

Students will not have both a 504 plan and an IEP. If a student starts with a 504 plan, but is later to be found to have needs that require an IEP, the appropriate accommodations will need to be included in the new IEP.

IEP Timeline

Let’s look at a fictional scenario to illustrate when we need to start preparing for an IEP meeting.

Sarah is a student at Mars High School who needs an IEP. Her last IEP meeting was on October 31, 2017, and her parents agreed quickly with the IEP and signed it that day. The whole school year passed, and Sarah did not need summer school. The first day of school occurred on August 18, 2018. Sarah’s special education teacher, Mr. Hiller, retired at the end of the school year so she has a new teacher this year named Mrs. Prince. Sarah’s next IEP meeting is due October 31, 2018. Her parents were notified on October 1, 2018 to make sure they had more than 10 days advanced notice. They agreed to her IEP meeting being held on October 25, 2018 at 10 AM at the school.

How to Write IEP Goals


When Should Prep for an IEP Meeting Begin?

1. October 1, 2018

2. August 18, 2018

3. November 1, 2017

4. October 25, 2018

Did you answer C? I hope you did. Your timeline on writing an IEP really starts the day that the original IEP was implemented.

But Mrs. Prince wasn’t even her teacher then. How could she prepare for a student that wasn’t even on her case load at the time?

Good question. If best practices were being followed, Mr. Hiller should have started teaching and collecting data on Sarah’s progress on her new objectives November 1, 2017 as soon as the IEP was in place.

Mrs. Prince should look for Sarah’s folder and records to find data related to her current IEP goals. Hopefully Mrs. Prince will be able to find them. Mrs. Prince should also be taking new data on the IEP goals ASAP after the beginning of the school year. This will help document any regression in goals that occurred over the summer.

Writing the IEP

It is the special education teacher’s job to write IEP goals. These goals should be based on the student’s current ability levels. However, keep in mind that the IEP meeting is a team process. As a teacher, you should come prepared with new goals, but be prepared for the possibility of revision to the goals you propose.

Before Your Write the IEP

Before you start writing, it’s important to remember that all IEP goals should keep a long-term vision for the student in mind. We should always be thinking of how the skills and abilities we are teaching will lead to successful outcomes for the student when they transition out of the school system.

It’s also important to remember that at an IEP meeting, we all should be on the same side. The student’s side. IEP meetings can be stressful and emotionally charged. Make sure that parents feel heard. This helps them understand that you are all working towards the same goal.

FAPE and Least Restrictive Environment

The IEP needs to support a Free and Public Education (FAPE). Any adaptive equipment mentioned in the IEP is required to be supplied by the school at no cost to the family.

The IEP also needs to place the student in the Least Restrictive Environment possible. This is law. This means as much as possible students with disabilities are placed with students without disabilities. Here is a basic list of placement levels. What your district calls them may differ.

  1. General Education
  2. General Ed with consultation (Often called Inclusion)
  3. General Education with part-time assistance (Often called Inclusion, maybe a para helps part of the day or a teacher pushes in)
  4. Partial day in Special Education Classroom (Often called Resource)
  5. Full day in Special Education Classroom (Often called Self-Contained)
  6. Special Education School (Includes behavior schools and schools for students with a high level of medical need)
  7. Homebound

When writing the IEP, you should be working to find the maximum amount of ways the student can be placed in the general education setting with same age peers without disabilities.

While Writing the IEP

When you write the IEP, as the special education teacher, you should be having conversations with the general education teachers and other members of the IEP team. You can use this to form a draft of your IEP goals.

If you find anybody disagreeing about the goals, ideally solve these questions before the IEP meeting.

List the accommodations and adaptations the student currently uses and needs to be successful. Is there anything missing? Now is the time to include it. Is something no longer effective? Or maybe the student has progressed beyond needing a certain accommodation or adaptation. This should be discussed at the meeting and dropped if everybody is on the same page. Remember, if it stays on the IEP, it’s legally required to continue using the accommodation or adaptation. If you’re not using it because you don’t need it, you could land in hot water for not using it if it stays on the IEP.


A SMART goal isn’t a strategy specially for IEP goal writing, it’s a general goal setting strategy. But it works beautifully for setting IEP goals.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound.

Let’s go back to Sarah and her IEP. Mrs. Prince has noticed from her data that Sarah needs help with her spelling. Let’s take, “Get better at spelling,” and turn it into a SMART IEP Goal.


How can the team make this goal more specific? There are 171,476 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. We don’t expect Sarah to master all of those words. They need to narrow it down. Include in the IEP a specific spelling list to work from. These spelling words might be Dolch sight words, high frequency words, or a specific list that the IEP team writes. In this case, the IEP team writes a list just for Sarah and includes as part of the IEP so that future teachers will have access to the list.

Here is how they can begin to write the goal:

“Student will spell words from the attached list of 100 sight and high frequency words.”


 Next they need to see if the goal is measurable. So far, they haven’t said how well she will spell the word. How do they want to measure this? Can Sarah only get credit when she spells the word perfectly? Sarah has dyslexia as one of her disabilities, so is it OK if two of the letters are swapped? What if a letter is reversed? After the team determined that, then they need to know what level of accuracy Sarah needs to meet to achieve her goal. Does she need to spell the words right 70% of the time? 90%? 98%?

For Sarah, the IEP team decides that she needs to spell the words correctly, but they will allow for letter reversals. Sarah will need to spell the words accurately 93% of the time to meet her goal.

Here is how our goal reads now: “Student will spell words from the attached list of 100 sight and high frequency words at 93% accuracy but letter reversals (b/d, q/p) are not considered spelling mistakes.”


This part of the SMART goals process is a sanity check. Did the team choose an appropriate list of words for Sarah to learn to spell? Are they too difficult? Are they too easy? When setting attainable goals, you’re looking for the Goldilocks goal. Not too big, not too small, but just right. In this case, the team chose the words that Sarah needed based on past data to make sure that the list was not too easy and not too hard. They choose 93% as the amount to spell correctly because they recognize that even amazing spellers make “typos” sometimes and wanted to allow for some error. The goal is attainable based on past IEP goals that she met.


Here is an important sanity check. Are the goals relevant for Sarah? Sarah wants to work in her dad’s restaurant when she graduates high school. She wants to be a waitress. Part of her work will be writing down customer orders. The cooks will need to be able to understand what Sarah writes. This goal is relevant to Sarah and what she wants to do after she transitions out of high school. The team made sure to align her goal to something relevant to Sarah’s transition. What is relevant for Sarah might not be relevant for a different IEP student.


An IEP is automatically a time bound goal. An IEP is written for an entire year. Parents and others can call IEP meetings  before the end of that time period to revise the IEP. However, some actions for students should be done in a specific amount of time. Reading fluence is one example. Another would be how long a student will attend to a task. 

IEP Meeting Participants

  • Student’s parents
  • Special education teacher
  • General education teacher (ideally a classroom teacher, not a special like art, music, and PE)
  • Evaluation team member like a diagnostician or school psychologist.
  • Admin member who knows about the curriculum, school resources, and how to adapt curriculum
  • Anybody the parents wish to invite
  • Anybody the school wishes to invite

IEP What Ifs?

  • What if the parents don’t respond about the meeting?
    • If parents don’t respond (again, they have 10 days), the school can write the IEP without them. Then they send the parents a letter about the meeting decisions. Another 10 days of waiting then needs to occur before the school can use the IEP. But the parents can still call for a due process hearing.
    • Parents can also request a new IEP meeting.
  • What if not everybody attends?
    • The notice to parents about the meeting should outline the attendees. If not everybody attends, the parents have the right to end the meeting and reconvene.
  • What if the parents don’t agree.
    • Ideally, the parents will agree. However, there are ways that conflict in an IEP meeting can be resolved. If you can’t come to a compromise, you can reconvene the meeting when cooler heads may prevail. It also gives everybody time to think of more creative solutions to solve the impasse. 
  • What if the parents don’t speak English?
    • The school provides an interpreter if the parents ask for one. The school pays for the interpreter.

After the IEP Meeting

  • The IEP is a confidential document.
  • That means you should NOT be positing IEP goals on the walls of your classroom. You should be tracking data in a confidential way.
  • Be kind to your student’s future teacher. Say you get hit by a bus in the middle of an IEP cycle, would a new teacher be able to pick up your data and run with it? Special Education is notoriously stressful and has a higher turnover rate than teaching in general. Even if you think you’ll always be in your position, you never know for sure what tomorrow might bring.


Get Your Quick IEP Checklist

Not ready to take on the IEP meeting without some help? Get the checklist so you can confidently cross the tasks off your To Do list before this crucial meeting.