Goal This, Not That! Using the IEP to Set the Foundation for Future Success

There’s a saying among therapists regarding documentation: “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.” Similarly, goals and activities that are set up to be documented will likely be worked on, and those that are not will not.

That said, it’s crucial to formulate IEP goals that will support the child’s genuine lifelong success. If you were to disappear from your child’s life tomorrow, what knowledge and skills would you want them to have? How do those tie in to current or proposed IEP goals?

It may seem difficult to determine which goals are important to focus on, especially if a child is very young. After all, success looks so different for each of us depending on our unique skill set, and especially depending on what is important to each of us.

However, there are a few standards that generally contribute to life satisfaction across the board: self-advocacy and self-determination. Knowing what resources we need and how to get them is rather essential for everything from personal safety and emotional fulfillment.

Unfortunately, many people involved in goal setting do not seem to consider these future goals very carefully. Rather, they focus on the “deficits” associated with a given diagnosis and develop goals related to those perceived deficits in an attempt to minimize them as much as possible. In a world built to accommodate able-bodied, neurotypical person, these people rationalize their goals with the idea that making children more like their able-bodied, neurotypical peers will make the world more accessible to them.

In actuality, what many of these goals will teach is masking, or concealing the effects of one’s disability. From a young age, most neurodivergent children are taught that they should mask by parents, teachers, therapists, community members, and others who fail to grasp that a change in behavior (particularly when that change has been somewhat forced) does not inherently signify a change in experience (thus necessitating the field of cognitive psychology as opposed to pure behaviorism). For example, not shoving a toy away aggressively while playing with it for a ten-minute increment doesn’t necessarily mean that a child has developed any recreation beyond what they had before. Rather, it could simply indicate a sense that their self-advocacy in this area has become fruitless.

Goals that support actual life skills can certainly be harder to write than those rooted in behaviorism because they are by nature more difficult to objectify. Let’s go through some examples of actual IEP goals, areas of life satisfaction in which they may be rooted, where they fall short, and proposed better goals to truly support skills and resources in areas of importance.

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Not-ideal Goal: Engage in appropriate cooperative social play interactions initiated by others, demonstrated by taking 5 turns in an exchange, 75% of the time.

Possible Intent: Social interaction is a need for many people. It makes sense to want our kids to have those opportunities, which, in childhood, frequently seem to take the form of play.

The Problem: Fulfilling social experiences usually don’t come from being thrust into them out of obligation. Feel free to ask around about how many adults would prefer their lives be one baby shower after another, and that may help to get an idea of how neurodivergent kids feel when their lives are formed around obligations to constantly go along with social situations that are unappealing to them. What impact does that experience have on feelings about social desire and self-esteem? Many autistic adults will attest that the impact is not a good one.

Better Goal: Client will state their needs during play as shown by asking for a break, clarification for the rules, or a different activity 75% of the time.

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Not ideal Goal: Given an emotional state, student will state what an appropriate response would be 75% of the time.

Possible Intent: Understanding our own emotions and emotions of others can be helpful in social interactions as well as in emotional regulation.

The Problem: Should we not, as a society, be beyond the concept of “appropriate” emotional responses? Leaving that word open for interpretation by various people in the child’s life opens the opportunity for many people to inflict their interpretations of “appropriate” on the child, and those interpretations will generally go beyond simple safety into a confusing and unnecessary array of “shoulds.”

Better Goal: Will display knowledge of coping skills and resources in a given situation 75% of the time.

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Not ideal Goal: Will initiate a variety of appropriate conversational topics with others in 75% of opportunities.

Possible Intent: Again, social interaction in a variety of settings and on a variety of topics is a normal aspect of life for many of us.

The Problem: What counts as “variety” and “appropriate” depends on the person and usually leans toward neurotypical preferences. Furthermore, imagine if you had to initiate conversation with others 75% of the time you were able to! Goals like this also prevent kids from listening to themselves regarding their own social desires and needs.

Better Goal: Will identify 5 topics of interest that could be discussed in conversation.

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Not ideal Goal: Will accept changes in routine/schedule by exhibiting appropriate behaviors given visual and verbal cues 75% of the time.

Possible Intent: Change happens, and we need to be able to cope with it.

The Problem: Coping doesn’t simply involve “acceptance” and “appropriate behaviors.” It involves, well, coping!

Better Goal: Will create a plan of action in response to a schedule change 75% of the time.

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While the goals above were intended to reflect similar aims to those as the non-ideal goals, there is room for a variety of other goals surrounding coping, asserting self-advocacy, finding resources, and more!

Good IEP goals should set the foundation for future self-determination. They help the child to become more familiar with the skills and resources available to them. Furthermore, in conjunction with well-formed behavior plans and other forms of documentation, these goals serve another important function: reminding people in positions of power in a child’s life of what they should be aiming for and how to do their jobs in a way that is respectful – and actually useful. If it’s not documented, despite the best of intentions, it might not happen.