Creating Quality Annual Goals: Best Practices and Common Mistakes

Annual goals are essential in providing quality intervention services. Whether you are a professional in a school or private setting, or a parent involved in IEP planning or providing home therapy, knowing how to write quality annual goals will greatly benefit both you and the individual needing services. Many professionals are well versed in creating quality annual goals; however, studies have shown that most IEPs lack quality goals. This post is not intended to be the Bible of goal writing, but hopefully, it will be a good starting point or a refresher.

Purpose of Annual Goals

The purpose of an annual goal is to identify weaknesses and plan to strengthen those skills. Goals direct intervention practices and allow accurate data collection to take place. No progress can truly be made without stating where you want to go, how you are going to get there, and how you know when, or if, you have reached your destination. In order for an annual goal to be effective in accomplishing its purpose, the components of the goal need to be clearly expressed.

Components of Annual Goals

An annual goal should identify the individual, state the target skill or performance, highlight the conditions under which the individual must perform the skill, and express the criterion for successful completion of the goal. Take a look at the examples below. The individual is highlighted in blue, performance is highlighted in green, the condition is highlighted in purple, and the criteria are highlighted in red.

Example 1. Luke will verbally identify the accommodations and services he needs in post-secondary education and the workplace to three (3) different individuals in three (3) consecutive trials with 90% accuracy.

Example 2. When presented with a sample imbalanced budget, Luke will balance the budget with 100% accuracy in 3 out of 3 attempts.

All components of a quality annual goal are present. As you can see, the components are not in the same location in both examples. Component placement is not as important as clarity. “Verbally identify” is much clearer than the ambiguous “identify.” Furthermore, “balance the budget” might be clearer with the addition of an operational definition. Operational definitions provide clarity to performance and condition components when a short phrase is insufficient. For more information on goal components and how to craft a quality goal, see Susan Moon Meyer’s book “Survival Guide for the Beginning Speech-Language Clinician” and “Writing Quality Individualized Education Programs” by Gordon S. Gibb and Tina Taylor Dyches.

Common Mistakes

The two biggest mistakes people make regarding annual goals are not creating the goals and not clearly stating each component.

Every professional knows the saying “if you did not record it, then it did not happen.” Even if you are a parent providing home therapy to your child, this saying holds true. Progress cannot be measured accurately or adequately without goals. No one, including the person providing therapy, can discern what learning and progress are being made when expectations are not clearly stated in the form of annual goals. Furthermore, annual goals prioritize academic, social, developmental, and functional life skills and milestones. Not all skills and milestones are created equally; therefore, they should not be treated equally. Creating annual goals will force professionals and parents to focus therapy on the skills and milestones that are most important, leaving lesser skills and milestones to be learned indirectly.

Annual goals must have clearly stated components in order to be effective. Take a look at some examples of unclear goals. Explanation of the problems are listed under each example.

Example 1. Luke will identify the accommodations and services he needs in post-secondary education and the workplace to three (3) different individuals in three (3) consecutive trials with 90% accuracy.

Problem: How will Luke identify the accommodations and services? Pointing? Writing? Speaking? By saying “verbally identify” you are clarifying what counts as proper identification so that anyone viewing the goal will know what is expected and can determine if the performance has been met. 

Example 2. Luke will verbally identify the accommodations and services he needs to three (3) different individuals in three (3) consecutive trials with 90% accuracy.

Problem: Services and accommodations Luke needs for what? Flying a plane? Swimming? Post-secondary education and the workplace clarify the “for what” question that was left out. 

Example 3. Luke will verbally identify the accommodations and services he needs in post-secondary education and the workplace in three (3) consecutive trials with 90% accuracy.

Problem: To whom? Luke is to verbally identify accommodations and services; therefore, he must vocalize those accommodations and services to another person. Is that person the special education teacher, general education teacher, or the janitor? Again, by stating the condition of “three different individuals” you clarify that Luke cannot verbally identify the accommodations and services to only one person. You also don’t limit to whom he can identify those services, allowing for better generalization.

Example 4. Luke will verbally identify the accommodations and services he needs in post-secondary education and the workplace to three (3) different individuals in three (3) consecutive trials.

Problem: The issue here is accuracy. If Luke only identifies half (50%) of the accommodations and services he needs in three consecutive trials, then is the goal met? What about 60% or 75%? A similar issue would arise if you specified “with 90% accuracy” but left out the trials. Would Luke only have one chance to meet the goal? Would he have unlimited chances but only have to meet the performance and condition once in order to move on? Stating trials and accuracy are equally important. 

Conclusion

Writing goals is not as easy as it looks. Every child with a disability is different; therefore, even twenty-year veterans will find goal writing difficult at times. Collaborative teams make the process easier. I do not consider myself an all-knowing, all-powerful being in writing quality goals. However, it is my sincere hope that you have been able to learn from these examples the next time you are asked to help write goals for an individual with disabilities.

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