IEP Writing: A How-to Guide

Happy Ground Hog's Day friends! In a totally unrelated topic, I'm going to take this time to talk about IEPs...

Image courtesy of: blackzheep for
Writing IEPs can be a lot of work! As a former special educator for 7 years, trust me - I know! To help make the process painless and efficient, I'd like to share with you some tips and tricks that have worked for me. I originally posted this guide on A Special Sparkle's blog, but have updated it for you here. This is a LONG post, so grab a cup of coffee and join me. Feel free to use this guide as you embark on all of your IEP endeavors!

Keep in mind, your state’s IEP may be outlined differently, but all of the information provided in this post is relevant, wherever you teach. 

Let’s go through the IEP step-by-step (at least as it's outlined on Massachusetts' IEP forms):

Administrative Data Sheet:

This first page is designated for all important contact information and personal information of the student. Usually, the teacher is not in charge of this page, but the Special Education Coordinator or receptionist.

Parent and/or Student Concerns:

This is the parents’ (and students’ who are 14 years or older) piece of the IEP. Their concerns are woven throughout the IEP. Concerns that the parents and/or student want to see addressed to enhance the student’s education is written here. Generally (and legally) this would take place at the IEP meeting, not to be filled in prior to the meeting.

Student Strengths and Key Evaluation Results Summary:

Student’s strengths, interests, personal attributes, and personal accomplishments are described here. Additionally the student’s disability(ies), general education performance, state/district test results, achievement toward goals and lack of expected progress are included in this section.

Let’s take a closer look at this section, because it includes A LOT.

            Student strengths, interests, accomplishments: include academic and general strengths in and out of school. Some examples I include in my IEPS are caring, compassionate, successfully transitioned to second grade inclusion classroom, witty, bright, verbal, engagingetc. Depending on the district/school, this section can be written in list format or in complete sentences. I do not include any areas that the student struggles in, as that is described at length throughout the IEP. This section is to highlight the strengths and personal interests of the student, not their weaknesses. 

            Type of Disability: This section includes the general area of disability and the impact on the student’s school and life functioning. The primary and secondary disabilities are included. I, along with our special education team, refer to the eligibility checklist provided by the Massachusetts Department of Education, when determining eligibility. Click here to see this flow chart.

            Results of most recent key evaluations and state test scores: This includes any psychological and educational test results (usually provided for a three year evaluation), as well as any scores from the state’s standardized test format.

            General Education Performance: This section includes the impact the student’s disability(ies) has on general school functioning (academic, social/emotional, and behavioral)
            Questions I ask myself when drafting this section are:
·      How does the student contribute to the classroom climate?
·      How does the student's functioning assist staff and peers?
·      How does the student 's functioning hinder the community?
·      What triggers maladaptive academic or social behaviors?

I also integrate the academic goals/issues I mention later in the document. This allows for an easy transition when reading the document for the parent, specialists and future educators. It also aids in a seamless segue into outlining the goals during any future meetings/progress reports. I make sure to include information on the student’s academic strengths, ability to work in different academic settings (one-on-one, independent, small group, whole group, etc.), and challenges and their ability to react to these struggles with all/any supports in place.

Vision Statement: 

This section should include a realistic “vision” for the next 1-5 year period, based on parents’ visions for their child, the school team’s vision for the student, and the student’s vision for him/herself (if applicable). The vision statement should take into account the student’s preferences and interests. As students age within special education, the vision statement should include desired outcomes in adult living, post-secondary, and working environment. The transition plans for older students as they enter the real world are intertwined with the vision statement for older students (think 14 and up).

            Present Levels of Performance (PLEP): How does the disability affect the student’s performance in school.
                 A. General Curriculum: How does the disability(ies) affect progress in the curriculum areas? “General curriculum” includes English Language Arts, History & Social Studies, Science and Technology, Mathematics, and “Other Curriculum Areas.”

·      How does the disability(ies) affect progress in curriculum areas?
This section is a more in-depth look at what the child cannot do within the curriculum due to his/her disability(ies). This includes how the disability affects the student’s involvement and progress in the general curriculum (i.e., same curriculum as used by “typical” students). In this section, I describe how the behavior negatively affects his/her progress. I also briefly describe each academic goal that will fall into this section. (note: only include “academic” goals, or goals in which you can comment on their performance as it relates to the curriculum. This section does not include goals for more social or less structured educational times, such as recess, peer relationships, etc. The next section will speak to these challenges)
·      Accommodations: Accommodations are supports that allow the student to access the curriculum. Some examples I commonly use are: use of assistive technology, directions read aloud and clarified, use of a calculator, use of graphic organizers and templates, small group instruction, tangible and visual reward systems, extended time for assignments, etc.
·      Modifications: Modifications are changes in the content, the method of presentation, or the performance criteria from that which is used for “typical” peers, but allow the student to access curriculum content at their level. Some examples that I include are: below-grade level materials, shortened assignments, limited writing production, etc. If you are unsure of how to differentiate between accommodations and modifications, check out this great blog post I found and pinned to my Special Needs board

                 B. Other Educational Needs: How does the disability(ies) affect progress of the indicated other education areas? “Other educational needs” include: adapted physical education, blind/visually impaired, extra curriculum activities, social/emotional needs, assistive tech services/devices, communication, language needs, travel training, behavior, communication for deaf/hard of hearing students, nonacademic activities, vocational education , and “other”.
·      How does the disability(ies) affect progress of the indicated other education areas?
This section is a more in-depth look at how the student’s disability impacts their ability to access “the life of school” and what they are not able to do because of their disability. When writing this section, consider the following:
o   How a student’s behavior impedes his/her ability to interact appropriately within the school environment.
o   Impact of behavioral, social/emotional, language, OT issues, etc. on participation in less structured school activities such as school events, lunch, recess, fire drills, P.E., transitions, assemblies, parties, etc.
o   Discuss the student’s behavior including behavioral interventions, ability to follow school discipline code, etc.
o   Communication needs (SLP)
o   Assistive Technology (word processing, AlphaSmarts, speech-to-text software, etc.)
o   Occupational Therapy (listed as other)
o   Skill development related to vocational preparation or experience.

In this section, my focus, due to my primary population of kiddos when I was in the classroom, was to describe how the student’s behavior negatively affects progress in the social or less-structured aspects of the school day. For example, I think about transitions, gym/P.E., recess, field trips, peer relationshipsetc.
·      Accommodations: See above for description. These are some examples that I commonly usestructured, predictable routine and schedule, social skills support, therapeutic milieu counseling, individual psychotherapy, contingent and non-contingent breaks, etc.
·      Modifications: See above for description. Here are some examples of modifications I commonly use in my reportstherapeutic interventions, assistance in all school settings to aid in utilizing coping strategies and self expression, access to counseling staff for processing and self-expression, alternative assessments/portfolio assessments utilized, etc.

Current Performance Levels/Measurable Annual Goals:

This portion of the IEP includes the annual goals as well as the current performance levels of these goals. This portion is where the majority of the input from others will be included. Aside from the student’s current performance levels within each goal, the IEP team will be providing insight to ensure adequate, rigorous, yet attainable goals will be written. 

This section is set up by goal. Each goal section begins with the number of the goal (if it’s the first one written, it will be Goal #1, obvi) followed by the Specific Goal Focus (a goal focuses on an area of need that will make the biggest difference to the student). Some examples I commonly use for “areas of focus” include: memory, communication, time management, self-advocacy, self-regulation, organization, behavioral regulation, etc. For curriculum areas such as Reading, Writing, and/or Mathematics need to be skill specific. For example, rather than having “Reading” as the focus, I like to include specific reading skills to focus on, such as reading fluency, decoding multi-syllabic words, reading comprehension, etc. Keep in mind that my population may be different than yours, so you may not need/want to be as specific.

After the Specific Goal Focus, the Current Performance Level is described. This section pertains to the specific goal, thus you will have a Current Performance Level for each goal. In this section, the educator writes what the student can currently do. When writing this section, consider the following:

  • What can the child do with and/or without specific supports and/or accommodations?
  • This is the baseline (generally speaking) - where a student is currently functioning with the current supports (or no supports) in place.
  • This section focuses on what the child can do, not what he/she cannot do. That was discussed in the PLEP sections above.
  • I tend to look at this section as more positive - the focus is on the student's abilities. Even if the student cannot independently follow assignment expectations, I would word it as the following:
    • "When given a written checklist, Danny follows assignment expectations with minimal adult support."
      • This example provides the reader with the information of what Danny needs to be successful, without the focus being on what his challenges are (following assignment expectations independently, or without supports)
    • Another example is: "Currently, with 1:1 support, Brenna initiates peer interactions in highly structured situations."
      • This indicates that Brenna requires intense support in the form of both 1:1 guidance, as well as intense structure in generally unstructured and unpredictable social situations.
      • This also provides the context for the reader that Brenna struggles with conversing with her peers during recess or less-structured times, but note how the sentence spins the wording in a positive light – highlighting her abilities rather than her challenges. If Brenna’s goal is to increase her ability to initiate peer interactions with gradually thinning adult support, this would be an adequate observation of her current performance level in this goal. (Example goal title: Social Interactions)
The Current Performance Level serves as an introduction to the Measurable Annual Goal. Challenging, yet attainable goals should be written. Keep in mind that the goal is expected to be met by the student by the end of the IEP period. (generally one year – however depending on IEP amendments and such the timeline may differ) In order to write measurable and attainable annual goal, ask yourself: “How will we know that the student has reached this goal?”
I always consider the following when drafting a goal:
·      What skills does the student need to develop in order to access, participate, and make progress in the general curriculum and life of the school?
·       Does this goal address the skill area that is keeping the student from making progress?
·      A goal should contain a target behavior, condition, and criteria.
·      A goal must be measurable.
·      A goal must include data collection procedures. 

An example goal“Given a 30-minute class period, David will successfully raise his hand before leaving his seat 60% of the time, with decreasing visual and verbal prompting. Data will be collected bi-weekly by classroom staff during two 30-minute class periods.”

In general, 3-4 goals should be chosen that would make the biggest difference in helping this student. In many cases, students will need more goals than 4 – often times I receive students with 6-7 goals in their current IEPs. On one occasion I had a student with 9 goals. However, it is important to really focus on highly functional goals – goals that will have the biggest impact on their lives. For example, you may a fourth grade student with poor handwriting who also struggles to access the social studies standards of our state. This same student is also reading at a Kindergarten level, and only able to count up to 10. They may also be struggling with executive functioning, social/emotional health, communication as it relates to speech and language, and gross motor development. You will need to prioritize your student’s needs, and consider scrapping a “handwriting” goal and “social studies” goal in order to focus on more functioning life skills. This is where the team dynamic can really be helpful in offering insight and support.

The Measurable Annual Goal will also always include Benchmarks/Objectives, the section that appears immediately after the goal. When writing the benchmarks, ask yourself: “What will the student need to complete this goal?” It is common practice to select 1-5 measurable objectives (or benchmarks) that are directly related to the goal and specific goal focus.

Now, let’s consider the differences and similarities between benchmarks and objectives (used interchangeably in the document) which will help you better understand what to include in this section:

      • Breaks down the skills needed to meet the annual goal.
      • Leads to meeting the annual goal.
      • Example:
        • Goal: Ann will write paragraphs and compositions at a 3rd grade level with increased independence 3 out of 5 times as assessed by classroom work, homework, writing samples, and spelling tests.
        • Objectives:
          1. Given a graphic organizer, Ann will select a topic and organize her ideas before writing a complete paragraph independently, in 3 out of 5 opportunities.
          2. Given an editing checklist, Ann will revise her writing to improve the level of detail and organization with increased independence in 3 out of 5 opportunities.
          3. Ann will use proper size and spacing of her letters during written work.
          4. Given a structured spelling program, Ann will improve spelling of high-freuency words and patterns with 80% accuracy.

      • Describes the progress expected within a specific time period
      • Leads to meeting the annual goal
      • Example:
        • Goal: Jill will independently travel from work and home using the bus and walking and consistently be on time five days per week.
        • Benchmarks:
          • By the end of the first quarter, accompanied by an adult, Jill will walk to the bus stop, ride the bus to work, and get off at the correct bus stop.
          • By the end of the second quarter, Jill will be able to identify the steps she will follow to independently travel to work, as outlined by a task analysis.
          • By the end of the third quarter, Jill will independently walk to the bus stop, ride the bus, and get off at the correct bus stop.
Effective goals will be measured by some sort of “test” at the end of the IEP period, are written in a way that someone else can understand, implement, and evaluate, and are individualized based on the student’s disability that affects educational process (hence the acronym).

Service Delivery:

This section includes services, related services, program modifications and supports (including Positive Behavioral Supports, school personnel, and/or parent training). Services should assist the student in reaching his/her IEP goals, to be involved and progress in the general curriculum, to participate in extracurricular/nonacademic activities and to allow the student to participate with nondisabled students while working towards the IEP goals. In my former district, the school Special Education Coordinator, or sometimes, the district Special Education Department Head completes the Service Delivery Grid. This grid is split into 3 different types of services: Consultation, Direct Services in the General Education Classroom, and Direct Services in Other Locations (sub-separate). The type of services is indicated (OT, SLP, Extended School Year, Therapeutic programs, academic services, etc.), along with the personnel that provides the services, the frequency per day or week, as the duration, and the dates in which these services will occur (usually the IEP period).

State or District-Wide Assessment:

This section includes information on the types of participation the students engages in (on-demand testing with/or without accommodations, or alternative assessments).

Additional Pages of Information:

These sections that follow the service delivery grid include sections for Nonparticipation Justification (pull out of the general education environment), Schedule Modification (longer/shorter school day and/or year), Placement Consent (for students who require educational and other placements) and Transportation Services (required transportation as a result of disability).

Response Section:

Here is the section that the school “assures” the services indicated in the IEP will be provided. The parents then decide on their response of the IEP (accepting as is, rejecting portions, rejecting entire IEP, or request meeting to discuss IEP further).

I sincerely hope this post is helpful as you prepare your IEPs this year (and years to come!). When using this guide, I find it's helpful to have your IEP out and open with you as you following along with each section. I have a sample IEP that I have marked up with the ideas posted here that I frequently went back to when writing updates to my IEPs or drafting new ones.

If you enjoyed this post, and think others would find it helpful, please feel free to share across the social media platforms of your choice :)

ABA at Play: scientific research, function-based interventions, antecedent manipulations, prompting, prompt fading, evidence-based practices, operational definitions, data analysis, generalization, ABA teaching procedures, socially significant behavior, individualized supports, reinforcement procedures, preference assessments, Positive Behavior Supports

Do you have any more IEP writing tips to provide? I would love to hear about them! Leave a comment below to share


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