Writing S.M.A.R.T. IEP Goals

My first months working in school based therapy as a new OT left me feeling ill equipped and insecure in my skills as a therapist. Nothing humbles you quite like being a new graduate working in the schools does (any of your currently going through this stick with it. IT WILL GET BETTER I PROMISE!).

Back when I was a new graduate and had just taken a contract position in Hawaii, I remember feeling WAY in over my head. I was to have a mentor help me become better acquainted with the ins and outs of providing occupational therapy in the school setting.

However, due to heavy caseloads and distance between schools, I rarely got to meet her in person or talk to her on the phone. I was left to figure it out for myself. One of the many challenges I faced was collaborating to write, or working to write, GOOD IEP goals.

I often came across goals such as the following:

Jacob (pseudonym) will demonstrate improved fine motor skills in order to copy simple pre-writing shapes such as a circle, a square, a triangle, a cross and an X with 80% accuracy utilizing a tripod grasp in 4 out of 5 opportunities observed.

I also have been guilty of writing cringe worthy IEP goals myself. Just taking a look back at some IEP goals I wrote three years ago, although well meaning, measurable, they were not.

How I learned:

Following a due process case, during which the settlement process I rewrote my OT related goal three separate times, I decided I had to do better. I had to make sure I was not absent minded and coming up with goals on the fly. I started thinking of it in these terms:

Assessment --> Determines areas of concern --> goals --> services.

Therefore, I needed to make sure that if I was recommending services for a student, the services needed to align with the students projected progress toward the goal.

That lead to to discover SMART goals.

A S.M.A.R.T. IEP goal Stands for

S- Specific

M- Measurable

A- use of Action words

R- is Realistic and Relevant

T- Time limited

OT School House Podcast

Listen to our Podcast on SMART goals where we add an E to create SMART-E goals. Check it out on Here or on iTunes


Let’s break these down from an occupational therapy perspective.

S- Specific

Often times, it seems simple enough to create a specific goal; however, without being specific about the academic or functional progress you would like to see, you are unable to also make this goal MEASURABLE (which is the next part).

When I look at how specific the goal is, I’m looking at a functional occupational performance area that is relevant to the child’s academic success.

If the child is unable to grasp a pencil appropriately, how does that impact their performance? If a child is unable to regulate themselves within the classroom, how is this impacting his or her performance within the classroom?

BE SPECIFIC! If the child is fatiguing when writing due to the poor grasp, is the grasp impacting writing legibility? If the grasp appears odd, yet it is not impacting the child’s occupational performance, does it need to be changed? Get specific about how the child’s pencil grasp is impacting his or her occupational performance.


Goals need to be measurable in order to monitor progress. If you are seeing a student for occupational therapy services once a week and write a goal that the child will perform the task in 4 out of 5 opportunities observed, how are you going to ensure you can measure this?

Could the teacher measure this? (I have been guilty of not considering these factors in the past…. Which is why I learned to adjust and be more aware of my goal writing)

Let’s assume that we’ve collaborated with the classroom teacher on Jacob’s goal. I plan to work with Jacob by pushing in and collaborating with the classroom teacher 2x month x 30 minutes to provide collaboration for Jacob to work on developing a more functional grasp as his current fisted grasp is limiting his control for writing letters with more refined movement and legibility.

Proposed goal:

By his next annual IEP Jacob will independently sustain a functional digital grasp (i.e. a tripod grasp) with writing and coloring instruments when performing classroom writing tasks in 3 out of 4 opportunities observed over a 2 month period.

Being that I’m in the classroom 2 x month for 30 minutes, unless the teacher would be measuring this goal consistently, writing “4 out of 5 opportunities in a one week period" would not be measurable.

furthermore, "4 out of 5 opportunities" observed could be measurable, but over what length of time? So be sure to get more clear on how you will measure your goal. You will find it helps to determine you service level and service type (consult, collab, individual-direct) as well.

A- Action

The action word in the above goal is "independently sustain". This indicates that the child is not being directed by the adults within the classroom. The goal is that he be able to pick up and position writing and coloring instruments with a digital grasp without adult intervention.

I have a personal preference for writing goals in which the child is able to complete the gaol at a level of independence or with no more than one prompt or redirection. I do this because as an OT I’m focused on developing the “Just Right Challenge” for students in order for them to be successful and advance their abilities.

This leads to the next part of S.M.A.R.T. goal criteria.

R- Relevant and Realistic

The Goal needs to be child centered, therefore it should inherently be relevant. The goal should be relevant to the child’s educational setting and address the identified areas of concern.

Realistic is developing the “Just Right Challenge”. We want to develop a goal that is challenging enough to advance the child’s skills to the next level; however we do not want the goal so difficult the child is unable to meet the goal within the given time frame.

Developing a realistic goal relies on establishing a baseline for the child or looking at his or her present levels. When I write a goal for a student to be independent in a skill, it is because I see prompting as a means of teaching the skill or getting the child to learn the task.

If the child would be unable to perform the skill without “hand over hand” or even “moderate assistance” it may be that the goal is not at a “Just right challenge” and we may need to take a step back and look at the child’s present levels of performance.

By keeping the “Just right challenge” in mind, we can make sure that the goal is relevant as well as realistic.


How do you make sure your goals are relevant?

Download our School-based Occupational Profile form and you will be on your way to knowing exactly where to start when developing SMART goals for your students.

Just hit the subscribe button to get the Occupational Profile form plus two other freebies that will help with you and your students!



T- Time limited

Writing an annual goal is SOOOOOO difficult. I mean it is ONE ENTIRE YEAR AWAY! That is why we not only write an annual goal, but also develop short term objectives as well.

When looking at this step, establishing a baseline is crucial even if the student does not perform the task at all. It may be that prompting and cues are within my short term objectives; however they would not be in the actual annual goal. A Baseline for Jacob needs to contain similar verbiage as the goal.

Jacob’s Baseline might read:

Jacob independently holds writing implements with a functional digital grasp in 0 out of 4 opportunities observed over a 2 month period.

Note: I did not write a baseline stating Jacob holds his pencil with a fisted grasp. Or Jacob has difficulty holding his pencil. The reason is that this is not establishing a baseline from which to measure the goal.

When considering short term objectives I may incorporate adult support in the form of prompting

For example:

By reporting period 1 When provided with demonstration cues from an adult Jacob will demonstrate functional digital grasp (i.e. a tripod grasp) of writing and coloring implements when performing classroom writing tasks in 3 out of 4 opportunities observed over a 2 month period.