In This Issue

Social and behavioral Individual Education Program (IEP) goals: An exploration of practice

Results of a pilot study that explored the alignment between legal requirements, best practices and current school practices in relation to social and behavioral IEP goals

By Brandon Rennie, Gwen E. Mitchell, Monika Parikh, Alyssa Newcomb, Lisa Milkavich, and Marcy Sarkowski

Abstract: Misalignment between writing behavior and social goals and implementing the goals has been a recurring problem in special education. This paper discusses the results of a pilot study which explored the alignment between legal requirements, best practices, and current school practices in relation to social and behavioral Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Emotional Disturbance (ED). The research study was conducted by a multidisciplinary team utilizing both quantitative and qualitative survey questions to identify current practices in design and implementation of IEP goals and objectives, as well as to identify barriers to effective writing and fidelity of delivery. Results identified many gaps that exist between actual and best practices articulated in the literature. Participant responses were analyzed and divided into five classes of barriers. Implications for school psychologists' role in addressing gaps in current practices and reducing barriers are highlighted.

There has been growing recognition of the importance of explicitly teaching social and behavioral skills and expectations for behavior in educational settings (Sugai & Horner, 2002). Underlying this movement is the acknowledged need to actively develop and support pro-social behaviors (Sugai & Horner, 2002) and the extensive research base demonstrating that supports can be successfully applied to students with behavior problems using behavioral principles (e.g. Alberto & Troutman, 2008).

Drasgow and Yell (2001) posit that the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 emphasized the need to make schools safe for children with disabilities with an underlying emphasis on proactive social and behavioral interventions. They argued that Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) were encouraged by the mandate that educational programming follow from assessment. Drasgow and Yell (2001) are among the many who emphasize following best practice guidelines and federal regulations when addressing the behavior of a child with an IEP whose behavior impedes learning.

Research Questions

The aim of this pilot study was to explore the alignment between legal requirements, best practices, and current school practices in relation to social and behavioral IEP goals for children receiving special education services under the IDEA categories of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Emotional Disturbance (ED). Based on IDEA regulations requiring consideration for behavioral strategies, we limited our research to ASD and ED because the eligibility criteria for these two categories identify specific behaviors which may impose learning barriers resulting in the need for the identification of specific intervention strategies (IDEA, 2004). For this study, specific research aims were:

  • To explore social and behavioral goal creation and the implementation of plans that carry out these goals for children meeting special education eligibility under the categories of ASD and ED.

  • To evaluate the presence and quality of important aspects of social and behavioral IEP intervention elements such as writing measurable goals, aligning goals and plans with informative assessments, progress monitoring, and ensuring delivery fidelity was evaluated.

  • To identify possible barriers to designing and implementing effective social and behavioral goals and/or plans and carrying them out with fidelity


Participants. Participants consisted of individuals at least 18 years old and currently working in a public school setting.

The participants were initially recruited through's Mechanical Turk interface ( This website hosts a platform that allows individuals to take various surveys for compensation. MTurk was chosen to provide access to the survey to as many individuals as possible. The mTurk survey was preceded by screening questions intended to limit participants to those who participate in the IEP process for children with ASD or ED. Participants had the option of receiving 35 cents compensation. In addition, some of the investigators of the study emailed a letter outlining the study to colleagues and coworkers were eligible to participate.

The resulting sample consisted of 21 participants including five general education teachers, four special education teachers, one principal, two school counselors/psychologists, and nine listed themselves as "other." The "other" category included physical therapists, paraprofessionals, an occupational therapist, an autism advocate, and an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. The number of years in their current position ranged from less than five years to more than 15 years, with the majority of respondents being in their position for either less than five years (9; 43 percent) or 6-10 years (9; 43 percent). Respondents worked with a variety of grade levels with the most common being children in grades Kindergarten through 6th grade; however, all grades ranging from Pre-K through 12th grade were represented. The number of children with IEPs served by the professional ranged from one for an autism advocate to 170 for two physical therapists. The number of states represented by participants was 14.

Measures and Procedures

The survey included basic demographic questions as well as questions assessing social and behavior goals of students on IEPs in schools, implementation of these goals, current intervention strategies being used in the public school sector, and possible barriers to implementation of these goals. Questions regarding the following were asked and analyzed:

  • Number of children in the school?

  • Number of children on an IEP? 

  • Number of children with ASD or ED? 

  • Number of these children that have social and/ or behavioral goals? 

  • Who writes social/ behavioral goals? 

  • Who implements social/ behavioral interventions? 

  • Who monitors progress? 

  • How frequently are goals reviewed? 

  • How is progress measured? 

  • Does your school use FBAs in the development of IEP goals? 

  • Does your school use an intervention program for social/ behavioral issues? 

  • Give an example of a social or behavioral goal for a specific child? 

  • What do you see as barriers to the IEP team's ability to create effective social and behavioral goals?


After electronically signing an informed consent form, participants completed the online survey. The survey took an average of six minutes to complete. Participants were allowed to contact the investigators with any questions or comments regarding the nature of the study.

Descriptive statistics for the survey questions were analyzed. Goals were analyzed for quality and barriers to effective writing and delivery of IEP goals and objectives were coded into themes.


IEP Creation. With regard to who writes social and behavioral goals, respondents most commonly endorsed the special education teacher (21 people endorsed), followed by counselor (9), speech therapist (8), school psychologist (7), other (classroom teacher, team collectively, parent, behavior analyst; (5), and occupational therapist (4) There were 15 usable responses to the questions about how many students were on IEPs and how many of those IEPs include social and behavioral goals. The average number of children reported to have ASD and ED were 9.6 (SD = 15.6) and 8.0 (SD = 17.0), and the percentage of those children who had behavior goals and social goals were 57 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

Intervention and Progress Monitoring. Results of questions targeted at intervention and progress monitoring are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1: Findings for interventions & progress monitoring

Who Implemented interventions? Special Ed. Paraprofessionals General Ed. School Psy. Counselor Other
  20 14 11 6 4 4
Who monitored interventions? Special Ed. General Ed. School Psy. Other    
  18 1 1 1    
How often goals were reviewed? Monthly Quarterly End of Semester At JEP Meeting Other  
  7 8 2 3 4  
How goals were measured? Behavior Charts Teacher Rating Scale Systematic Observation Discipline Referrals Direct Assessment Other
  8 4 3 1 1 4
Did they use FBA data? Yes No        
  19 2        
Do they have a specific intervention program?* Yes No        
  11 8        
Note: FBA = Functional Behavior Assessment; IEP = Individualized Education Program. * District developed program was the only program given. This was given by 2 people.

Table 2: Evaluation of goal quality


Number that satisfied criterion

Percentage of Total
Setting Specified 9 45
Measurability 9 45
Criterion Stated 11 55
All Three Components 6 30

IEP Goals and Barriers. Of the 21 respondents, 18 identified and provided examples of specific goals previously written for students. Two of the goals listed by respondents contained two behavioral goals each, so they were divided accordingly to create 20 total goals to be evaluated for quality. The criteria outlined by Michnowicz, McConnell, Peterson, and Odom (1995) were used to evaluate the quality of goals. These criteria are based on IDEA regulations and were each addressed for every goal: (a) Did the goal identify the setting in which the target behavior was to be performed? (b) Was the goal written in measurable and observable terms? (c) Was a criterion for success stated? Descriptive statistics are shown in Table 2. Themes were identified by three of the investigators independently for the qualitative data reported by all respondents on the question inquiring about the barriers to the IEP team's ability to create effective social and behavioral goals. One respondent did not identify any significant barriers. Five central themes were identified between all three investigators as outlined below.

Theme 1: Time. Four respondents identified time as a barrier.

Theme 2: Limited Resources. Eight respondents identified barriers related to having limited resources, primarily staff or other school personnel, to implement the goals. Specific resources included: manpower resources, limited resources in the classroom and school, too few staff to effectively, consistently implement goals, and limited staff numbers in classrooms.

Theme 3: Staff Cooperation/ Consistency Issues. Seven respondents identified barriers related to staffing issues. Specifically, barriers included consistency between departments, lack of staff cooperation and collaboration, lack of coordination between team members, and inconsistent use of behavioral expectations, protocols, and/or consequences. In addition, frequently changing assistant teachers who use a variety of communication styles was also mentioned as a barrier.

Theme 4: Parent involvement. Four respondents identified parental involvement or compliance as a barrier, including parent involvement, parent cooperation in implementing interventions at home, and parental indifference.

Theme 5: Other. Five respondents identified additional barriers beyond these four identified themes including: (1) negative stigma associated with children with special needs, (2) multiple distractions in the classroom, (3) students with BIPs have found ways to "use" the system (i.e., teachers know they have a BIP so they let the child get away with behaviors that they should not), (4) lack of communication between teachers, parents, and outside agencies, and (5) finding a peer with similarities to assist in creating a genuine relationship and not just someone to engage in a dialogue.


The findings suggest that many special education professionals are involved in writing social and behavioral IEP goals for children with ASD or ED. Slightly more than half of the IEPs included behavioral goals and a roughly equivalent proportion included social goals, which is more than would be expected given previous findings (Ruble, McGrew, Dalrymple, & Jung, 2010; Williams-Diehm, Palmer, Lee, & Schroer, 2010). However, given that criteria for special education eligibility in these disability categories requires social and/or behavioral deficits (IDEA, 2004), and IDEA requires social and/or behavior goals for those with deficits, it is likely that most students in the sample would legally require these goals.

Both exemplary and concerning practices were identified with regard to the creation and implementation of goals. Ninety-four percent of the respondents reported using FBA data to create IEP goals, which is in alignment with best practices (Christle & Yell, 2010) and congruent with the requirement in IDEA that those interventions follow from assessment (Drasgow & Yell, 2001). However, of the goals were reported, only a few were measurable and specified a criterion for success. This finding is consistent with prior literature (Michnowicz, et al., 1995; Ruble, et al., 2010). Although only 30 percent of the goals identified in this study met the criteria, this finding is far higher than the 9 percent found in the Michnowicz et al.

(1995) study and similar to Ruble, et al. (2010) who used similar criteria to evaluate IEPs of children with ASD and found that 41 percent of their sample used measurable goals and 39 percent specified conditions (e.g. setting). Many goals did not include a criterion for success, misused percentages, used ill-defined behaviors, and/or included multiple, unrelated behaviors. Errors such as these in goal creation rendered goals that guided expectations and instructions to a small degree, and made accurate progress monitoring extremely difficult. Our findings are consistent with the Johns, Crowley, and Guetzloe (2002) findings that goals are often not consistent with deficits for children ED and they elaborated on the Ruble, et al. (2010) assertion that measurability of IEP goals is one of the greatest areas of need in IEPs for children with ASD. Despite difficulty in creating measurable goals, many forms of progress monitoring were reported, (e.g. behavior charts, rating scales, and direct observation). Goals were reviewed at least quarterly in 55 percent of the cases, suggesting that there may be a lack of coordination between goals and goal monitoring.

The final aim of this study was to identify barriers to the successful creation of social and behavioral goals and implementation of these goals. Responses identified many barriers which were categorized into five themes: limited time, limited resources (primarily human), lack of staff collaboration, lack of parent involvement, and an "other" category that included stigma, children who manipulate the system, communication with other stakeholders, and creating peer support. The most commonly endorsed barrier was limited resources, including limited staff to implement, monitor, and coordinate interventions. The second most endorsed barrier was staff cooperation and consistency. To the best of our knowledge, this barrier has not been well articulated in the literature on social and/or behavioral IEP goals and interventions. Many of the respondents in this study stated that there is a lack of consistency and collaboration across teachers, paraprofessionals, and departments. This theme may deserve more attention as it seems particularly amenable to intervention, but (?) the nature of the difficulty with consistency remains unexplored. Other themes that were identified were limited time, and difficulty effectively engaging parents.


Small sample size was the primary limiting factor of this study. Second, while participant screening measures were outlined for participation, the investigators cannot guarantee that each participant was a member of our target audience. Due to the initial low participation rate, the investigators emailed a letter outlining the study to colleagues and coworkers, which may have introduced a sample bias. As a result of these limitations in study participants, the overall findings are not generalizable. Also, the terms ASD, ED, social goal, and behavioral goal were not clearly defined for the participants, which may have impacted how individuals responded, possibly leading to an inflated or deflated estimation of children with ASD or ED. Finally, although the survey specified that participants were to use de-identified examples of actual goals, inspection of IEPs may lead to different findings.

Implications for School Psychologists

Findings of this study provided preliminary evidence that individuals involved in IEP creation are frequently including social and/or behavioral goals for their students with ASD and ED. FBAs are commonly used to inform goal creation; however, the goals themselves were poorly written and multiple barriers obstruct effective employment of remediation strategies of specification in goals informed by FBAs are likely to be numerous. Possible explanations for these findings are that FBAs do not include the information necessary to write good goals or the FBAs are developed by one person while the goals are being written by another, without adequate collaboration. School psychologists are wellversed in certain aspects of behavioral assessment and interventions that are relevant to these findings. In particular, school psychologists have the training, ability, and ethical responsibility to actively engage in the entire process of behavioral and social intervention from assessment through delivery. Respondents in this study endorsed that school psychologists are involved in goal creation, but only 21 percent identified the school psychologist as an individual who writes these goals. Goals and intervention effectiveness may be improved if school psychologists are more involved in all steps of the process, with particular emphasis on translating assessment information to goals and plans. Additionally, we see school psychologists as instrumental in reducing the barriers to effective intervention identified in this study. In many ways, school psychologists may be in an ideal position to assist with creating consistency and fostering communication across individuals. Specifically, school psychologists tend to consult with many staff on a daily basis, collect data from many sources, train staff and assist in intervention implementation, and involve families, teachers, administrators, and others in our professional activities. This small-scale, pilot study has clear implications for school psychologists to increasingly move beyond assessment and actively engage in all facets of delivering services to children with behavioral and social deficits. This study identified many specific areas in which school psychologists can and should collaborate with other school professionals to integrate and coordinate social and behavioral assessment and services for children with difficulties in these areas.


Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. (2008). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (8th ed.). Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.

Christle, C. A., & Yell, M. L. (2010). Individualized education programs: Legal requirements and research findings. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 18, 109-123.

Drasgow, E., & Yell, M. (2001). Functional behavioral assessments: Legal requirements and challenges. School Psychology Review, 30, 239-251.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2006, August 14). Retrieved from document (PDF, 1.4MB).

Johns, B. E., Crowley, P. E., & Guetzloe, E. (2002). Planning the IEP for students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Focus on Exceptional Children, 34(9), 1-12.

Michnowicz, L. L., McConnell, S. R., Peterson, C. A., & Odom, S. L. (1995). Social goals and objectives of preschool IEPs: A content analysis. Journal of Early Intervention, 19, 273-282.

Ruble, L. A., McGrew, J., Dalrymple, N., & Jung, L. A. (2010). Examining the quality of IEPs for young children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1459-1470.

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2002). The evolution of discipline practices: School-wide positive behavior supports. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 24(1-2), 23-50.

Williams-Diehm, K., Palmer, S., Lee, Y., & Schroer, H. (2010). Goal content analysis for middle and high school students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 33, 132-142.

About the Authors

Brandon Rennie, EdS is a student in the school psychology program at The University of Montana. After completing the EdS program and working for several years as a school psychologist, he returned to UM in the Fall of 2010 to enter the newly established PhD program.

Gwen E. Mitchell, PhD is a licensed counselor and school psychologist. She currently works at the Centers on Disabilities and Human Development in the University of Idaho's Child & Youth Study Center in Moscow, Ind. Her clinical work is with children ages three-seven year on Autism Spectrum and with Behavior Disorders.

Monika Parikh, EdM is a 5th year student in the counseling psychology program at Washington State University. Next year, she will be doing a predoctoral internship at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Alyssa Newcomb, MSW is a recent graduate of the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Wyoming.

Lisa Milkavich, DPT, is a physical therapist for Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has been a physical therapist for 10 years and has worked in clinical, hospital, and school settings.

Marcy Sarkowski, MSEd, SES works at the Anne Carlsen Center, an intermediate care facility for individuals with intellectual disabilities in Jamestown, N.D. She currently serves as the Resource Center's coordinator where she oversees teams in the development and completion of community based service activities of the organization.

Note: This research was conducted as part of the Utah Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disabilities program. It was conducted in a five state region: Mont., N.D., Ind., Utah, and Wyo.