Update (4/11/13): The link below to our former Ning community no longer works. We have moved our IEP goal-writing forum to https://kps4parents.org/main/community-outreach/iep-goal-forum/.
Writing IEP goals for behavioral issues can pose a particular challenge. Unlike academic goals, which should be tied to State standards for academic performance and more easily lend themselves to measurable language, behavioral goals aren’t tied to a pre-described set of criteria of what students should learn; at best, they relate to rules about what students should not do at school.
Behavior has been poorly dealt with in our school over the decades since mandatory schooling was first implemented back during the Industrial Revolution. Mandatory schooling itself was used as a behavioral intervention to address a huge juvenile delinquency problem that arose after child labor laws were passed that prevented parents from putting their children (as young as 6) to work in the factories. This left large numbers of unsupervised children roaming the squalid, poverty-stricken streets of the inner city factory workers’ neighborhoods. Suffice it to say that they often came up with some pretty inappropriate ways of keeping themselves occupied.
Child advocates at the time pushed for mandatory schooling to take these trouble young people and convert them into quality citizens of a growing young nation. As seems to be the case with every age, innovations in business and industry were applied to the concept of large-scale public education and the current system was designed to emulate the assembly line. Teachers were regarded similarly as workers on an assembly line, passing students from one grade to the next (except those that failed QC). More and more so, teachers were increasingly women looking for less dangerous work than what was available to them in the factories. Being that the women at the time had fewer rights than men and were often not knowledgeable in the ways of self-advocacy and the assertion of their rights, they were often more easily exploited as workers than male teachers. So, just as the workers on the assembly lines of the factories began to engage in collective bargaining and organized labor unions, teachers began to do the same. At the time, these unions served to protect workers and teachers alike from exploitation. Today, it’s a different political climate.
Nonetheless, taking the lead from the business world, the assembly-line nature of public education began pushing children through the system, many of whom who were already causing problems because of their behaviors. I mean, it was their behaviors that led to mandatory schooling in the first place. The response to their behaviors by the adults responsible for educating them was fairly typical for the times: spare the rod and spoil the child. It was highly punitive. Children were punished for inappropriate behaviors but there was no effort to systematically teach them the appropriate behaviors they should have engage in, instead. In other words, the interventions at the time focused on the structures of the behaviors – that is, what the child had actually done – as opposed to the functions of the behaviors – that is, why the child had done it. This left many, many children with unresolved issues and no means to see them addressed, causing the perpetuation of troubling conditions.
In defense of the educators at the time, these children’s parents were often even less capable in rendering proper guidance to their children. Factory workers often worked 14 to 16 hour days before going home to horrible living conditions in a crammed up tenement with their ten kids and were in no position to offer effective parenting and guidance at the end of the day to that many children. They were dependent upon the public school personnel to help them during the daytime with their children’s needs.
Fast forward to today and you still have an assembly-line type system in the general education setting. In fact, unless something is “wrong” with you such that you require special education, you aren’t entitled to an education tailored to the way you actually learn. Behaviors are still largely dealt with in a reactionary fashion with punitive responses to inappropriate behaviors after they have already occurred, though there is a burgeoning movement to finally implement positive behavioral interventions on a school-wide basis rather than on a child-by-child basis. Even still, all schools maintain disciplinary records for each student, which speaks to the culture of public school administration and its perception of children who behave inappropriately at school. If there still weren’t such a punitive mindset, they would be called behavioral records or something else non-judgmental.
Just because a kid does something that’s inappropriate doesn’t automatically mean that the kid wanted to do something bad or wrong; very often it’s the situation that the child just doesn’t know what else to do, is engaging in trial and error to try to meet a want or need without thinking things through (which may not even be possible depending on the stage of childhood development the kid happens to be in at the time), or is crying out for help in whatever ways will be heard. Behavior is largely a function of communication; the trick is being able to understand the message.
So what does all of this have to do with writing behavioral goals? Well, a lot. It’s difficult to write behavioral goals for many people because they are still caught up in the antiquated punishment model of behavioral intervention, which evidence shows may curtail a specific behavioral incident in the short-term, but does nothing in the long-term to prevent problem behaviors from developing again or growing worse and more sophisticated over time. Because so many people in public education have been trained to look at behaviors as challenges to their authority rather than signs of things that need to be addressed, it’s hard for them to conceptualize the proper formatting of behavior goals. Parents usually have no formal training in this area either and get caught up in the momentum of the punitive mindset, not necessarily sure that the schools’ approach is appropriate but not knowing what else to suggest.
The thing with behavior goals is that they have to describe what a student is supposed to do in order to determine that the goal has been met. But, most people still think in terms of what the student should not be doing and will write things like “By 12/10/09, [Student] will decrease vocal outbursts in the classroom by 90% as measured by observation,” which is a poorly written goal on an uncountable number of levels. What the goal should do is describe and target the appropriate replacement behavior. So, it could read something like, “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.”
Now, here in this example, it’s implied that the reason the child was engaging in noisy outbursts because he was becoming overwhelmed by noisy distractions presented by others. This is significant! Most behaviors are engaged in to either get something or get away from something, regardless of whether those behaviors are good or bad. Behaviors serve specific functions to the individuals who engage in them. Purists in the field of behavioral sciences tend not to really classify behaviors as good or bad, but more in terms of appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstance, adaptive or maladaptive, or successful and unsuccessful. Reinforcers are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that increase the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that are likely to decrease the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are not automatically presumed to be punishment.
Think about it. If you’re at a restaurant and want fettuccine alfredo, you don’t say, “Give me a t-bone steak, please.” You ask for the fettuccine alfredo. If you were to ask for a t-bone steak, and the waiter brought you a t-bone steak instead of fettuccine alfredo, the consequence of receiving a t-bone steak would decrease the likelihood of you asking for a t-bone steak the next time you wanted fettuccine alfredo. Getting the t-bone wasn’t punishment. It was just the natural consequence of you asking for something other than what you really wanted.
But, what if you don’t know the name of the dish you want? You can describe it to the waiter (“Yes, I’ll have those flat noodles with the creamy sauce and that spice that’s usually only used in snickerdoodles and spice cakes,”) and hope he understands, or you can just order something else that really wasn’t what you wanted just to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing the name of your favorite dish in front of your dinner companions and the waiter. At that point, though, your behavioral priority became avoiding embarrassment rather than getting the food that you wanted. When cast in that light, inappropriate behaviors start to make more sense.
With our example goal here, the only way we could have known why the child was engaging in the inappropriate behavior of verbal outbursts in the classroom was to have conducted an appropriate assessment of the child’s behavior. This assessment, in this example, would have revealed that the child – who has ADHD and an auditory processing disorder – was getting auditory overload whenever the noise level in the classroom increased during busy activities and, being highly distractible to boot, was incredibly challenged to remain on task. The verbal outbursts were the result of his frustration at not being able to concentrate and being so caught up in the moment of being overwhelmed and lacking in coping skills that it didn’t occur to him to ask his teacher to let him do his work some place more quiet. We’re talking about a child with compromised learning skills, here, not a 45-year-old adult with years of experience at effectively solving problems.
The goal describes the desired outcome, but what probably also needs to be in this child’s IEP is a positive behavior support plan that spells out what his issues are and how to deal with them. The only purpose the goal serves is to measure whether or not he acquired the replacement behavior over the course of the goal’s annual period. In our example goal above, the use of the break card has to be explained somewhere.
Sometimes IEP teams unnecessarily knock themselves out trying to write a succinct enough goal that captures all of the relevant elements without it becoming the world’s longest run-on sentence when something like a particular strategy must be employed. My favorite solution to problems like this is to develop a separate protocol that gets attached to an IEP as another page of the document and then have the goal refer to it.
For example, our example goal being used here refers to a break card but doesn’t make clear what that is or how it should be used. The goal could be re-written to read: “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card according to the protocol found on page 12 of this IEP to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.” Then page 12 of the IEP could be a one-page description of the protocol. In the alternate, if a positive behavior support plan is also attached to the IEP and the break card system is described in it, then the goal could reference the positive behavior support plan.
The important thing is that the goal has to be customized to fit the unique circumstances of the child involved. We get a lot of hits on our web site from people looking for pre-written goals, but I’m telling you that this is totally the wrong way to go about it. You’re not going to find canned goals that fit a particular circumstance involving a particular child, particularly when it comes to behavior. The goal has to target the specific area of need as identified in the present levels of performance and describe in measurable terms exactly what the student has to do in order to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skill. The goals of any child’s IEP have to be tailored to his unique needs and you don’t get a customized outcome with “off-the-shelf” goals. Rather than looking for pre-written goals that will fit a specific child, look for examples of goals and learn to understand the process and the logic behind how goals are written.
With behavior goals, target the acquisition of the desired behavior rather than dwell on reducing the undesired behavior. Gather baseline data on how often the child engages in the desired behavior at the time the goal is written and the degree to which he is expected to engage in it at the conclusion of the goal, which should be an increase over how often he engages in it at the beginning.
For example, if the baseline is that the student does not currently use a break card system to appropriately remove himself from a noisy and distracting environment to a quiet place where he can complete his work, then our example goal above represents a marked improvement. If the child begins using his break card system to escape the noisy, distracting environments and completing his work in a quiet area, then he’s not standing in the midst of the chaos yelling his head off.
By engaging in the appropriate replacement behavior, he inadvertently ceases to engage in the inappropriate behavior. Once he realizes that he is being met with a more beneficial outcome by using the break card system than he was by yelling out in class, he’ll have no reason to go back to yelling out in class. Over time, the skill can be refined to the point that the student is able to afford himself the trust of his teacher to excuse himself at his own discretion, without the need for overt signals to the teacher like break cards, to a quiet area to do his work and no one will think anything of it. A behavior goal in this area of need will eventually no longer be necessary.
I’ve seen kids overcome behavioral challenges in a year or less with good behavioral supports. I’ve also seen kids fall deeper and deeper into a hopeless pit of despair in the absence of good behavioral supports. And the degree of disability has little to do with it. It’s all about the quality of the behavioral interventions, including the goals. As long as the goals target the desired behaviors, are written in a measurable way that relates directly to relevant and accurate present levels of performance, and work in tandem with any behavioral protocols and/or a positive behavioral support plan in the IEP, you should be met with success.
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