Stop Cramming the IEP with Goals & Leave Room to Learn Naturally

goals iep parenting podcast special education special needs Dec 29, 2019

After 20+ years of writing IEPs with parents and teachers, I’ve learned a few things...

1. You’re never going to get every goal a child needs into the IEP.
2. A child will shutdown if you stuff their day with direct instruction hour after hour.
3. A child needs time to “be a kid” in their school day. This is often when their biggest milestones will be met.

Need help? Visit

Podcast Highlights:

We're wrapping up 2019 we're jumping into 2020 and for many of this, this us, this feels like a fresh start, right? But really we're right in the middle of the school year, but that doesn't mean that we can't make some really significant changes, if needed inside of a child's IEP. So I posted something on Instagram today and that's kind of taken off, like wildfire here. So I'm going to read to you exactly what I posted. It says, "stop trying to cram the IEP with every goal a child needs. Pick your priorities and leave space in a child's day for them to learn naturally". Now, both parents and teachers are commenting, sharing, liking, and in just really digging into this concept because it's something that a lot of people think, but they don't say, you know, an IEP is a place where more is not always better.

I've been designing IEP with parents, with schools, with entire IEP teams for over 20 years. For those of you that don't know, I'm a special needs sibling. I grew up with my brother who has down syndrome, watching my family navigate the special education system. I became a special education teacher. So I learned how to write IEP goals, but learning how to write IEP goals and knowing what to put into an IEP is one skillset, but being able to prioritize what truly needs to happen to prepare a child for further education, employment, independent living, and how to really maximize a school day is a completely different skillset. So let me share just a couple of things that I've learned in these two decades of building IEPs. The first thing is you're never going to get every goal into an IEP, nor should you. So it's okay to prioritize and not, put to paper every little thing that a child needs to achieve.

Could you imagine if we did that for ourselves, right? We're approaching the new year here and a lot of times that leads us to think about what do I want to achieve in this next upcoming year? If you put everything that you needed to do on paper, you would be overwhelmed. But that's exactly how both students and teachers and therapists feel when you try to cram things into the IEP. So just you know what? Just accept it. You're never going to get everything into the IEP. And that's okay because you can prioritize what needs to happen. Now when you're making these priorities and when you're deciding what needs to go in there, it's really important for you to really look at the child's whole big picture of their day. Because if you really cram Direct Instruction, that means a child is getting direct interaction with a teacher or a therapist or a paraprofessional for most of their day...

And by most, I mean of course we're going to have all these supports throughout the entire day. I'm talking every minute of their day filled, the child's going to shut down. Think about it. You don't want to be bossed around all day with no time to think for yourself. Our children, our students, they need time to think, time to learn naturally with their peers. Whether their peers are in the special education classroom with them working on a similar task or their peers are, the entire school community as they're out on the playground or enjoying a read aloud book session or whatever that is, they need time and they need some space in their day to learn naturally. It's so important to allow these spontaneous moments to happen because that's where the magic is at. That's when you know that a child really has grasped something is when they can do it independently on their own without prompting.

Right? That's our goal. That's why we're sitting in front of them all the time and prompting them with so many different tools and supports and accommodations and modifications. But the end goal is that we want them to do it on their own, but we have to leave space for that to happen. I'm going to give you a quick example here. One of my Master IEP Coaches, Courtney, she has a daughter who has multiple needs. She's a medically complex child. She uses, assistive communication and she's a teenager. Mom, Courtney, has been prompting her along with the speech therapists and her teachers and working on language and working on language and working on language. I mean her mom is even a speech and language assistant. This is all about communication. Now, one of the most magical moments that happened was when her daughter was waiting in the classroom for the teacher to take care of another child who needed a snack.

And her daughter for the first time spontaneously participated in the conversation because she also wanted to enjoy a snack.  If she would have had somebody right next to work on another task and making sure she's fully engaged at every minute, that spontaneous language wouldn't have happened. There needs to be that space for things like this to happen. That was such a proud moment, not just for the teacher or for mom, but for her daughter. For her daughter who needs that time in that space to have that meaningful communication. So leave that time and space and a child's day. So they can experience that type of natural learning to happen. You know, you really have to leave space in the day overall because if you know anything about a special education classroom or an IEP plan, things don't always go as planned.

There are going to be disasters that happen and if you have a day jam packed with back to back to back to back to back IEP goals and one thing goes awry. Your entire day falls apart. Maybe even your entire week! You know what? Maybe a child needs some extra time that day because they're having a rough time at home or you know, maybe it's the holidays and they are just filled with chaos and they need extra time to process. Maybe their sibling at home is sick and nobody's getting enough sleep. Maybe, the child is moving slower than normal because they're just exhausted. Things are not always going to go as planned. So let's stop cramming the IEP and cramming the days with task after task after task and leave some space for students and teachers to work together with some natural flow. That's when you're going to see real connections happen.

You know, it's really important to leave this space for another reason too because let's just face it, we cannot predict everything that a child's going to need. We should not have to adjust the paperwork every time that we something see something new and unique that we could do with the child to help them grow. Remember, an IEP is a minimum of what needs to occur. You can always do more, so if you leave space in the IEP and you see something unique happening with your child, with your student, you can start to integrate something new, maybe some new curriculum, maybe some new hands on ideas, maybe some new opportunities for inclusion at a whole other level. Maybe some new ways to really build community in the classroom and on that school campus. When you leave this space to help truly design an individualized program, then you start to be able to meet a child's needs at a whole different level.

I'm actually going to give you guys a quote here off of this Instagram post that has just happened. It's from a mom whose name is Angela. She said at this type of focus of not cramming things in and in giving space for a child to learn naturally. This is golden. This past year I cut my son's goals in half. I explained to the team I wanted to go deep instead of wide. Guys, that's huge. That's straight from a moms heart. She knows in her gut that it's not about learning all the things all the time. It's about giving her child and the team the time that they need to really dig into a subject, into a skill, into mastery in an area that's truly going to make a difference. 

Now a teacher commented here, and these are my favorites. You guys know I am not about just helping parents or just helping teachers. The Master IEP Coach program that I developed. It's the only program that really combines training teachers, parents, therapists, and admins all together with the end goal of preparing every child for further education, employment, independent living to help them reach their potential to do it with less conflict, less stress, and a more results for the child. Because this next generation does not have to have the bar set so low like we've had for generations in the past. But if we're going to raise the bar, we have to do this together. We have to make the decision together to not put 25 IEP goals into a document. We have to make a decision together that to say that, you know, three, four, five, six really good IEP goals can change a child's life.

We have to trust each other to be able to help prioritize. And then, you know what? Sometimes we have to switch those priorities. Like right now, like I said, we're in the middle of the school year and it's okay if you need to make some adjustments. If you're hearing this right now and you're thinking, Oh my goodness, thank goodness we're having this conversation because you know, I've got a student with an IEP that has 12 goals, or my child's IEP has 14 goals and I don't know what to do with all of this. It's okay to change it. It's okay to work on it. You don't need to wait. So this teacher who's commenting here, she says, I hate having a ton of goals. I think it's absolutely stupid. Nothing like being blunt, right on Instagram, right? I want to be realistic. If a kid has a hundred things to work on, it's not feasible.

She can't do her job as a teacher and help a child grow, if she's being dictated by a piece of paper that's mandating that every minute of her day is filled with direct instruction. Sometimes the greatest addition that you can make to a child's IEP is the subtraction of all the chaos that's inside of the document. It's about really eliminating that overwhelm for both the students, the teacher, the therapist, and the parents so everybody can fulfill their role in supporting the child to develop the way that they need to. If you cram all of this into every minute of the child's day, you truly are going to miss those magical moments. Like Courtney's daughter who's having a spontaneous conversation with her peers and her teacher over a meal. Guys, that's real life. That's what we do together. That's what you and I do with our family, with our friends, we, we go out, we sit at the restaurant, we have a conversation, we're participating in meaningful relationships.

We're contributing. And that's what happens when you give a child a strong foundation. I want a strong foundation in a child's IEP. Prioritizing what that future really does potentially hold for a child in those areas of further education, employment, independent living. And you've heard me say that three times. You'll hear me say it a hundred more here on this podcast because if you look in the purpose of findings of IDEA... (remember I'm not a lawyer. I'm telling you where to look.) Okay. If you look at the purpose and findings of IDEA law, which is the federal law that's governing a child's education, it says that they get an education that's appropriate. Okay, well that's a gray area. That's why that's why we're here. We're talking about what's appropriate and then they get an education that meets their unique needs. Awesome. Let's dig into who this child is and they also get an education to prepare them for further education,

Employment, independent living. This is not about making a child be like another child. This is not about helping a child keep up with the other kids. How fast can we go throughout the day so we can help a child be like all the other kids? This is about really digging into what a child needs so they can be who they are and grow the way they need to grow. You know, one of my favorite educators ever is Maria Montessori. I love the Montessori method. I love how she observed children before she started to dig in and really start to work with them. She did more watching than she did teaching. So much of the time,  Montessori education is thought of as this elite practice that y is not accessible to our average schools or our, you know, public school system.

That's not true. Her methods of observing and following a child's lead and designing tools and education to meet their growth and developmental needs that can happen in any classroom. So I'm going to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Maria Montessori. She says "the greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say the children are now working as if I did not exist." That goes for parents too. See, that's what we want as parents and teachers. We want our children to be able to do things as if we did not exist. We want them to be able to explore, grow, fail, make mistakes, learn how to work independently, pick themselves back up and then master those skills. You can help make that happen. When you stop trying to make sure everything is put into the IEP document and that you start building that really clear pathway, that really clear next steps of here are the milestones that need to happen in these core areas that we're all on board.

We're all working towards them. We're all moving forward and we're going to leave some room so we can all use our expertise and follow the child in the direction that they need to go. If you want further help and knowing how to do this, how do you make this happen? How do you work with the team? How do you get them on the same page? Whether you're a parent, teacher, therapist, or admin? I invite you to go to to find out more about how to become a Master IEP Coach. You can enroll to become a master IEP coach... Maybe just for yourself or maybe you're going to be that Go-To Master IEP Coach in your community where people are going to come to you for help. I hope to work with you in the Master IEP Coach Mentorship. Remember, take a look at those IEP goals.

Make sure that you know the flow of your child's day or step back teachers, and look at the flow of your student's day. Find those spaces in the day where you can allow a child to really master and learn. Start taking out the chaos within the IEP. And again, I hope to see you inside at the Master IEP Coach mentorship so we can help make this happen. Not just child by child, but also by school, by community. This is a change that needs to happen so we can really reach those full dreams that we have of every child getting the education that they need. 

Become a Master IEP Coach

FREE IEP Training for Parents and Teachers

Get 3 Critical Steps to Fixing Every IEP

Learn More

Download 12 IEP Questions Everyone Forgets to Ask

Parents and Teachers, Use this Question Guide to Get Ready for Your Next IEP Meeting!