School Professional Resources

How to Write an IEP for Special Education Students

Part of a special education teacher’s job includes writing individualized education plans (IEP) for students living with certain disabilities. While comprehensive in scope, writing a good IEP comes down to a few critical steps:

1. Identifying goals for the student
2. Outlining their objectives
3. Determining the student’s behavioral goals
4. Making decisions using objective data

In this resource guide, we will go over the purpose of an IEP and the steps for creating these education plans, as well as provide some examples of how to set SMART goals for students in the plan.

four tips for writing an effective IEP plan for special education students.

Work as a special education teacher with us! Search for jobs here.

What is an IEP?

An individualized education program outlines the special education instructional supports and accommodations that a student requires to be successful in school.

Covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), IEPs are available for eligible youth enrolled in public or charter schools.

To qualify for an individualized education plan, students must have one or more of the 13 conditions covered under IDEA, which include specific learning disabilities such as,

  • Dyslexia
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Sensory impairments
  • Traumatic brain injuries

Why is an IEP Important?

IEPs have profound importance in the academic life of a child who lives with one or more disabilities. In today’s age, there are numerous ways that schools can provide support to diverse learners (i.e., adaptive technology, audiobooks and learning management systems).

4 Reasons an IEP is Important:

  • It provides clear information, instructions and options for schools, families, and students.
    While the IEP is meant to be a “living,” adaptable document, it also serves as a frame of reference for discussing a student’s strengths and challenges.
  • It identifies resources that may serve students in attaining their academic goals.
    Some students may use these resources in all their learning environments, while others may only use them within specific subjects. For example, a student living with a math-related learning disability dyscalculia may use a calculator in math classes, but not need to use any accommodations in an English language arts classroom.
  • It bolsters student confidence in that they outline all the different tools a student can utilize to be successful.
    While the IEP represents structure, there is also flexibility embedded in it. Knowing that they can ask a teacher to provide guided notes can assuage the anxiety of a student who generally struggles to write legibly.
  • It provides accountability by monitoring student progress toward SMART goals.
    SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. This means that they are different for every child. One example of a SMART goal is: “When presented with a list of ten vocabulary terms, the student will correctly define and use them in a sentence with 80% accuracy.”

How to Write an Effective IEP

Four top reasons for IEPs and what they provide special education students.

Teaching in an inclusive classroom not only means accepting all styles of learners – it means proactively seeking out ways to make learning more accessible to neurodivergent learners.

Writing an IEP involves four steps, which we will explain further below:
1. Identifying goals
2. Outlining objectives
3. Determining behavioral goals
4. Making decisions using objective data

Identifying IEP Goals

IEP goals are determined in collaboration with the student, their family, and their school support network, which includes a case manager, school psychologist, administrator, and cohort of teachers. Some students may also invite a family liaison, translators, a speech-language therapist or other paraprofessionals. 

As mentioned previously, IEP goals should be SMART goals. It is perfectly acceptable and common practice to define goals in separate categories. For some students, their support team prioritizes reading comprehension goals or reading fluency goals. Others may focus less on academic goals and more on social-emotional goals or self-advocacy learning goals.

Outline Short-Term & Measurable Objectives

What might IEP goals look like on paper? Here are some examples of math goals:

  • When cued by the teacher to “point to number ___,” the student will autonomously choose the correct number with 100% accuracy on four out of five trials, measured bi-quarterly.
  • When provided with 10 subtraction problems and using a number line, the student will autonomously subtract double-digit numbers with 90% accuracy on four of five trials measured each semester.

Both of these math IEP goals refer to a specific skill, such as identifying numbers of subtracting double-digit numbers. They are measurable, meaning accuracy is predicted across a series of attempts. They are achievable and realistic, based on the evaluation of the student’s current abilities. The bi-quarterly and every semester timelines set a window for achievement.

Example of a SMART goal for an IEP plan for special education teachers.

Special education teachers can write social-emotional IEP goals, as well:

  • When given a hand signal by a teacher, a student will acknowledge the signal and redirect their focus back to their academic task with 100% accuracy, as documented each day.
  • When provided with feedback on written work, a student will listen to the teacher’s explanation and refrain from becoming defensive with 90% accuracy, as documented each week.

Write Out Behavioral Goals

More often than not, IEP behavior goals reserve a significant portion of the document. It is important for special education teachers to write out behavior support plans in a positive light – acknowledging challenge areas while focusing on improvement targets and how the student’s support network is here to help them in their endeavors.

A positive behavior support plan (BIP) is embedded within the IEP and includes strategies for reducing or bypassing specific behaviors by teaching and reinforcing empowered alternatives. The goal of a BIP is to support students in responding appropriately to triggers, whether social, environmental, or cognitive.

For example, if a student resorts to shutting down and becoming non-communicative in small group settings, the positive behavior support plan may propose an alternative, like asking questions or using calm language to convey one’s disappointment.

The behavior support plan will also outline how teachers should evaluate the effectiveness of alternative behaviors or interventions. It is possible that the teacher will need to make changes in the learning environment to adhere to the IEP behavior goals, such as reconfiguring the seating arrangements.

Use Objective Data to Make Decisions for the IEP

It is essential for general education and special education teachers to use objective data when tracking a student’s IEP goals. For each goal, the IEP should specify how it will be evaluated and then used to make future instructional decisions.

Some IEP goals will be observable, meaning a teacher will watch a student complete a designated task. Others – like writing goals – will be measured using written assessments or activities. Math goals might use unit tests as evaluation instruments. When it comes to self-advocacy goals or social-emotional goals, a student might utilize a journal to reflect on their own progress.

A special education team reviews the objective data in order to make further recommendations for a student’s learning journey. Data may convince a team that the student needs more support or that they can move to a less restrictive environment. The more objective the data collected, the more accurate the team’s recommendations for student accommodations can be.

Final Thoughts on Writing an IEP

Writing a good IEP is one of the most important components of a special education teacher’s job. It involves knowing a child’s strengths, areas of needed improvement and goals. It involves the ability to determine appropriate supports and team members best suited to carry out those accommodations. IEPs evolve in a continuous cycle of improvement, as they are reviewed by a team at least once annually.

A good IEP can make a big difference in the life of a student living with a disability. Search special education teacher jobs using our up-to-date database to find the position where you can best contribute to this exceptional population of learners.

How to write an IEP plan for special education students.