Five Tips for Setting Goals

One of the most common problems I run into in the schools is knowing how to create a goal for a kid and then following up on that goal. Many teachers aren’t taught this skill and many are afraid of the math behind it. This post isn’t about what goal you should set. Goals are different in every situation. This post is about how you set the goal and how you monitor it. There are five easy tips to remember. Pro tip: this works for parents when trying to change behavior at home too.


  1. Know where you are
  2. Know where you’re going
  3. Remember the dead-man rule
  4. Make it graphable and measure progress
  5. Involve the kid


  1. Know where you are: This is also known as the baseline or the starting point. How is the student performing now? Usually, it’s pretty easy to identify the starting point, but sometimes you have to take a little data to figure it out. For example, the student reads at a second-grade level. The student is disruptive in class. Sometimes you need to get more specific. The student reads at a second-grade level and can read 30 words per minute. The student gets up from his desk 70% of the time and disturbs other students when he is supposed to be seated and working. It’s best when you can identify it in such a way that is easily measurable and sensitive to small changes.


  1. Know where you’re going: Just like the baseline, you need to know where you’re going. This is truly the goal you want to accomplish. It needs to be specifically related to the baseline and measured in the same way. By the end of the school year, the student will increase his reading to 65 words per minute at a second-grade level. By the end of the month, the student will work quietly on his classwork 80% of the time without disturbing other students.


  1. Remember the dead-man rule: This one is tricky and often confusing for people. The dead-man rule means that you should never set your goal around a behavior that a dead man can do. The goal should be written in a way that the behavior you want replaces the behavior you don’t want. Usually that’s easy with academics, but not so easy with behavior. Notice in the baseline, I stated that the student gets up from his desk 70% of the time, but in the goal, I stated that the student will work quietly at his desk. I could have written the goal to say the student will not get up from his desk, but even a dead-man could do that. A better replacement behavior is to identify the active skill you want the student to do. In this case, work quietly at his desk.


  1. Make it graphable and measure progress: Goals that are written well can almost always be graphed. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t know where to begin. It’s really pretty easy if you follow the first two steps above. If you know where the student began and you know where you want the student to be, then you can draw a line between the starting and ending points. Two points make a line. Collect data in between to see if the student is making progress. Use the graphing tool linked below. All you need to do is enter the dates and the data you collected. It’s usually best to collect academic data once a week. Behavior data may need to be collected more frequently, as often as every day or even every hour.


  1. Involve the kid: This is one of the most important pieces of creating a goal. You have to involve the student. Kids (and adults) have more investment in any situation when they have some say the outcome. Most kids know when they have a problem and want to improve even though they don’t always show it. Ask the student for help in creating the goal. Let them help you measure it and monitor it. Make colorful graphs they color in themselves or let them enter the data themselves on an Excel sheet. Give them lots of positive reinforcement. Verbal praise and high fives are the easiest and often best ways to reinforce kids. Don’t be afraid of offering treats and free time too.

Try the graphing tool linked below. A lot of programs for measuring academics offer these graphing tools as part of the program, but they aren’t versatile enough to cover any kind of goal. You need to have a tool you can use for anything.

Graphing Tool


Graphing Tool Instructions

  1. Enter Date when baseline was taken
  2. Enter the baseline data in Goal column
  3. Enter Date when the Goal ends
  4. Enter endpoint of Goal in Goal column
  5. Change the Label of the data in Column C to the type of data you are collecting
  6. Enter Date and data for each time data is collected
  7. View the graph on the Graph tab below
  8. Change the Graph Labels to reflect what you are measuring


Three tips for working with behavior problems


If you are a parent with a child who has behavior problems, you may be desperate for help. It can be overwhelming. Your emotions will range from anger to sadness, embarrassment to despair. While I can’t possibly cover every situation and every potential behavior problem your child might be exhibiting, there are a few tips that might make things easier for your family. I believe these tips are good for all families and teachers and can make a real difference in curbing a multitude of issues.

  1. Establish routines: Consistent positive routines are probably the most important thing you can implement in your family. Children need to know what to expect and tend to respond better to direction when their environment is not chaotic or confusing.

Create a morning routine your children can easily learn and remember. Make a list and write it down. If your child can’t read yet, make a schedule with pictures. Take pictures of them following the routine or something that represents it (like a picture of the toothbrush) and print them out in the right order. You can make the pictures small enough to fit on a single sheet of paper, then laminate it or put it in a protective sleeve. Alternatively, make a short book with pictures and words. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Even stapled pages can make a great resource. Keep it simple.

  • Shower
  • Get dressed
  • Eat breakfast
  • Brush your teeth

The order and what you put in the routine depends on what your family needs. Spend some time teaching your children the routine. Practice it every morning and keep reminding them to check their list. Eventually, they’ll be able to do it without assistance, but don’t expect them to get it quickly.

In the evening, have a similar routine.

  • Brush teeth
  • Put on pajamas
  • Reading time
  • Bed time—Bed time should be the same every night and will vary depending the age of your children and their sleep patterns.

Family commitments may require some alterations and flexibility, so establish a few simple rules like, “Everybody helps clean up after dinner.” These rules not only help them contribute to the family, but keep them from setting their mind on other things they want to do. Screen time and play time come after you’ve done your job.

  1. Focus on the one thing: Whenever I talk to teachers and parents about behavior problems, they are often frustrated and have a hard time articulating what the issue is. I hear things like, “He is disruptive”, “He is disobedient”, etc. There are usually a number of problem behaviors or they wouldn’t be talking to me. My advice is always start with the problem behavior that bothers you the most.

What behavior, if corrected, would start to make things more manageable? My first follow-up question is, “What does that look like?” Try to narrow down the behavior and be specific. What does it look like when he’s disobedient? Is it only at certain times? Is it only when you ask him to do a chore or maybe only when you’re not looking?

Next, I ask, what behavior do you want him to exhibit? The answer cannot be, “Be less disobedient.” That’s not helpful! Remember, be specific. If the child consistently storms out of the room when you ask him to clean up from dinner, then a replacement behavior could be staying in the room and helping clear the table. Start small. Maybe they just need to help for 5 minutes at first.

When your child responds correctly, give lots of praise and consider a reward of some kind. At first, make the rewards frequent and immediately following the desired behavior. A sticker for a young child or points toward a desired purchase/toy for an older child may be appropriate. Give your child some choices or make a list of rewards ahead of time. Make sure the rewards are something you are ok with your child receiving frequently.

Once your child starts responding positively, keep going for awhile, then slowly begin to back off. It may be months or years before you can stop rewards entirely. What you will likely see happen first is he will start getting the new routine. At this point, you can start adding more expectations or new positive behaviors that deal with some of the other problems behaviors. In some cases, your child’s negative behavior will increase for a short time. Don’t be discouraged. He is testing your resolve and rebelling against the new controls. It’s normal. Stick with it and be consistent.

  1. Get some help: One of the most difficult challenges parents face with problem behavior is losing perspective. Emotions get tied up and kids seem to almost intuitively know how to make you mad. After you have established your routines and focused on the “one thing”, your child’s behavior may not be getting better. Sometimes you need an outside person who can see solutions you can’t see. A good counselor, psychologist, or behavior specialist may be able to assist. They can help you narrow down your problem better or tweak your response. In some cases, medical intervention through formal diagnosis and subsequent medication is necessary.

There is one more tip. Don’t forget to breathe. Take some time for yourself and remember your child’s behavior does not define who you are. It does not say anything about your character or your parenting abilities. Keep working at it and be consistent and you will see improvements.

Ten things every special educator wishes you knew


  1. No, we don’t have extra patience. We are specifically trained to work with children with learning and behavior challenges. Teaching students with disabilities is an art and science with a significant amount of research-based practices.
  1. Just because there are less than 10 students in my classroom, it doesn’t mean I’m not extremely busy. Many of those students are all on different levels and struggling with different learning challenges. When I’m not teaching or grading, I’m probably writing IEPs or doing other paperwork.
  1. We have to prepare more lesson plans than almost any other teacher. Not only do we teach numerous subjects, but each student is at a different level, see number 2. We often have one lesson plan for each student for each subject.
  1. We need the regular education teacher at the IEP meeting. We need them to tell us and the parents how typical students perform in the classroom so we know what tasks to modify. It also helps the parents have a basis for comparison. The regular education teacher also needs to give input on reasonable accommodations.
  1. Our kids don’t typically make quick, steady progress. They learn, they regress, they learn again, then forget. Sometimes they don’t make any progress at all for awhile, then surge forward.
  1. We celebrate every single victory! Don’t assume that we do nothing but play in our classrooms because we could be celebrating a small or big victory OR just need a break to be able to get more learning done!!
  1. We do everything within our power for your child. We treat them like our own children within the context of all we know of special education law and regulations.
  1. We get kicked, hit, and bit. We work with kids other teachers are often afraid of. Most importantly, we love these kids and they deserve every chance we can give them. Everyday is a fresh start. 
  1. We are constantly amazed by kids with behavior problems. Some of the most interesting kids we know are those with behavior problems. They are unique and have a huge capacity to love. Their problem behaviors aren’t there every moment and they can be tremendous fun.
  1. We work hard at building trust. Students with emotional and behavioral problems have to trust the adults at school. Once they trust, they will open up and work hard.


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Should I hold my student back in school?


Considering holding a student back a grade (called “retention”) is a common question wrestled with by both parents and educators. Some parents will choose to delay starting their child in kindergarten, often called red-shirting, for a variety of reasons.

This article is not referring to red-shirting, but rather retaining a student who has already started school.

Rationales for Retention
Many state governments mandate retention in certain circumstances. For example, in my state, 4th grade students who read below a 3rd grade level must be retained, unless they are in special education or on a 504 Plan for reading or have limited English proficiency.

Aside from mandatory retention, the main reason people want to retain a student is due to perceived issues with academic performance. However, the reality is that schools are required to educate students who have a wide variety of experiences and abilities. This diversity makes it inevitable that some students will fall behind their peers.

It would seem intuitive that, for a student who is academically behind, retention would be beneficial. After all, re-teaching the concepts seems a logical strategy to improve performance. The research behind retention, however, shows that any such benefits are short-lived. In fact, more of the same kind of instruction is often ineffective.

Risks of Retention
In most educational circles, retaining or holding a student back is not considered good practice. Consider these statistics:

  • Research around retention has shown that students who are retained at least once prior to high school are at significantly higher risk of dropping out.
  • Approximately 69% of retained students end up dropping out in high school. That is more than three times the national average.
  • Students who are retained two or more grades drop out at a rate of over 93%.

The significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Retaining a student twice almost guarantees they will not finish school. Retention for even one year may seriously compromise their persistence to graduation.

Retention’s Opposite:  Social Promotion
One might argue that the opposite of retention, social promotion, is also a bad practice. Social promotion is advancing students to the next grade, even when they lag significantly behind their peers in academic performance. If retention is a bad practice and social promotion is a bad practice, then what’s to be done?

Alternative to Retention: Intervention
Instead of retention or social promotion, most educators recommend and follow a different approach for students who are falling behind:  Intervention. Rather than focusing on whether academic retention is helpful, it is important for parents and schools to focus on identifying students who are struggling and providing early intervention. This focus on prevention is often called a 3-tiered intervention model.

  1. All students are screened for academic delays in all grades.
  2. “Interventions” are designed for students who are behind, while “enrichment” is provided for other students.
  3. For students who are significantly behind or are resistant to simple interventions, more intensive interventions are required. In some cases, special education may be appropriate if a disability exists.

When Retention May be Beneficial
Despite the statistics showing that retention is not a good practice, some individuals will still insist on retention. In those cases, there are a few factors to consider. Many schools will use the Light’s Retention Scale to determine if the student is a good candidate. No one factor alone should determine if the student is retained, but multiple factors that all point to the potential benefit. Students who are the best candidates to benefit from retention:

  • are academically behind,
  • have a summer birthday,
  • are physically or socially immature,
  • are in kindergarten or first grade,
  • and have good parental involvement in school.

In most situations, grade retention is not the best solution. Parents and educators must carefully consider the potential consequences and exhaust all appropriate interventions first.


Individual Education Program (IEP) & 504 Plans – What’s the Difference? Part 2


One common misunderstanding I’ve heard from both parents and teachers is whether it’s “better” to put a student in special education (on an IEP) or on a 504 plan. Let me start by giving the short answer:  one is not better than the other. The needs of the student should dictate which is needed (assuming one of the plans is needed at all).

Let’s start with a little background about IEP and 504 plans. Each plan comes from different laws and has different purposes.

Part 1 – Exploring IEPs

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans

What is a 504 Accommodation Plan?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 makes it illegal for federal programs (or programs that receive federal funding) to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. In 2008, Congress Amended the Americans with Disabilities Act, which expands the number of people who can qualify for 504 accommodations.

These two laws have far-reaching effects that apply to primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, certain employers, and any other program that receives federal funds. All federally-funded programs are required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Most people don’t realize that private schools, including parochial schools, may be subject to 504 law if they receive any type of federal funds. For example, private schools often will take federal funds for lunch programs, which in turn makes those private schools subject to 504 requirements.

How does a 504 Accommodation Plan work?

Students qualify for 504 at two levels:

  • At the first level, students may qualify as being persons with disabilities. Having a qualifying disability under 504 means that students are entitled to the protections of 504 law. These students cannot be discriminated against based on their disabilities. All students who qualify under special education also qualify under 504 as being protected from discrimination by Section 504.

Many students qualify for 504 protections, but do not require any kind of accommodations or modifications in the school environment.

For example, a student with ADHD may take medications at home that help the student enough at school such that accommodations are not needed.

  • At the second level, students may qualify if they have disabilities and need accommodations or modifications, such as extended time on assignments or a quiet environment for tests. Schools typically write a formal plan, called a 504 Accommodation Plan, for students who qualify at this second level.


What is not a 504 Accommodation Plan?

A 504 Accommodation Plan is not special education and should not be seen as a substitute for special education. Students who need special education require special instruction by a special educator. This special instruction is the defining distinction between special education and 504.

Students who have a qualifying disability and require special instruction are served under special education.

A 504 Plan is not meant to “give a student an advantage” or “help them live up to their potential.” Rather, a 504 plan is meant to “level the playing field.” For example, students with high IQs might request 504 Plans because identified disabilities keep them from taking Advanced Placement classes. This situation is not what a 504 plan is for. If students have disabilities, but can participate effectively in a typical classroom (i.e., a regular English class instead of an AP English class), then they do not require a 504 Accommodation Plan.

Students under 504 can receive services known as related services. A related service is a service that helps the student access the school environment more effectively. For example, a student who qualifies under 504 whose disability causes struggles with handwriting and fine motor skills may receive services from an occupational therapist to help them develop their fine motor skills.

Forming a 504 Team

Plans and requirements under 504 can become confusing and complicated for both parents and schools. This is why it is important for parents to seek assistance if they need help understanding how their child qualifies and what services are available. This is also why it is best practice for schools to have an intentional and clear process for writing and implementing 504 plans. Inviting parents to the process and working with them as a team is the ideal scenario for creating a successful 504 plan.

Which one is better? IEP or 504?

The question still remains:  Which is better, a 504 plan or special education? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the needs of the individual student. One is not better than the other. However, one might be more appropriate than the other.

It is helpful to know that qualifying under 504 has implications that could extend to college and employment. Colleges and work environments do not implement special education IEPs, but they may be required to provide accommodations or modifications under 504.

Individual Education Program (IEP) & 504 Plans – What’s the Difference?


One common misunderstanding I’ve heard from both parents and teachers is whether it’s “better” to put a student in special education (on an IEP) or on a 504 plan. Let me start by giving the short answer:  one is not better than the other. The needs of the student should dictate which is needed (assuming one of the plans is needed at all). Let’s start with a little background about IEP and 504 plans. Each plan comes from different laws and has different purposes.

Part 1 – Exploring IEPs

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for “Individualized Education Program.” All students in special education have an IEP. IEPs are simply the document that dictates what services, accommodations and modifications a student needs while in school. IEPs are specially designed and tailored to the individual student and IEPs apply only to publicly funded Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools, although some private school and homeschooled students can also access special education.

Students must have a documented disability as defined by state and federal law to qualify for an IEP. There are only a handful of disabilities defined in special education law, including: Specific Learning Disability, Autism, and Language Impairment, among others. There are also a few disability categories that encompass multiple impairments, such as Orthopedic Impairment and Other Health Impairment. For a detailed list of special education defined disabilities, see Each state may have slight variations in how these disabilities are defined and identified.

IEPs are authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA or more commonly known as “IDEA”). IDEA was most recently “reauthorized” or updated by congress in 2004, but the original federal law dates back to 1975.

How does an IEP work?

The most essential feature of an IEP is that students receive specialized instruction. Students on an IEP are monitored by a special education case manager, usually a special education teacher or speech-language pathologist. Specialized instruction may include pulling the student out of the regular classroom for intensive services in academics, behavior, speech, or language. Students on an IEP may also receive support services from an occupational therapist or physical therapist. In many cases, the student attends regular classes and the special education teacher comes in and co-teaches with the regular teacher.

What an IEP is not

Special education is not an intervention program. One common misconception among educators and parents is that if a student is unable to progress in a normal classroom, then that student must need special education. This is not the purpose of special education. Special education law originated because schools were barring kids with disabilities from school or not providing them an appropriate education—it was never intended to provide extra help for students who are struggling in the classroom.

Special education is for students with documented disabilities; it should not be considered a substitute for an effective and systematic intervention program.

Intervention programs are not part of special education, but should be available for any student who needs additional assistance. Schools determine what interventions might be appropriate and provide these interventions on an as-needed basis, as resources allow. A student who has not progressed in school, despite extensive and documented intervention, should be evaluated to determine if a disability exists.

Special education is not a prescription. Many parents come in to the school with a note or “prescription” for services written by a physician ordering the school to put the student on an IEP.

The unfortunate reality is that a prescription from a physician does not qualify a student for special education services.

Schools are not required to follow any physician’s order; in fact, in the case of an IEP, schools are legally prevented from placing a child on a IEP solely on the basis of a physician’s order. It simply doesn’t work that way.

These situations have potential to cause some contention between the parents and the school. Parents often think they have done what they need to do by having a physician verify that a student disability exists. When the school does not respond as the parents expect, it can feel like the school is violating the doctor’s orders. The problem is that many physicians do not understand that qualifying a student for special education requires the school to go through a specific process and the student has to meet the legal criteria. Physicians and parents are often unaware of this requirement. It is the school’s job to help the parents understand the process.

In summary, students who qualify for special education (and an IEP) must meet the legally defined criteria for a disability and require specialized instruction that cannot be given through a typical classroom setting, including intervention programs.

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans

When Parents are Angry at the School: Tips for Teachers

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All teachers, no matter how experienced, will face a time when parents are frustrated with them. In most cases, it may not be because the teacher has done anything wrong. Frustration is often the result of unmet expectations or misunderstanding. No matter the reason, there are a few things teachers can do to help ease the tension.

Seek first to understand. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey coined Habit 5 as “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen Covey himself stated that it was one of the most challenging habits to master. When meeting with a parent, don’t try to defend yourself or your methods, at least not at first. Your first job is to listen, not with intent to respond, but with the intent to understand the parents’ perspective.

So what does active listening look like? It means two things:  First, you should be able to restate (or reflect), in your own words what the parents are saying. Second, you should be able to state the emotion the parents are demonstrating. For example:

“You sound frustrated and confused because I haven’t communicated about…”

If you practice reflecting both their statements and emotions, most people will trust that you have heard them and they will likely even affirm that you are hearing them. Listen for it. You may surprise yourself in that you will also begin taking on a new perspective.

Don’t forget about the second half of Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood. After the parents believe that you understand them, you can then make your case and offer ideas. At this point, you can politely help the parents understand your perspective. Be sure you come prepared with examples and data supporting your case. Parents might slip back into previously voiced frustration. If they do, be prepared to return to listening mode. Sometimes, you may not get a chance to be understood, so don’t try to push being understood.

Be open to ideas. It’s easy to get stuck in your own way of doing things or believe that your perspective is the right one. Be aware of this tendency in yourself and notice if you slip into usual patterns. The parents know their child better than the school and they may provide some innovative ways to work with their student. If you and the parents are both stuck for ideas or can’t agree, it may be time to seek help from others.

Ask for help. When you’re stuck or need assistance, another teacher, the principal, counselor, or school psychologist can be excellent partners in thinking through the situation. The principal can be especially helpful if you reach an impasse with the parents and can’t come to an agreement. The principal can bring forth resources that you may not have thought of and can provide the parents reassurance of follow through. School psychologists and counselors can be helpful in thinking through and supporting behavioral or emotional challenges.

Communicate the positives. This one is so important. Always communicate positive attributes about the student to the parents and show them that you care about their student’s success. If your communication is primarily about negative behavior or lagging academics, don’t be surprised if the parents react negatively or defensively.

Tell them, specifically, what you love about their student. Demonstrate how excited you are when the student makes good choices and experience success. Parents will begin to assume that you have good intentions if they know you care.

Occasionally, you will encounter a student who is a significant challenge to your abilities as a teacher. See this as a learning opportunity. The difference between a good teacher and a great teacher is being willing to take on the challenge of learning how to work with even the most challenging students. When parents see this willingness to learn and to help their student, they will see how much you care.

Have you been in one of these situations? What has worked for you?