How to Write All the Right PT IEP Goals

What’s the role of the school-based physical therapist (PT)?

Male school-based physical therapist sits next to student in wheelchair, holding student’s right arm by elbow at 45-degree angle.Here’s how the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) answers that question:

“Using their unique expertise in movement and function, PTs ensure a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. The school-based PT promotes motor development and the student’s participation in everyday routines and activities that are a part of his or her program.”

Unfortunately, APTA’s statement doesn’t answer the true question:

“How do I write PT IEP goals that are both meaningful for the student and relatable to the school’s curriculum?”

In more than 20 years as a school-based physical therapist, I’ve written some goals I thought achieved the balance of being sound and measurable, while also capturing the essence of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team’s expectations for the student’s success.

But I’ve also sat, many times, in an IEP team meeting, thinking while presenting a goal, “How did I ever think this was a good goal? What was its point?”

All the clinicians who work with Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) have been there! But I’ve found a philosophy for writing PT goals that helps me stay on track. I’ve offered it to PTS’ practitioners, and now I offer it to you:

Think about what the student’s future will look like and how the members of the IEP team, including we PTs, can help the student get there, starting today.

Three Critical Questions to Ask When Writing PT Goals

Good PT goal writing starts with a solid foundation of knowledge about the student’s future. PTs need to ask several important questions to help identify each student’s plan:

1. What is the environment in which we, as related service providers, will be supporting the student?

The environment may be a small one-level building with a small student-teacher ratio, a large multilevel building with stairs and elevators, or the student’s own home.   

2. How does the student’s need impact their school day?

Is the identified need affecting the student’s ability to access their education? For example, a parent may request to teach their student to ride a bike at school. This request may affect a preschool or kindergarten student, but not a seventh grader. If the need impacts the student’s educational access, the PT must develop a plan to correct the area of need or identify adaptations allowing similar access.

3. Does the student want to address the need?

This question is probably the most important. I’ve tested many students who have no desire to throw or kick a ball properly, or, who don’t know why they should learn to skip. If the student doesn’t see a skill as meaningful, the therapy success rate is quite dismal, leaving the student feeling frustrated and the IEP team appearing less than successful.

Meaningful PT IEP goals will change throughout a student’s academic career. Team members must openly discuss opportunities available to each student and plan the steps to successfully achieve the student’s goal.

Staying Focused on the Student’s Future

Before we sit at our computers to add “our part” to the IEP, we therapists must look to the future so we can start the student’s journey in that direction.

Female school-based physical therapist holds male student by waist as he kneels on mat and holds a dumbbell in his right hand.Here are examples of the kind of questions we can consider to keep our focus on the student’s future:

  • Are pre-K students with mild developmental delays going to be able to “catch up” to their peers and progress to discharge from school-based services?  
  • Is the student with severe athetoid cerebral palsy going to be able to participate in self-care activities to feel as if the caregiver’s job is being eased?   
  • What will this student’s mobility skills look like in middle school when greater independence skills are the standard in a multilevel school?  
  • Will PE class be too overwhelming for a student with heightened sensory awareness?   
  • What role can a school-based physical therapist play in the journey to help the student achieve the highest level of accessibility and mobility?

It’s never too early to think about the student’s future and our role in the student’s journey toward it.

Know How to be S.M.A.R.T About Students’ IEP Goals

To help plan the student’s journey, sound IEP goals will clearly define:

  • The student’s area of educational need. 
  • The details of necessary supports. 
  • The components of the skills the student must acquire.  

Using the S.M.A.R.T. goal framework, in both academic and personal planning, is a great way to assure a goal clearly identifies the student’s need. 

S.M.A.R.T. goals are:

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Attainable

R – Results-oriented

T – Time-bound

Educating the IEP team about this framework and its implementation are essential for successfully achieving any goals.

As you begin to write your next PT IEP goal, be sure to keep the student’s current and future skill sets in mind. Using the S.M.A.R.T. format will make you, the IEP team, and the student look SMART too!

Another smart—not to mention essential—thing to do, whatever the IEP goals you’re working with a student on, is delivering your services in trauma-sensitive ways. While our work as PTs leads us to think about bodily injury when we hear the word “trauma,” we have to work with students in ways that recognize the very real possibility they’ve been exposed to mental and emotional trauma, too.

To find out more, request your free copy of PTS’ downloadable eBook, Trauma-Informed Care: Key Principles and Best Practices for Therapists.

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