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5 Steps to Writing Effective Behavior IEP Goals

Today, we’re talking about crafting effective behavior IEP goals. This refers to individual goals and objectives in a student’s Individualized Education Program that target “problem behaviors” the student is displaying. As a BCBA working in a public school district, I understand the significance of setting the right goals to support students with autism and other developmental disabilities. In this blog post, we’ll explore the essential steps in this process and share examples that can help you create effective goals for your learners!

Step 1: Identify the Function of Behaviors

Before we can create meaningful behavior IEP goals, we need to understand why the particular behavior is occurring. In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), this is known as identifying the function of behaviors. To put it simply, we’re asking, “What purpose does this behavior serve for the student?” Is it a form of communication, an attempt to escape a task, or a way to gain attention?

Ideally, a BCBA is conducting some type of Functional Behavior Assessment to answer these questions, but even collecting some ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) data can help you gain some preliminary information on common patterns and triggers to the behaviors you are witnessing. Dr. Gregory Hanley offers online trainings in conducting Practical Functional Assessments, to help streamline this process in a safe and timely manner that is sensitive to our student’s needs.

Step 2: Determine the appropriate replacement skill

Once we’ve identified the function of a behavior, it’s time to decide what we want to replace it with. This is where we set our sights on teaching more appropriate and functional skills. For instance, if a student exhibits aggression to obtain attention, we might aim to teach them alternative ways to request attention.

Before going further, I want to point out the downside of writing a behavior IEP goal that focuses solely on decreasing the frequency or length of behavior episodes. This type of goal might read, “Student will refrain from aggressions (hitting, kicking, or scratching peers) with an 80% reduction from baseline levels by [date].”

While this goal seems to present an outcome that is exactly what you are looking for, beware of what I call the “whack a mole” effect- this student may decrease aggressions by even 100% by the desired date, but instead may replace them with disruptions such as throwing items or flipping chairs. You could technically mark that goal achieved on paper, but the student has not learned any new skills; rather, they have merely switched their challenging behavior from one form to another!

By writing behavior IEP goals based on replacement skills, you can ensure that your student is learning a new skill that they can use to address or tolerate what was previously triggering their problem behavior. These skills can also generalize to multiple scenarios and hopefully increase their social and emotional well being.

Examples of replacement skills may include:

  • Requesting preferred items or activities
  • Requesting a break or attention by raising their hand or exchanging a picture card
  • Learning to wait for desired items or activities
  • Tolerating changes in schedule/ routine
  • Tolerating denied access or being told “no”
  • General coping skills (e.g., deep breathing, counting, verbalizing emotions)
  • Learning to share preferred items with peers

Step 3: Write Measurable & Objective Behavior IEP Goals

Crafting behavior IEP goals that are measurable and objective is crucial for tracking progress. These goals should be specific, clear, and leave no room for interpretation. Use concrete terms and quantifiable criteria to define success.

For example, instead of a vague goal such as, “They will wait for desired items,” you might write, When presented with the verbal cue, “Wait,” student will sit or stand appropriately (e.g., no whining, yelling, screaming, hitting, or leaving the designated area) for 1 minute (at which time the teacher will present the preferred item or activity they are waiting for). Student will complete this skill successfully across 5 consecutive opportunities.

behavior iep goals bank 5 Steps to Writing Effective Behavior IEP Goals

This example is just one of many included in this Behavior Skills IEP Goal Bank resource!

Step 4: Scaffold Your Behavior IEP Goal Objectives

One of the key principles of scaffolding is to start with achievable objectives. In the context of behavior IEP goals, this means breaking down complex skills into smaller, manageable steps. For example, using the above goal, the student is expected to wait for one minute. However, you may be working with a learner who displays problem behavior any time they are asked to wait for more than a few seconds.

You could then scaffold the objectives (under the goal of waiting for 1 minute) as follows:

  • Student will wait appropriately for 15 seconds
  • Student will wait appropriately for 30 seconds
  • Student will wait appropriately for 45 seconds
  • Student will wait appropriately for 60 seconds (1 minute)

Other examples of scaffolding behavior IEP goal objectives could include:

  • Increasing percentage of mastery (e.g., Objective 1- 50% accuracy, Objective 2- 65% accuracy, Objective 3- 80% accuracy)
  • Increasing complexity of the replacement skill (e.g., Objective 1- Requests preferred items with one word phrase, Objective 2- Requests preferred items using full sentences, Objective 3- Requests preferred items with a full sentence including ‘please’
  • Increasing mastery of a variety of coping skills (e.g., Objective 1- deep breathing, Objective 2- counting
    backwards from 10)

Scaffolding requires ongoing assessment and adjustment. Regularly monitor the student’s progress and be prepared to adapt your scaffolding strategies as needed. If a student is excelling, you may need to accelerate the scaffolding process. Conversely, if they’re struggling, consider revisiting earlier steps for positive practice.

Step 5: Create a data collection system

Data collection is the backbone of effective behavior analysis. Without data, it’s challenging to measure progress accurately. Develop a data collection system that aligns with the goal’s objectives! This could involve frequency counts, duration recording, or anecdotal notes.

iep behavior goal 2 5 Steps to Writing Effective Behavior IEP Goals

While framing the behavior IEP goal around replacement skills is ideal, you may want to track both the replacement skill and the problem behavior (if possible!). This way, you can ensure that both the replacement skill being taught is increasing, while the problem behavior episodes are decreasing. This bundle of resources offers digital data tracker for both target skills as well as behaviors!


Crafting effective behavior IEP goals is both an art and a science. It requires an understanding of your student, a commitment to evidence-based practices, and the flexibility to adapt when necessary. Remember, it’s not just about reducing challenging behaviors; it’s about helping students grow, learn, and thrive in a supportive environment.


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