Functional Goals in IEPs

If you ask parents of children with disabilities what they want for their children in the special education setting, you discover that, by and large, they want what parents of typically-abled children want.  They want the best for their child.  Whether that relates to the attention to solve complicated math problems or the coping skills to tolerate a crowded gymnasium during an assembly, most parents of children with disabilities have at least one desire in common.  They want their child to develop the skills to function well in society.  Parents want their children to make friends, to understand money, to communicate effectively in society, and to understand mass transit.

Fortunately, functional goals are covered by IDEA.  20 USC Section 1414.  34 CFR  Section 300.307.  The commentary to IDEA provides a great deal of guidance, particularly in describing  “functional” goals as those referring “to skills or activities that are not considered academic or related to a child’s academic achievement.”  Rather, functional goals are those within the “context of routine activities of everyday living.”   Such goals are to be measured using evaluation procedures that meet the same stands are the other evaluation standards contained in the law.  Commentary in the Federal Register, page 46661.

The federal law therefor very clearly and practically supports the inclusion of functional goals in a student’s IEP.  After all, school is supposed to prepare students – all students- for life.  Isn’t life academic and functional?

How does a parent or student advocate for such addition to an IEP?  Consider the end game.  In writing a future planning statement, parents should include goals for the year, but I find it important to also include some life-long goals.  The goals for adulthood will set the stage and a plan for the school-aged years.  Students considering post-secondary opportunities need social skills, independence, study skill development, and memorization strategies.  Students heading to trade school may need fine motor practice, transportation ideas, or business management training. Once parents know where they are heading, they can develop a roadmap for the future.

Parents should then consider benchmarks that should be met in order to reach those adult-oriented goals.

Parents should also boil the list of suggested functional goals to one or two ideal goals.  Once met, such goals can be revised, teased our further, or supplanted with new goals.  Having a roadmap with adult-oriented goals will help parents think about annual goals and benchmarks.

Another consideration is build upon what is currently working at school.  If a school has a wonderful peer-mentoring program, and the student needs to work on independence, perhaps a peer mentor could participate in mock haircuts, grocery store trips, and bus rides, focusing on the communication and interaction necessary to succeed in those everyday tasks.  Similarly, if a school offers coffee in its cafeteria in the mornings, perhaps the same student could get extended school day services for social skill development during morning coffee with peers.

Because every child is unique, it is obviously very important to consider the goals of the individual student and his or her family and to develop unique, creative ways to facilitate both the academic and functional goals of the child in the school setting.

“Fair” is What You Pay to Get on the Bus

I found myself in the midst of a conversation about fairness this week.  Why do the other two schools have free dinner at their Back to School Night, and ours doesn’t?  I’m sure that there are a million practical reasons for the difference… our school is under construction, our school is too small to house that many families for a buffet or carry-out style dinner, such an event requires a ton of volunteer work and money/ fund-raising, nobody has ever considered changing status quo because of its prior success, etc.   

The thought, though, gave me pause.  Fairness.  What in the world is fairness?  As a divorce attorney, I preach about avoiding the word “fair.”  Kentucky’s dissolution statutes reference equity rather than equality, and I’ve never heard an attorney reasonably argue about fairness.  It’s impossible to be “fair” in dividing parents’ time with their children and in dividing a marriage’s assets.  Equitable?  Sure.  Fair?  What do ya mean?  Fair to you is far different than fair to me.  I might like retirement income, and you might want cash now.  I might like to do homework with children, and you might crave lazy weekend mornings with them.  And because of my work schedule, I might need a certain weeknight “off,” but if you take that night, it might mean that you miss your weekly tennis clinic, poker night, or bowling league.  Fair? 

As a mom of a child with special education needs, I often find myself considering philosophical thoughts in light of my own child’s educational needs.  Jack is on an individual education plan.  Individual.  Just for him.  Just about him.  To help him learn in ways that are tailored to him.  The one and only Hurricane Jack Barlow.  Sweet.  Fair?   He gets his very own teacher’s assistant, and the other students have to find their way alone.  He has some cool supports, like wiggle seats and fidget toys, to help him stay grounded and focused, while his typical peers can only fidget with their tags and whatever they find in the classroom.  Fair?  He may get to chill in the resource room for a few minutes while the other children do crafts, have free time, or work on their academics.  Fair? 


On the flipside, how in the heck would you like having an adult with you all the time?  And you know how you feel at a casino?  That’s how Jack feels all the time.  The wiggle seats and fidget toys help, but the kid is as distractable as they get.  And going to the resource room means leaving your friends, curious about what they’re doing, every single day.  Twice a day in Jack’s case.  Fair?  Who cares?  Equitable?  I suppose.  More importantly, does it work for us?  Absolutely!  Does Jack’s school support Jack’s needs and the way that Jack learns and interacts with his peers and teachers?  You betcha! 

Fair doesn’t mean that we all get the same darn thing.  Shouldn’t we get what works for us and what helps to make us successful?  After all, we are all individuals.  We learn differently, speak differently, feel differently, and love differently.  If we expect everything to be the same, we miss the opportunity to respect differences and to celebrate them.  If we expect everything to be the same, we miss variety, a concept from which there is so much to learn.  At our house we choose to celebrate differences and sameness and just about anything else anybody brings to the table.  As I heard someone tell Pete Wright, special education attorney and author, “Fair (fare) is what you pay to get on the bus!”

Leaving My Mark

I found myself driving through the beautiful hills of West Virginia two weeks ago.  Zac Brown blaring, sunroof open, an empty backseat behind me, and a clear mind provided eight hours of inspiration.


“I’ve been thinking about the mark That I’ll be leaving Been looking for a truth I can believe in I got everything I need Let this heart be my guide In love, in music, in life.” – Zac Brown Band, Remedy


Having just celebrated the ten-year anniversary of my law school graduation, I had indeed been looking for the mark that my practice and my career would leave.  Funny how life takes you down a bumpy, terrible, pot-hole-rich road, and that road intersects with brand-spanking-new blacktop.   As I-40 lead me to a conference on special education law at the College of William & Mary Law School, I reflected on that darn gravel road and planned my trip down the newly paved one.

JAck smile

I grew up wanting to be a teacher, tried my hat at it, loved it, but found myself wanting more.  So, I went to law school.  I wrote my application essay on bringing people together, facing conflict head-on, and advocating for families from a global perspective.  Those concepts guided me to study mediation and advocacy strategies in school and to develop a strong family law presence in my private practice.

Then, I had Jack.  Sweet, hard-working, insanely crazy, sensory seeking, people gathering, hilariously tiring Jack.  And then Jack went to school.  Friend yielding, curriculum teaching, routine establishing, leadership housing amazing school.  And Jack got an IEP.  And boxes and drop-down menus and accommodations and parent rights and a bunch of tiny words on a bunch (and I mean a bunch) of papers.  And I figured it out.  I read and read and read and read and continued thinking, “I was a teacher.  How did I not learn this” and I read some more.  And then I realized something.  I know this stuff.  I know special education law.  And I like it.  And I like helping people.



Wait a minute.  I know special education law.  And I know school.  And I know Jack.  And I can learn other children.  And I know advocacy.  And I like creative thinking.  And I love helping people come together to reach agreements.  And I’m in this practice development phrase of my career… hey, why don’t I learn about special education advocacy and law?


So, I hopped on the AA Highway, cranked up my Zac Brown, and let my heart guide me to a week-long training on special education law.  And so, it is with great excitement that I announce that we are ready to open our doors to families needing special education legal services.  Please stay tuned to more posts about this practice area.