Speech and language goal writing is a joke, But I don’t know what the solution even after almost 40 years

Jun 2, 2024 by

June 2 2024, #7 reflection series

I am so sorry I have not been able to finish this up in May as I expected. I forgot that blog writing is work. My website is also not as up to date as it needs to me and I’m working on that. The articles are written but editing takes time.

Over my 35-year, career as a Speech Language Pathologist I can’t even begin to count how many workshops, conferences, directives, computer programs, formulas, templates I’ve either had to or been specifically told to use to write the perfect speech and language goals and objectives.  Very few of these have actually been suggested by SLPs.  

Starting with the biggie, making a goal/objective measurable.  It’s time the truth come out. Measuring speech and language skills is almost impossible to do in small increments.  We really have no standardized leveled materials which in itself makes measuring objectives almost impossible. I have always looked at speech and language skills based on development.  That’s how I was trained and that’s what makes sense to me.  Looking at a child with a true disability I still approach a student with developmental type objectives, looking for skills they might be able to obtain, trying to fill in the gaps.  What developmental piece is missing not just what they didn’t do on the test.  I also look more at what skill is going to help in life rather than just in the classroom.  As far as I know standardized speech and language goals/objectives based on development have not been created.  We address way too many areas and skills to even make this feasible.  Not to mention all the variables the student may have especially around neurological development and cognitive deficits.  We can’t see how a student thinks or processing information.  

I feel very strongly that basing a child’s (especially a young child) goals and objectives on curriculum is just wrong in so many ways.  Which right now, basing goals and objectives on curriculum, seems to be the flavor of the month in many schools I work in.  I want the kids to be successful in life, play and ability to work down the road.  Focusing on curriculum speech and language goals will often (if not usually) create gaps in underlying speech and language development.

We were always supposed to be write  goals that could be picked up and moved to another school, state or therapist.  Well I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work well either mainly because we don’t have leveled materials or a “speech curriculum”.  The 10 idioms I work on may be much more difficult to understand than the previous SLP.  Now don’t get me wrong I am not advocating for  a speech and language curriculum because our students are very unique in their needs.  I have picked up some of the most absurd goals/objectives over the years, written by previous therapists, that are far from measurable and far from being obtainable.  That alone points out the fact that speech and language goals and objectives are unique, very individualized and frankly extremely subjective.

In the early 90ies, when the use of computers was new, it was computer programs that suggested generic goals where all we had to do is pick them out and manually change the he’s and she’s and the percentages.  This didn’t last long because as we kept more and more challenging students in schools the goals and especially the objectives didn’t fit.  

Then came certain language we had to use as a template.  Again this sometimes fit my students but most of the times it did not.

I went to one workshop where the genius administration engaged a speaker from another state.  Well that state had a whole different way of wording their goals.  It was amazing that the other special educators couldn’t even respectfully see how her principles could be applied and the nasty questions flew.  The special educators had leveled materials and were not able to think with flexibility.  One point this speaker did make was that we don’t have to write a goal/multiple objectives for every need.  Yes we can work on multiple areas but pick one or two areas you want to report on.  That was life changing for me and made my life simpler as I paired down my goals/objectives.

Then we had to start writing pragmatic goals.  Such a subjective area yet we were supposed to pin this down to be an exact.  One speech therapist Marcia Garcia Winner created a program called Social Thinking and must have made millions.  This became the gold standard because she included ways to “measure” social pragmatic skills and abilities.  Administrators and counsellors loved it but just for the reason that it made social pragmatic skills measurable.  Problem was the program really wasn’t “standardized”.  Nobody cared about that though.  That didn’t seem to matter.  I also observed that most people didn’t use the program in total but pick a few areas or tasks within the program.  There are a lot of good suggestions and activities within the Social Thinking program and you could write some decent goals with percentages to make administration happy.  The other problem I had with the program is that it worked well for the lower functioning kids but didn’t had much benefit for the higher functioning kids.

I’ve never understood how a goal could have a percentage then the objectives also have a percentage.  That might work if the percentages were all the same.  It was often easier to make the percentages the same than to discuss it with administration.  My husband a business man and mathematician tried to explain it to me but it just doesn’t seem logical to me.

Then the time came when we had to start showing the data to go along with the percentage.  However, it’s been my experience that no one has ever asked for this data.  Not to mention the underlying logistics of collecting this data makes it truly impossible.  Imagine having a group of 4-6 and you have to collect even the simplest data on 3-4 objectives on each student.  It is impossible. (As a side note, when I have worked with behavioral specialists, who are big on data collection, focusing on just one student, they are not usually actively working with a student when collecting data. If they were working directly with a student they usually had a colleague collecting the data or had teachers/aides collecting data….let that sink in.  It’s interesting that behavorial specialists get support for data collection but we don’t.  We do not advocate for data collection assistance nor does our professional groups advocate for data collection assistance).  Every SLP that I know of has fudged or guesstimated data at some point.

When possible I like to write goals with the student will do XYZ, rather than a student will do XYZ 80% of the time.  Again this just makes more sense to me, especially with the students with developmental challenges.  I don’t want them using a sound only 80% of the time, the goal should be to carryover the sound 100% of the time.  I don’t want them turn taking 80% of the time, using past tense 80% of the time, or greeting people 4/5 opportunities, I want them doing skills like this all of the time.  

The only standardized options we have as SLPs is formal testing.  Basically we have no specific entrance and exit criteria other than formal testing.  We use to be able to consider other factors and use our clinical judgement.  These days we have to look at data and test scores.  Has the student plateaued, is the student benefiting from therapy, can speech and language skills be better learned in classroom (exmp. older kids with a skilled English language teacher or strong curriculum) and do they want to be there (again older students wanting to be typical or are embarrassed to come to therapy), not much of that matters these days.  A student may begin receiving services in preschool and still receive services in 12th grade.  Now this is appropriate for some but not for as many that stay on caseload.  The way it is now students stay on caseload until they test out.  Well the problem with that is children who do poorly on our testing are rarely ever going to be able to pass our testing with flying colors.  Not to mention we only test them formally every 3 years in the public schools

I do believe the way we have been instructed to write goals/objectives ends up keeping a lot of kids on services forever.  Speech and language skills are so different so abstract or subjective in so many ways. Abilities differ so much.  How effective are the goals/objectives we write?  Given the format and theories around goal writing has changed so much during my career basically tells me we are not doing it correctly.  I realize there has to be something for accountability and to measure progress but what is it.  Speech and language skills are not a one size fits all.  There is so much inconsistency around goal writing.  Goals/objectives go into the IEP which is a legal document so we still have to be very careful how we do this. I really don’t have an answer.

My advice

You don’t have to write an objective for every deficit area.  Make life easy for yourself, pick 2, 3, objectives at most that you want to work on.  (This wasn’t my idea but I picked it up in one of my many workshops.) You can always address other areas without having to formally document it or collect data.

Further Questions

What do you think about goal writing?

Do you have any words of wisdom to make goal writing easier?

How is it expected in your state of district?

Do you have exit criteria?  If so are you sure your exit criteria is legal? Is your exit criteria based on achieving goals or doing well on standardized testing?

How do you write goals or how are you expected to write goals?  Share people.

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