In the typical special education scenario, the special education team sets the goals for the student receiving an Individual Education Plan. However, at the age of 14 the student reaches the age of transition and begins to collaborate with the special education team to plan goals for his future.

The law intends that students can be involved with any transition decisions before age 14, which may include discussion of student goals and accommodations needed to be successful in school. But it is rare that a student attend his own IEP meeting before age 14, and there is little research to show that students are participating in developing their own IEP goals before age 14.

Does it really matter if the student participates in his IEP meeting before the law recommends he does?

A poignant article written in 2006 called "Why is this cake on fire?" compared attending an IEP meeting to attending a child's own birthday party. The child was not invited year after year, and then when he finally was invited as a teenager he saw no reason to attend.

The meaning of the metaphor was clear. The child needs to attend — and be involved in a greater way well before he is a teenager if we expect him to understand that the IEP is written as a plan for his success.

The crux of the IEP are the goals set to guide the student's educational process for one school year. There is plenty of support for students writing educational goals as a means for improving their own learning. Student-written goals can be a motivating factor for achievement in school and for attainment after school.

Wood, Karvonen, Test, Browder and Algozzine have delineated that students can begin to write simple goals with adult assistance at age 6. Beyond age eight they can set goals independently, determine actions and make changes to actions to meet the goals. Teaching students to write goals in the classroom can lead to a natural transition for teacher-student collaborative IEP goal development.

Discussion with students regarding their school goals will begin the process of looking to the future and then planning the steps to get there. Students can be taught that all types of goal development follow a simple pattern of questioning to guide decision-making.

  • What do you want to happen and why is it important?
  • By when do you want it to transpire?
  • What steps will be needed to make it measurable and successful?
  • How will you know when it is met?

Students need to develop goals that are realistic and achievable, and ones that are mastery-type goals. According to Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober, mastery goals "involve demonstrating increased understanding, skills and content knowledge" which leads the student to "deeper cognitive processes, strategize more effectively, and more adaptable to changes."

Many students especially those with learning disabilities do not understand that a desired effect occurs by planning and negotiating the actions that lead to an outcome. Many think they have no control of their school accomplishments. However, students who develop and follow their own goals have an increased opportunity of developing positive motivation, self-efficacy and self-determination when meeting goals and experiencing success.

Once an educator makes the choice to include the student in the IEP process and not just "do it for them," she is making a choice that will influence the student for the future. The goals belong to the students, not the educators. It makes sense that the students take hold of the process early, and when they reach the age of transition they will already have a plan that has deep roots in success.