Goals for following directions are commonly seen in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of language disordered kids.  Anecdotally speaking, they’re probably the most common language goal.   Most of them tend to have some serious problems though, which perhaps we can illuminate from a quick analysis of one or two examples.  And there’s one thing that’s really conspicuous by its absence.  We’ll see if we can use these examples to figure it out.

Example 1:  “Paul will follow two step directions in the classroom for three consecutive days.”   What’s wrong with this?  Plenty, actually, but one thing especially.  Let’s say that for three straight days Paul is handed some trash, and after receiving the directions, “Paul, take this to the trash can and throw it away,” he does it.  Goal achieved, right?  There’s two steps and three days in the classroom, after all.

Symbol of my example, or of these goals?
Symbolic picture

But what if Paul is twelve years old?  What if Paul has been throwing away trash like this for years?  Maybe he has done it so often, he knows what to do merely by giving him trash.  He may not have even been listening to the directions.  In this case, Paul has not been taught, nor has he accomplished anything that he wasn’t already able to do, despite having “achieved his goal.”   The goal did not include something measurable that he wasn’t already able to do.  And there still is that one thing that’s seriously missing.

Example 2:  Mary will follow multi-step directions in the classroom or wherever at some percentage.  Okay, this admittedly is a softball example, but it’s one I’ve seen plenty.  What’s wrong?  It’s not specific enough.  I’m assuming it means more than two, but it doesn’t really say.  Again too we run across the difficulty of the fact that no two directions tend to be equal in difficulty.  “Get the ball and give it to me!” and “Please walk to the board and write the answer below the date,” are both notably two step directions.  But they’re vastly different in difficulty.  Which leads us to the one biggie that’s missing in these goals, and almost all following directions goals that I’ve ever seen.  It’s the language itself.

Here’s what I mean.  What’s really going on for a child having difficulty following directions?  They’re having difficulty understanding language – very specific language.  A goal that doesn’t tell you exactly what language is leaving out something crucial.  Kids that are having difficulty following directions are really having difficulty understanding the language that is in those directions, and we should be constructing our goals to tell us what that language is.  Otherwise we could, and probably will, miss the child’s true deficits.

A good goal will tell us the deficits that should have been revealed by good assessment.  Like this:  “Paul will follow three step classroom relevant directions containing age appropriate prepositions (and/or pronouns, or conjunctions, or negatives, or whatever) with 80% accuracy over three consecutive sessions.  Now we can truly measure Paul’s progress.  Note also that the goal states age appropriate prepositions versus basic prepositions, which is another thing often missing from language goals, but I’ll leave that topic for another post.  Additionally, we can also have goals for kids that really do have very specific problems following directions, and these goals should match the aspect of following directions that they’re having problems with.  We certainly can address providing feedback regarding understanding, asking for clarification, and so on.

When it comes to writing goals, state departments of education especially, (and colleges and universities) love to provide direction that while good intentioned, often leaves things more muddied.  We have been taught the importance of making goals objective, measurable, specific, and replicable, so why does it always seem so hard for us to effectively do this?  Ultimately, I think, we need to make sure our goals are not for auditors or professors, but instead are for us.  Good goals are good because they tell us, and parents and teachers, what we need to work on, and they tell us when we can move on to something else.