Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Dead Man Test

Okay guys, here is my first post on important matters relating to educational practice and it may seem like a no-brainer to some that might read this but considering I am basing this post off of a real live student’s IEP that I read this week that was written by a real live teacher  - it needs to be said. (Now someone help me explain this to my colleague… anyone?)

Have any of you heard of the Dead Man Test*? Well, in short it means that when writing a goal for a student, you need to ask yourself if a dead man can accomplish the goal. If that answer is yes, then please (for the love of God) do NOT use that goal. Some examples might be “will not tantrum during transitions” or “will sit quietly during story time”. Yikes. Morbid a little? Yeah, I just thought of a dead man sitting in my morning circle too.

This guy passes the test.


Now, if you google the term, a lot of special education websites come up that talk about how avoiding a goal that might be appropriately written for a dead man (again, eek) is all about the wording of the goal. The WORDING??? Maybe I have high expectations for my precious little students whose minds I am responsible for shaping and expanding… but the difference between a goal that I write for my very active and growing little guys and one more suitable for a dead man will not be the wording. No siree.

So here is the goal that inspired all this dead man talk:

“Johnny will remain within a small group setting of peers.” (By the way, poor Johnny is always getting used in any scenario we speducators* deem fit. Good ol’ Johnny and Susie. Saving us from breaching privacy acts, thanks guys!)

So… we are expecting Johnny to remain in a small group setting of peers. I do believe that goal could be accomplished by a dead man… or a stuffed animal (perhaps we should change the name to The Stuffed Animal Test?). Now, these random special education websites on Google would suggest you change the wording to avoid failing The Dead Man Test. So that could look like this:

“Johnny will choose to remain in a small group with peers”

Because if he’s choosing to stay in the group, he is committing a behavioral act. (Even though the act of “choosing” can be quite difficult to determine… not to mention - WHY is he choosing to be in the group? Is it because he likes to aggress on peers? Is it because he wants to stim on the toys that are presented in the group? This is way too vague.)          

Now, this post is going to get long so I won’t go too far into the specifics of HOW to write the goal so that it is appropriate, teachable, and attainable but I will give my quick little edit to make the goal a tad more fitting for a well written IEP. I am going to assume that the behavior I really want to see from Johnny is that he is going to interact with his peers and willingly participate with them (a social skills goal). If it was intended to be an actual sitting/attending goal, then that is something different altogether. See why this was such a terrible goal? I don’t even know what Johnny is supposed to be working on and what his skill deficit is. So my change is as follows:

“Johnny will independently initiate interactions with peers by joining a peer in play one time in a 30 minute period for 3 consecutive days out of 5 across 2 weeks”

Since I know who “Johnny” is in real life and I know that initiating interactions by joining peers is not something he is currently doing, I know that this is a skill he needs to work on. It is age appropriate (this student is 3 years old) and given my background knowledge of the student (he is aware of his peers and shows that he enjoys being around them by clapping and smiling when in group settings) I think this is an attainable and fitting goal.
The complicated criteria for mastering the goal basically means this: Over a 2 week period, he needs to have 3 consecutive days during both weeks that he is initiating play with a peer. So he has NOT mastered the goal if he has 6 days across the 2 week period that he is initiating interactions. They need to be consecutive (for each singular week) and the reason I have written that it has to be over a 2 week period is because if Johnny happens to have a particularly awesome week where he is rockin’ and rollin’ in the social skills category but comes back from the weekend and just has a mediocre week of social skills… he hasn’t mastered the goal. He may have just been really motivated by the Thomas the Train toy you introduced that week or whatever the case may be.
So here is the criteria for mastering Johnny’s current goal of “remaining with peers”:  Johnny will remain with peers on 4 out of 5 opportunities in a quarter grading period. Um… okay. To me that says we are only looking at Johnny’s skill in this area FIVE times over the quarter and hopefully he can do it 4 times out of those 5. (My head is in my hands right now, shaking sadly.)

 We need to be absolutely sure our students are actually mastering the skills we are teaching them before we move on to new ones so having solid criteria and the data to prove they mastered it is ESSENTIAL. So for now, we work on Johnny initiating interactions… next we work on helping him sustain them. Eventually we teach him how to request and comment and all that wonderful stuff we do with people every day that makes our world go ‘round!

-Please make a comment if you have questions about any of this. There are going to be many more posts on this subject because it is just far too complex to fit into a single sitting (there are whole books and trainings and classes devoted to writing IEP’s!). But I am happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability and welcome them! 

*The Dead Man Test was a concept created by Ogden Lindsley in 1965 as a rule of thumb for determining if something is a behavior. We would like to petition he change it to The Stuffed Animal Rule, but now that he himself is dead, that is impossible.

*Speducators is a term used for “special educators”. We find it to be a very scientific and professional title, so please use wisely.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this :) What would be the teaching strategy for the skill you talked about and most importantly what and how would you take data on it? I am trying to create some goals for a child that primarily needs help with increasing social skills and I am wondering on my teaching methodology and data taking...any suggestion is welcome!

  2. There's also the 'stranger test'.

    As in, if you handed Johnny or Susie's IEP to a complete stranger, would they understand what the heck they were supposed to be doing?

    If yes, great.

    If not, that is a disaster waiting to happen re: subs.

    There's also SMART/SMARTER goals.

  3. I also drily ask myself ... is this an IEP Goal or simply part of a wish list?

  4. how do you write the iep goal to sustain it?

  5. Amen...preach it!!! I'm so tired of ill written goals that make you scratch your head. I get lots of kids from other places and then I'm trying to figure out the goal with objectives that do not match a goal. I'm grades K - 2. I FEEL your pain!!!