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A practical survival guide for progress reporting

Graphic by Courtnay Hough

Progress reporting. Few two-letter phases strike more terror into the heart of special education teachers. 

The rent has come due. The piper must be paid. Your thirty or so students on your caseload (or more) need for each of their 3-5 goals’ progress to be reported on. 120 individual progress reports on very specific goals must be sent home. 

This is on top of lesson planning, IEP writing, grading and professionally developing. 

It can feel overwhelming and hopeless: an impossible task.

Don’t despair! We spent years in the test kitchen. Now, we present for you this practical guide for surviving progress reporting unscathed. 

Plan ahead

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It is a universal truth that it is far better to be proactive than reactive. 

Laying the groundwork for stress-free progress monitoring starts before progress reports due dates.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to create good goals that are easy to track. Make sure you are writing goals that you work on in your class. Make sure that they can easily be reported on by teachers and stakeholders. 

Make a system to collect that data, even if you don’t look at it until progress monitoring time. 

See our blog on tracking IEP goals for more ideas on how to get that data flowing to you.   

Create a timeline

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Progress reports are a huge undertaking. If you leave all the work for one week before they’re due, you will hate yourself.

Find out when your school will be sending out progress reports and plan backwards.

Set some days aside on your work calendar to do IEP testing with certain students. The students who have goals you inherited may need special attention to track goals.

Make a schedule of when to send out observation goal surveys to teachers who work with your student. Take one day a week to track the data you have coming in on a spreadsheet.

Spreading the work out over weeks and months will make the process much easier and smoother.

It may be work up front and your present self may be annoyed by it, but future you will appreciate the effort!

Break it into parts

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Planning and making time tables doesn’t end when reports are finally due. You will need to use these skills to actually complete your progress reports.

Make a schedule of a few IEPs a day or a certain type of goal per day to track. 

Don’t overload yourself. Don’t give yourself more work than you could complete in a day or so.

When I did progress monitoring I would take my caseload and divide it by 5. Everyday I would do the 5-7 IEP progress reports each day. I did them during my prep and only stayed after school to get to the end of that day’s list. 

In the years before I made this system, I might allow them to pile up undone until a few days before they were due. This made for very late nights and very rushed low-quality IEP progress reports. 

Breaking them into small, daily tasks really allowed me to focus. It allowed me to provide good feedback to students and families. 

Any task is easier in small parts. Plus, all these smart, small parts will make excellent data points for IEP meetings throughout the year 😉 

As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Use your resources 

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Goals can be a bit opaque sometimes, especially poorly written ones. You may not be able to directly see if they are being met.

For IEP goals that are hard to discern, use data you do have on hand and make some logical conclusions. If you’re having a tough time understanding an IEP goal, chances are the families are too. Do your best to get at the heart of what the goal is supposed to be measuring and send feedback on that to your student and families.

Behavior goals are often very hard to gage. Behaviors leave a natural paper trail in schools though. A check of behavior incidents, write-ups or calls home can tell you if behaviors are improving.  Don’t feel you have to take a day to do observations unless their IEP specifies that.

If you have a goal measuring a very specific behavior, consider sending a simple (one to two question) Google Forms survey to that student’s teachers every week. 

That way, you’ll have data and behavior trends with only investing a few minutes to create the Google Form and a minute or two every week sending it out. Teachers can easily click their answers, making data collection painless and effective for all IEP team members. 

Using grades in a student’s class or looking at grades on a specific type of assignment may also yield usable data. It may be easier to obtain then work samples or direct observations in some cases. 

The point is that you should look at many readily available sources of data to track and report on goals.

Using resources is not limited to just where you get data. You can make the actual writing of the progress notes easier as well.  

If you are teaching a subject that is a direct IEP service you are likely to write the same or similar feedback often. In that case it may be appropriate to create a bank with sentence starters for the feedback you often input. 

For example, if you teach writing you may often be reporting on essay writing. It’s not cheating to make a bunch of sentence starters you can copy and paste into a progress report. That is what you teach. You are reporting on it. No one says you have to individually type every word for every student.

Making a bank of comment starters may take some time to create but once it’s done you have it forever. It will save you so much time. 

You may also work with other special educators. If you have a good working relationship you might provide a feedback trade. You do the progress reporting for them on your subject. In return, they do the parts of the progress report for their subject. 

There’s nothing wrong with working a resource. 

Don’t be afraid of the truth

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Sometimes a student is not making progress. Sometimes they are even losing ground. 

That can be difficult to put it in a progress report. It can feel like you’re failing. 

Honesty is always the best policy in this case. By being truthful and not sugar coating things, you can possibly get the family or student’s help in making progress.

I found that most of the time students who were not making progress were not attending school enough. Families can sometimes lose track of how many days of school their student has missed in total. Seeing how many days of school a student has not attended can sometimes be a wake-up call. 

Like any bad news, it is best delivered with sweetner. Be sure to be honest about something the student is doing well. 

You care about your students and that care will come through, even when the news isn’t good.  

Give useful feedback

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Families often don’t read IEP progress reports. Who can blame them? They’re frequently filled with empty platitudes and jargon which makes no sense. 

If you want families to interact with and be empowered by these documents you have to make them friendly and helpful. 

To do that be conscious of using too much special-ed alphabet language. Tell families how their student is doing towards meeting their IEP goals. 


  • Vague language. example: “student is making progress”
  • Empty platitudes. example: “student is doing great”
  • Nonsensical special ed language. example: “on student’s goal 1 for their SLD student is approaching 73% on informal in class assessments”


  • Specific language. example: “Student is making progress on their reading skills and has increased by a reading grade level.”
  • Process praise. example: “Student does all the math practices in class even when they are difficult.”
  • Plain language. “On student’s goal to write a paragraph with an intro, body and conclusion, they are now able to write a body and part of an introduction independently.”

In order to make them helpful it’s also nice to include what the family could be doing to support the student.

Examples of helpful suggestions:

  • reading at home together
  • using a planner with their student
  • helping with cooking or shopping for math skills

These are all do-able and help families have a role in their student’s learning. 

You don’t have to include support steps for families but I found that families did appreciate them. 

Importantly, keep your tone informative. Report the facts in a way that empowers students and families. You are telling them what has worked, and what needs improving. 

You’re a coach. It’s ok to tell the team they’re down in half, but try to help them plan a come-back in the next quarter. 

Keep it short

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Remember this is not an IEP. This is a check in. 

Feedback should be clear, honest and helpful. It does not need to be War and Peace. 

If a student is doing a good job and their efforts are making appropriate progress happen, it’s ok to leave it at that. Excessive information is bound to overwhelm families. 

Keep your conclusions short, and your feedback concise. 

You’ve got this!

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IEP progress reports can be overwhelming. This is especially true if it is your first time.  

Like anything though, good planning and a little work up front can help make it manageable. 

Finding a system that works for you may be trial and error at first. After some adjustment you will find one that works for you.

Be patient with yourself, and you will be just fine.

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