How to set therapy goals that are meaningful and measurable

Written by Emily Hayles – Physiotherapist and Owner, and author of ‘Braver than you think: How to help your child with a disability live their best life’

Setting goals is a natural part of the therapy process. Goals give you something to work towards or
something to improve upon.

However, we believe it is important to write goals that make a real difference to your child and
family, and also that can be demonstrated to have been achieved – that is, goals that are meaningful
and measurable. In this post, we want to share the importance of focusing on function and
participation, a key strategy we use with our families to create meaningful and measurable goals
that will work well in the NDIS environment.

Focus on function and participation

                            Function: (noun) An activity that a person does in everyday life
Participation: (noun) The action of taking part in something

Frequently, when we first discuss goals with parents or children, some of the goals mentioned might

  • I want my child to improve their core strength and their coordination
  • I want my child to improve their gross and fine motor skills
  • I want my child to improve their behaviour and attention

While these goals may be absolutely relevant to the child’s needs, they are not particularly
meaningful or measurable. To make these goals more meaningful and measurable, the question we
often ask parents is “Why? For what purpose?”

“Why? For what purpose?”

In the case of ‘improving core strength and coordination’, we might ask the questions:

  • For what purpose does your child need to improve their core strength and coordination?
  • What activities are they having trouble with as a result of their poor core strength and
  •  What would be the benefits if your child had better core strength and coordination? What
    activities could they do, that they cannot do now?

In this example, the functional purpose for improving the child’s core strength and coordination
might be:

  • So that they can learn to swim and participate in swimming lessons
  • So that they can play on the playground with their friends or siblings
  • So that they can learn to sit up better and use their hands for play
  • So that they can sit still with a good posture during meal times
  • So that they can learn to throw and catch a ball
  • So that they can learn to ride a bike

Each of these new, more functional goals, have three key benefits over the first version:

  • they are more meaningful to the child and family because there is a purpose and a context
  • they open up the opportunity for more solutions to be explored to achieve the goal, and
  • they are now more measurable

How excited and motivated do you think a child would be if we said to them “today we are going to
help you work on your core strength and coordination”? Not very???!!! Compare that to “today we
are going to help you to learn to throw and catch a ball”.

Setting goals that have a purpose, and focus on the child’s function and participation make the goal
very real, very personal, very tangible, and very meaningful for the child and family.

In addition, choosing a context for the child to achieve the goal provides even more concrete and
tangible expectations for which situations or environments you hope for that goal to be achieved.

Opportunity for more solutions (which is likely to provide a better outcome anyway)
Improving core strength and coordination is not really a goal – it could more accurately be described
as a treatment strategy that can help your child to achieve their functional goals. However, it is only
one strategy of many that could be used to improve a child’s functional goals.

For example, if the reason the family would like the child to improve their core strength and
coordination is because they would like for their child to be able to sit upright and use their hands
for play – then addressing their core strength and coordination through exercises is only looking at
ONE of the possible options available that can help them to achieve their functional goal.

If we set a goal of ‘improving core strength and coordination’, it is difficult to determine if and when
that has been achieved because there is no clear outcome or endpoint.

In contrast, if the goal is ‘to learn to throw and catch a ball’, then you will very easily know when
your child has achieved that – they have achieved it when they can throw and catch a ball!
Alternatively, if your child’s goal is ‘to learn to climb on the playground’, then when your child can
climb on the playground you know that they have achieved that goal and it is time to move onto a
new one.

Why are functional goals important?

Having measurable goals that demonstrate that your child is improving in their function is very, very
important when dealing with the NDIS. The NDIS requires that we all need to be able to
demonstrate the value and achievements being made through the therapies your child is attending.
As a result, the way you word your child’s goals are extremely important to whether or not you will
be able to prove the improvements your child has been able to achieve within their NDIS plan, and
whether these improvements are contributing to improvements in your child’s overall function and

It can take some practice to learn how to and feel confident wording goals to be meaningful and
measurable. We hope that this blog post can help you to think and word your child’s goals so that
they can make an impact on their life and be celebrated like they should be when they are achieved.
But if you need any help with deciding on or wording your child’s goals, please discuss it with your
child’s therapists, we are more than happy to help  ?