Getting Started with Functional Skills in the Special Education Classroom

One thing that I love doing is helping teachers find a good balance between functional skills and academics. I think that my elementary education training makes the academics side easier for me to understand, and then my master's degree in transition to adulthood really helped me understand the importance of starting functional and vocational skills at an early age, so I’ve really become passionate about merging the two and finding a good balance. I’m a big believer that you can do both together, it’s not a switch from academics to functional skills, but it’s taken me some time to figure out how to do both meaningfully. I’m going to share a few tips with you today about how I’ve gotten to this point. 

Girl pushing button on the microwave: get started with functional skills in special education

Functional skills, sometimes called life skills, are all of the skills we need to function in our daily lives. This can be everything from social skills to hygiene and personal care. Functional skills can be trickier to plan a pacing guide. With academics, we are handed a set of standards to teach. But more often than not, we don't have that available for functional skills, so we are left on our own to determine what's important. Unfortunately, I see a lot of teachers defaulting to time & money, or reading grocery words, just because they don't really know what else to focus on. Luckily, there are lots of free scope and sequences out there already. Here are a few free examples. 

Life Skills Inventory

Standards Based Life Skills Curriculum

Bridges for Kids IEP Goal Bank


And if you're looking for more, here are some paid options:

Functional Independence Skills Handbook

Brigance Transition Skills Inventor

The Assessment of Functional Living Skills 

Informal Assessments for Transition: Independent Living and Community Participation

When we are determining which skills are important to teach and creating a pacing guide, here are three tips.


Tip 1: Is it really functional?

First, think about whether it is really a functional skill. Just because it's considered a functional skill doesn't mean it's functional for every student. If a student is never going to drive, it's not functional for them to learn about traffic signs. We still need to differentiate and individualize during functional skills instruction, just like we do during academics.

Tip 2: Get parents involved

Next, get parents involved when working on functional skills. This is a great place to start if you're trying to figure out what to teach. Ask parents what skills would be helpful for their student to work on in order to help them at home. If we can get parents to help us work on these skills at home too, then the student will gain progress more quickly. When we get parent input, we may also learn that something we think is functional for a student isn't something the parent thinks is functional. For example, I like to work on dressing and undressing when students are signed up for PE because it’s a natural time that they have to get dressed. But I’ve had parents that don’t want their kids to learn to get undressed because they will take their clothes off at inappropriate times. So that’s something we put on the back burner because it’s not functional for the student right now, and parents aren’t going to work on it at home.  

Tip 3: Incorporate functional skills into your daily schedule

Finally, start small by incorporating functional skills into your academics and daily routines whenever you can. We have to teach academics, and we have that scheduled already, right? If we can look at each part of our day and determine which functional skills fit within this already occurring instruction, then it's so much easier to plan!


Now what?

Ok so now we know that we need to think about how functional skills need to be individualized for the student, that parent involvement is helpful, and that it's much easier to embed it into the instruction we are already doing, how can we decide what to teach? I like to use a planning sheet to determine what I want to teach. I personally like to do this with each student and then identify skills that overlap so I can group students accordingly. 


The first part is for your academic standards. You will list the grade-level standard and then list the ways that it can be applied functionally. Here's an example of middle school math.


The second part of the form is the routines and instruction aspect we talked about earlier. So you’ll write down your schedule and then you’ll determine which functional skills can be taught or incorporated during that time in your schedule. Here's an example.

The third part is a parent input form that you can use to take notes when discussing functional skills with parents. 


Now that you've identified some important skills that you can incorporate into your day, you have a great start for individual students or small groups. You can use this information to help you identify skills for IEP goals. Or you can use Part 4 to write out your pacing guide for the year using the skills identified in steps 1-3. 


I hope that helps you get started with functional skills in your classroom. Take it step by step and start small. Make sure to grab your free planning form here! Happy teaching!

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