Functional Skills: Skills Our Students Need to Gain Independence

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Functional skills are all those skills a student needs in order to live independently. The final goal of special education should be for our students to gain as much independence and autonomy as possible, whether their disability is emotional, intellectual, physical, or a combination of two or more (multiple) disabilities. "Self Determination" is the highest goal of special education for our students. Skills are defined as functional as long as the outcome supports the student's independence. For some students, those skills may be learning to feed themselves. For other students, it may be learning to use a bus, including reading a bus schedule. We can separate the functional skills as:

  • Life Skills
  • Academic Functional Skills
  • Community-Based Learning
  • Social Skills

Also Known As: life skills

Examples: Mrs. Johnsons' class is learning to count money as part of their functional math class, in order to prepare for the classes trip to buy valentines at the nearest pharmacy.

Life Skills

The most basic of functional skills are those skills that we usually acquire in the first few years of life: walking, self-feeding, self-toileting, making simple requests. Students with developmental disabilities (Autism Spectrum Disorders) and significant cognitive or multiple disabilities often need to have these skills taught through breaking them down, modeling them and the use of Applied Behavior Analysis. It also requires that the teacher/practitioner do appropriate task analyses in order to teach the specific skills.

Functional Academic Skills

Living independently requires some skills which are considered academic, even if they do not lead to higher education or even completion of a regular diploma. Those skills include:

  • Math Skills - The functional math skills include telling time, counting and using money, balancing a checkbook, measurement and understanding volume. For higher functioning students, they will expand to vocationally oriented skills, such as making change or following a schedule.
  • Language Arts - Reading begins as simply as recognizing symbols, moving on to reading signs (stop, push) and moves on to reading directions. For many students with disabilities, they may need to have reading texts supported with tapes or adults reading. Still, in order to read a bus schedule, a sign in the bathroom, or directions, a student with disabilities gains independence by learning to read.

Community-Based Instruction

The skills a student needs to succeed independently out in the community often have to be taught in the community. These skills include using public transportation, shopping, making choices in restaurants, crossing streets at crosswalks. Too often their parents, with the desire to protect their disabled children, over-function for their children and unknowingly stand in the way of giving their children the skills they need.

Social Skills

Social skills are usually modeled, but for many students with disabilities, they need to be carefully and consistently taught. In order to function in the community, students need to understand how to interact appropriately with different members of the community, not only peers and teachers.