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Teaching Real Life Functional Skills

Teaching Real Life Functional Skills

By Guest Author Mary Schuh

Close your eyes for a moment and think about the most important skills you use to navigate through your day. What comes to mind? Is it the way you neatly make your bed? Cross the street? Provide the correct change when you purchase your morning coffee? Answer "yes" or "no" to basic questions asked of you? Or perhaps getting yourself dressed or using the microwave to heat up your lunch? I'm doubtful these are the skills that come to mind.

In the world of special education, we used to think that making a bed or change for a dollar, folding a napkin, and learning to prepare simple foods were important life skills that students with disabilities needed to learn. We also believed these skills were best taught in a segregated, functional, life-skills classroom and through community-based experiences separate from their peers without disabilities. Are these really the authentic life skills we want students to learn, practice, and realize in their lives?

A more generic and better understood view of functional life skills are those skills that assist us in managing and living a better quality of life. These are the skills that help us accomplish our dreams, live to our full potential, and exist as contributing members of our communities. There is no definitive list of functional life skills, and certain skills may be more or less relevant depending on life circumstances, culture, beliefs, age, geographic location, etc. A broader, more widely, accepted definition of important life skills are those skills that allow us to:

  • Get along well with all kinds of people including individuals whose backgrounds and experiences are different from our own.
  • Develop and maintain friendships and meaningful relationships.
  • Work collaboratively with others.
  • Identify, learn, and practice passions, interests, and talents to assist in making important life decisions such as career choices and motivating hobbies.
  • Show up on time and be prepared for whatever is required.
  • Communicate thoughts, ideas, opinions, and feelings in ways that are clearly understood.
  • Read material that is stimulating and/or provides opportunities to learn.

If we can agree that the above list is more representative of "functional life skills" than making a bed or change for a dollar, where might be the best place for students to learn these skills? Thirty plus years of educational research informs us that by immersing students in the richness and diversity of an inclusive educational experience, students are more likely to learn important life skills such as communication, literacy, appropriate social behaviors, and following typical routines and schedules. An inclusive educational experience throughout one's academic career naturally provides adequate role models, age appropriate instruction, access to engaging information, high expectations, and the opportunity to learn about and get along with the diversity that makes up the human experience.

So where do students with disabilities learn skills like making a bed and change for a dollar? These skills can best be taught in the environments and typical routines in which they are most likely to be used. How many different ways can you think of to teach someone how to make a bed during typical routines (assuming educational teams believe this is a high priority for learning)? When we open our minds to creative possibilities for teaching and learning, and rely on routines that are typical for all students, the possibilities can be endless. For example, learning to make a bed is best taught in the morning after a person wakes, or during camp or an afterschool/weekend/summer job or volunteer opportunity at a hospital or nursing home. Making change for a dollar can happen in the school store, purchasing lunch or snacks in the cafeteria, or in a marketing class in high school.

Lifelong habits of learning and working are inherently promoted and developed through participation in typical educational experiences and traditional rites of passages. These experiences lead to connections, career and educational opportunities, increased social relationships, and a greater likelihood for entering adulthood as valued, contributing members of communities. Students with disabilities and their families must actively begin planning for the future well before the end of high school. For all students, setting goals and having positive dreams evolve out of a wide variety of school experiences including classes, extracurricular activities, internships, community service, relationships, and after school jobs. Inclusion and participation in school activities helps students better understand what they want for their future.

After 30 plus years of research, we are learning that not only are students with disabilities learning more and learning faster when they are educated in the general education classroom and typical routines with support; students without disabilities are also excelling in schools where All Means All.

Photo of Mary Schuh from the IOD and SWIFT CenterMary Schuh, Ph.D. (pictured left) has been with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire since its inception in 1987, working to coordinate family and consumer leadership development and educational systems change in support of inclusive schools and communities. She directs the National Center on Inclusive Education and is a member of the SWIFT (schoolwide integrated framework for transformation) Leadership team.

About The SWIFT Center Where All Means All

SWIFT (Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation), a national K-8 Center, provides academic and behavioral support to promote the learning and academic achievement of ALL students in their neighborhood schools and general education classrooms, including students with disabilities and those with the most extensive needs. Get involved with SWIFT by signing up for the email list, connecting via the SWIFT Talk Community of Practice, liking SWIFT on Facebook, and following SWIFT on Twitter and Pinterest to learn how school communities across the country are benefitting from SWIFT Center resources.

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