Developing Life Skills through Functional Curriculum

By: Misten Daniels, M.S.

This article was originaly published in The Autism Notebook

If you think back to when you were in school, you may remember asking yourself, “why do I need to learn this” or “when will I ever use this”. Well, whether you are a parent or an educator, these questions are still relevant today. These questions should be asked when identifying new skills to teach to a child on the autism spectrum.

It is important that classrooms have what we call a “functional curriculum” for children with autism, where the focus of the curriculum is on the child and the functional skills he/she needs to learn to be an active, engaged member of the school, home and community. Functional skills are those skills that are necessary for a child to be successful across environments. These skills include: transitioning from one location to another, eating, dressing, following directions, and social and communication skills. A functional curriculum teaches these skills using materials that have meaning to the child and relevance to his/her everyday life (e.g., matching socks or following a recipe). The curriculum should encourage independence by teaching life skills, and should address developmentally appropriate goals.  

A way to address developmentally appropriate goals is to provide practice opportunities throughout the day. One way to accomplish this is to first set up consistent routines, such as snack time or dressing to go outside. During these routines the child can practice academic skills like counting pieces of food, or learning to read a clock to know when it’s time for outside play. Practice opportunities can also be provided during individual and small group work. For example, for a child to become better at transitioning, during individual work time he/she can be taught to either identify photographs to follow a picture schedule or words to follow a written schedule (depending on the child’s developmental level). During the child’s small group academic time, teach words such as “table” or “swing”, which link to routines that are a priority to the family and classroom team.

What to look for in the classroom?

  1. Is there a curriculum in place that provides an assessment to determine the child’s current level of functioning, and lesson plans and materials to teach new skills based on the assessment information?

    • Just like general education classrooms, special education classrooms need comprehensive curricula to address students’ learning goals.For example,if you go into any general education 5th grade, you will find text books in math and science that form the basis for the curriculum. When you walk into the child’s special education classroom, do you see functional, academic, and language-based curricula? Are there lesson plans in place?

  2. Does the curricula address needs across curricular areas (receptive language, expressive language, social skills, pre-academics, functional routines, etc.).

    • It is important that every part of the child’s development be addressed in the special education curriculum offered. A curriculum may be comprehensive and address skills across many areas (e.g., the STAR (Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research) Program) or may address one specific skill (e.g., Edmark for reading, Touch Math for math, Handwriting without Tears for writing). Keep in mind that any curriculum may need to be modified to meet the individual needs of any child.

  3. Are the skills taught appropriate for the child’s developmental level?>

    • The curriculum should show a clear scope and sequence, with pre requisite skills listed for higher level skills.  For example, if your child is unable to identify letters or say the name of a letter, it is important to focus on these foundational skills (i.e., prerequisite skills) prior to working on letter sounds. Letter sounds may be an appropriate long range goal, but developmentally it is too difficult for the child at this time and therefore should not be a current goal.  When teaching a child to identify letters, you can link it to a functional item like a hat or the color blue.

  4. Are the skills being taught able to be practiced across the school day and in other settings

    • Let’s say you are teaching sight words to a child. You want to be sure that the words being taught are words like “Shoes” or “French Fries”, words that will be seen in school, home or the community. Or, if you are teaching a child to match identical items, these items should be everyday items like a fork or a pencil.

    • Games and activities can encourage children to use their newly learned skills in fun and engaging ways.   You could either adapt children’s games that are commonly found in schools or the home (e.g., Uno, Connect Four), or use activities designed specifically to help children with autism generalize newly learned skills (e.g., Sunshine Literacy Small Group Activities).

The assessments completed by the IEP team should provide information about the child’s current level of functioning. This information is what should determine the skills currently taught to an individual child. The materials selected to teach the new skills should be linked to either the child’s interests or materials that he/she has associations with in everyday life.   Another consideration when reviewing curricula is to ensure that the curriculum is not only functional, but also teaches skills that address local and state academic standards.

Linking functional curriculum to the Common Core State Standards

Beginning in 2010, states started adopting what are called the Common Core State Standards. These standards define what children K-12 should learn in school so they can graduate and be successful members of society. For children with significant disabilities, there are alternative achievement standards that have been aligned with the State Standards. These are called the Common Core Essential Elements (CCEEs). One curriculum that addresses the State Standards and CCEEs is the STAR Program. The STAR Program has a developmental progression of lessons (i.e., scope and sequence) that addresses core content such as reading and math, then applies these skills in a functional way (e.g., money ID to purchase items in a store).

Functional curriculum paves the way to life skill development and independence

Functional curriculums teach academic and language skills, and link them to the routines children participate in throughout the day. Linking newly acquired language and academic skills to everyday routines helps develop important life skills. For example, if you teach a child to match words to corresponding pictures (i.e., reading comprehension), he/she can learn to gather items from a list which can be helpful at the grocery store. Having a functional curriculum in the classroom starts to develop these critical skills early on, which will pave the way to developing greater independence and important life skills into adulthood.

Teaching Tip:

  • Teach the kids in your class (or your child at home) how to purchase an item at a store. 

  • Math lesson- During your daily “math time”, teach the child about money. Begin by matching coins and bills (match quarter to quarter, dollar to dollar, etc.) Move on to creating money templates (images of a quarter, dollar bill, etc.). Gather real coins and bills and teach the child to “match quarter” and “match dollar bill” on the templates (i.e., $1.25).

  • Shopping routine- Once a week, set up a shopping trip at either the school’s student store or at a store you’ve created in the class/at home. Identify in advance what items will be for sale and how much they cost. Bring the money templates with you that were taught during the math lesson. At the cash register, pull out the appropriate templates and the child’s wallet and ask him/her to “match”.

  • Note. If the child is able to, start to teach the value of each coin/bill during the math lesson and eventually fade the templates. 

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