Early Academic Life Skills - Skills that Support Success at School

Boy reading a book
Academic behavior supports success. Getty Images/Florin Prunoiu/Image Source

Life skills are those functional skills that help students live successfully and independently.   Among the skills students need to gain are those skills that support independence in the community, such as counting money, reading a bus schedule or a work schedule, and read the directions on a recipe or a food box.  In order to learn those skills, they first need to gain the skills they need to succeed in a classroom, even a special education classroom.


Usually these skills are addressed in pre-school, but in my experience so few teachers in special education classrooms know how to teach them, that many of my first graders arrived in my classroom without those skills.  Or, if the child is ADHD, you will need to reteach and reinforce those skills again and again, until those skills are a natural part of the child's behavioral repertoire.  

These skills include:

  • Sitting in place.
  • Attending to directions in group.
  • Holding a writing utensil (pencil, marker, crayon.) 
  • Cutting with scissors. 

Each of these skills benefits from repetition and are best taught within the context of ABA, including shaping, reinforcing each incremental improvement in the skill. 


Data:  When teaching sitting or staying in place, it is invaluable to take data.  Initially you may want a duration measure (how long he or she is out of their seat.)  You may also want to measure how frequently you or your staff prompt your student to return to his or her seat.


Observation:  Is there an activity that the child likes that you can use as part of the sitting in place program: Building with blocks?  Spinning the wheels of a car?  An electronic toy?  When you have found an activity that the child likes that he or she can do at his or her work site, (desk, table, etc.)  you can begin to increase the interval that the child sits at the table.


Implementation: Begin by setting your initial interval at a short period, perhaps a period of a minute or two.  Continually reinforce the childs sitting both verbally (Good sitting!) and with a preferred reinforcer (even an edible if you are still establishing contingency.)  Use a visual timer, if you have one, or just a timer,  on the student's desk.  Give the child a break when the period is over, perhaps a preferred activity. 

Shaping:  Broaden your reinforcement schedule, increasing the time in between reinforcement before you expand the period you set for the student.  

Holding a Pencil or Other Writing Implement

Often a child will arrive in school unable to hold a writing implement.   You may have to shape the behavior by getting the child first to use a bingo dot marker on paper, either on a plain piece of construction paper, and or on a simple lined picture.  Once a child sees the benefit of making marks on paper, you will be able to get him or her to use other implements. 

Shaping the process:  Once a child has successfully picked up a dot marker, expand it to markers.  I find the scented markers are especially popular with students with autism, for whom sensory inputs of all kinds, tactile, auditory and aromatic as well as gross motor, are very reinforcing.

 I have found that yellow highlighters are especially reinforcing.  

Moving on to a pencil:  Building a tripod grip is essential for future success.  I have seen some children with cramped grips who can write neatly, but they are either left handed adapting to left right orientation, or they have a great deal of trouble writing in a legible manner. Either begin with a fat primary pencil, or find a pencil grip that will help support the student's success.