Functional Math Skills That Support Independence

Measuring tools

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Functional math skills are those skills that students need to live independently in the community, care for themselves, and make choices about their lives. Functional skills make it possible for students with disabilities to make choices about where they will live, how they will make money, what they will do with money, and what they will do with their spare time. To do these things, they need to be able to count money, tell time, read a bus schedule, follow directions at work, and know-how to check and balance a bank account.

Functional Math Skills

Before students can understand numbers and numeration, they have to understand one-to-one correspondence. As they count, they need to be able to match each item or items to a corresponding number and understand that the number represents a matching or a corresponding number of items. One-to-one correspondence will also be helpful in such household tasks as setting the table and matching socks. Other functional skills include:

  • Number recognition: This includes recognizing and being able to write the 10 digits, and then recognizing place value: ones, tens, and hundreds.
  • Skip counting: Skip counting by 5's and 10's to 100 is important for understanding time (such as five-minute increments on an analog clock) and money. Teachers can use a hundred's chart or on a number line to demonstrate skip counting.
  • Operations: It's vital for students to have a grasp of addition and subtraction.

At a later point, if your students have an understanding of these two operations, it may be possible to introduce multiplication and division. Students with special needs may not be able to develop the ability to do the math operations themselves independently, but they can learn how the operations are used in order to use a calculator to do calculations, like balancing a bank statement or paying bills.

Time

Time as a functional skill involves both understanding the importance of time—such as not staying up all night or not missing appointments because they don't leave enough time to get ready—and telling time on analog and digital clocks to get to school, work, or even the bus on time.

Understanding time requires comprehending that seconds are fast, minutes almost as fast, and hours much longer. Students with disabilities, especially significant cognitive or developmental disabilities, may have behavioral outbursts because they are "stuck" on preferred activities, and don't realize they will miss lunch. For them, building an understanding of time may involve a visual clock, like a Time Timer, or a picture schedule.

These tools help give students a sense of control over their schedule and an understanding of what happens and when during their school or even home day. Parents may also benefit from having visual schedules at home. For children with autism spectrum disorders, it can help avoid long periods of self-stimulatory (stimming) behavior, which may actually undermine progress they are making at school.

Teachers can also pair telling time with understanding the concept of time, for example, that 6 a.m. is when you get up and 6 p.m. is when you eat dinner. Once students can tell the time to the hour and half-hour, they can progress to skip counting by fives and telling time to the nearest five-minute interval. A geared clock, such as a Judy clock—where the hour hand moves when the minute hand goes around—helps students understand that both hands move together.

Money

Money, as a functional math skill, has several levels of skill:

  • Recognizing money: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters.
  • Counting money: first in single denominations and later mixed coins
  • Understand the value of money: budgets, wages, and paying bills

Measurement

Learning measurement for students with special needs should involve length and volume. A student should be able to use a ruler and even perhaps a tape measure for length and recognize inches, half and quarter inches, as well as feet or yards. If a student has an aptitude for carpentry or graphic arts, the ability to measure length or size will be helpful.

Students should also learn volume measurements, such as cups, quarts, and gallons. This skill is useful for filling tubs, cooking, and following directions. When cooking is part of a functional curriculum, a knowledge of measures of volume will be helpful. Students should be able to choose what they will cook, and find and read recipes. Familiarity with measuring volume will help students who want to pursue work in culinary arts, such as a kitchen assistant.