Functional Skills: Skills to Help Special Education Students Gain Independence

Big leap over the river of life
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Functional skills are those skills a student needs to live independently. An important goal of special education is 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. 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 and read a bus schedule. We can separate the functional skills as:

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

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, and making simple requests. Students with developmental disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, and significant cognitive or multiple disabilities often need to have these skills taught through modeling, breaking them down, and the use of Applied Behavior Analysis. The teaching of life skills also requires that the teacher/practitioner complete 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 the completion of a 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, math skills will expand to include vocationally oriented skills, such as making change or following a schedule.
  • Language Arts - Reading begins as recognizing symbols, progressing 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 audio recordings or adults reading. By learning to read a bus schedule, a sign in a bathroom, or directions, a student with disabilities gains independence.

Community-Based Learning Skills

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

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Functional Skills: Skills to Help Special Education Students Gain Independence." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 25). Functional Skills: Skills to Help Special Education Students Gain Independence. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Functional Skills: Skills to Help Special Education Students Gain Independence." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).