Teaching Money Counting Skills

Using Money Is an Important Functional Skill for Independent Living

A child playing with toy cash register


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Counting money is a critical functional skill for all students. For children with learning disabilities but average intelligence, money not only gives them access to things they want to purchase, it also builds a foundation for understanding the base ten systems of numeration, which will help with decimals, percents, and the metric system, vital for science, technology, and even the social sciences.

For students with intellectual disabilities and lower function, counting money is one of the skills they will need for self-determination and creates the opportunity to live independently in the community. Like all skills, counting and using money needs to be scaffolded, building on strengths and teaching the "baby steps" that will lead to independence.

Common State Core Curriculum Standard

2MD.8 (Measurement and Data): Solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately. Example: If you have 2 dimes and 3 pennies, how many cents do you have?

Coin Recognition

Before students can count coins, they have to be able to correctly identify at least the most common denominations: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. For low function students, this may be a long but worthwhile process. Do not use fake plastic coins for low functioning students with intellectual or developmental disabilities: They need to generalize coin use to the real world, and the plastic coins do not feel, smell, or even look like the real thing. Depending on the student's level, approaches include:

  • Discrete Trial Training: Present only two coins at a time. Ask and reinforce correct responses, i.e. "Give me a penny." "Give me a nickel." "Give me a penny.", etc. Use errorless teaching: point to the correct coin if the student picks up the wrong coin or seems to waffle. Collect data and don't introduce a new coin until the child is at least 80% accuracy.
  • Coin Sorting: After the child has succeeded with discrete trial training, or if the child quickly seems to be distinguishing the coins, you can give them practice by sorting coins. Place a cup for each denomination, and place the mixed coins on the table in front of the child. If the child recognizes numbers, put the coin value on the outside of the cup, or place one of the coins in the cup.
  • Matching Coins: A variation of sorting coins is to match them to the values on a cardstock mat. You could add a picture if it helps. The website Money Instructor provides excellent free worksheets with good facsimiles of both American and Canadian coins.

    Counting Coins

    The goal is to help your students learn to count coins. Counting money requires understanding the base ten math system and strong skip counting skills. Activities with a Hundred Chart will help build these skills. The Hundred Chart can also be used to help teach counting money as well.

    Money should begin with a single denomination, ideally pennies. Counting pennies could easily accompany learning to count, as well as introducing the cents sign. Then, moving on to nickels and dimes, followed by quarters.

    • Number Lines and Hundred Chart: Make paper number lines to one hundred or hundred charts. When counting nickels, have the students highlight the 5s and write the 5s (if they are not on the number line). Give students nickels and have them place the nickels on the 5s and RECITE. That's right, have the students recite out loud. Placing the coins and reciting out loud make this a multi-sensory unit. Do the same counting dimes.
    • Giant Number Line: This activity ramps up the multisensory element of money and skip counting. Paint a giant number line (or get parent volunteers) on a paved portion of the playground or school courtyard, with the numbers 1 foot apart. Have individual children walk the number line and count the nickels, or get giant nickels (from a bulletin board set) and have different students stand at different points and count off by fives.
    • Coin Templates: Create counting templates by cutting out facsimile coins (the ones at Money Instructor are excellent) and pasting them on 5 inches by 8-inch file cards (or any size you find most manageable). Write the value on the card (front for low functioning children, on the back as a self-correcting activity). Give students nickels, dimes, or quarters and have them count them out. This is an especially useful technique for teaching quarters. You need only make one card with four quarters and the numbers 25, 50, 75, and 100. They can count multiple quarters in rows.