Teaching Life Skills in the Special Education Classroom

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Have you ever found yourself brushing someone else’s teeth or tying wet shoelaces and thought to yourself, “WHY do I have to do this?” If so, you’re probably either a parent or a life skills teacher (or both!). Teaching life skills may seem mundane and unnecessary, but these are the skills that all individuals must learn and master in order to become autonomous adults. Acquiring basic life skills is essential to independent living, so many special education programs have adopted a life skills curriculum to support these needs.


What are Functional Life Skills?


Functional Life skills are routine activities that are necessary for independent living. Eating, toileting, putting groceries away, cooking, and having appropriate conversations are all examples of basic life skills. Sometimes you’ll hear teachers refer to these skills as ADL, or Activities of Daily Living. Essentially, life skills are basic tasks that people are expected to perform independently each day.
There are three main types of life skills:
  1. Daily Living Skills
  2. Social Skills
  3. Occupational Skills
Daily living skills include cooking, personal hygiene, cleaning, using the bathroom, and so on. Social skills include speaking, making eye contact, manners, peer conflict resolution, and basically anything that involves dealing with other people. Occupational skills include tasks requiring fine motor skills, such as writing, using scissors, tying shoes, getting dressed, typing, and other tasks that involve using your hands.




Why do some students need to be taught life skills in school?

Students with special needs may need direct instruction in these basic areas in order to succeed and lead more independent lives. The more individuals are able to do things for themselves, the less they will depend on others for help later in life.

Teachers working in life skills or prevocational programs provide students with these skills during the school day to help prepare them for adulthood.

Ultimately, our most important goal as teachers is to produce contributing citizens of society. In a life skills program, we sculpt students into future adults who will help their community to the extent they are able to.

Learning to brush teeth may not seem like an important use of time, but it is! It is one of many tasks that an adult is expected to perform independently. Without mastery of basic life skills such as this, adults with disabilities may rely on family members or home health aides for the rest of their lives. For this reason, we teach and practice these skills in school in order to increase student autonomy.


Ways to incorporate life skills into the school day

Some schools have adopted a life skills curriculum, but many have not. If your school doesn’t follow a life skills curriculum, you can still incorporate activities into your day to practice these tasks. Set up opportunities for students to be responsible for light chores in the classroom. Keep it light and keep it fun! We’re not asking kids to scrub the school toilet here.

Take a look around your classroom and make a list of tasks that your students can take responsibility for. I rotated classroom responsibilities on a weekly basis so that students had the chance to perform each job that they were interested in. Determine which type of class jobs would be appropriate in your classroom and how you plan to rotate your volunteers.


Here are a few ideas to practice functional life skills throughout the school day:

  •  Use a dustpan and brush to clean up small messes in the classroom. I used washi tape to create a guide on the dustpan to make it easier for students to see where the crumbs need to go.
  • Students can wipe the whiteboard daily after class. Once a week, a student can wash the board with a sponge and bucket of water.
  • Keep a few hardy plants in the classroom that students can be responsible for watering and caring for.
  • Students can tidy up the bookshelves at the end of the day.
  • Get students in the habit of washing their hands before lunch time and snack.
  • Call on students to assist you in distributing papers and materials to the class. You can also ask volunteers to sort materials into student cubbies or book bags, or even the teacher mailboxes in the school office.
  • Dressing boards are something that many classrooms have. I have the bear puzzle one from Melissa and Doug, but I also like the Yoovi ones because they're bigger and easier to use (link for the Yoovi ones below).
  • Work on social skills by encouraging students to greet others (quietly) in the hallway. During class parties, team up with another class to join in one room and encourage students to introduce themselves, mingle, and talk.
  • I set up situations where students  have to speak to other people throughout the day. For example, I might ask a staff member to stand in front of the classroom door during arrival time. Then, as students arrived, I encourage students to get the person’s attention by saying, “Excuse me.” Throughout the year, students become more comfortable with exchanges like this and they often end up having conversations this way.
  • You can practice putting away groceries away with either real items or empty boxes and cans in a school kitchen. If you do not have access to a kitchen, you can use this Putting Groceries Away File Folder Game available now in my TPT store. It’s perfect for ABA discrete trials, independent work, or a quiet center activity. When I created this resource, it became my number one best seller almost overnight and I’m just so happy it has helped so many people!

In addition to my Putting Groceries Away resource, I have other resources that also support life skill goals, such as these Telling Time File Folder Games. I used this in my classroom as an independent work center and I was amazed by how well my students responded to it!

Students can work on occupational skills with this Fine Motor OT Bundle. With this, they can practice matching, tracing, writing, cutting and pasting the days of the week and months of the year. I have a FREEBIE SAMPLE of the fine motor activities if you'd like to try it out. I also have several versions of it if you just search "fine motor" in my TPT store.

 If you'd like to work on some pre-readiness skills in a fun new way, you might like this multi-sensory Early Learning Play Dough Mats resource. It's perfect for preschoolers and kindergarteners working on numbers, letters, and sight words.

Reinforce some basic life skills with these Community Places File Folder Activities. If you have students working on letters and their name, then this Letters of My Name resource would be perfect.

I plan on adding many new life skills resources, so stay tuned and make sure you're following Exceptional Thinkers for new products, updates, freebies, and more!

All new products are 50% off for the first 48 hours, so follow Exceptional Thinkers to stay up to date!

If you’re not already following Exceptional Thinkers on Pinterest, make sure to click here to do so. You can also find me on Facebook right here or on Instagram here. And of course, if you’re interested in my newest products, updates, and freebies, make sure to follow me on Teachers Pay Teachers.


~Christy D. from Exceptional Thinkers



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