Teaching life skills to a group of special education students can be a very fun and rewarding experience. The majority of special education students to whom these skills are taught are those with developmental disabilities, those with learning disabilities so severe that they may affect day-to-day living, those with high functioning Autism or Autistic tendencies, or those with Asperger's. Life skills are generally those that the students will need to survive in everyday life. This includes money management, hygiene, and shopping for groceries. These are essential for special education students to learn because they enable an easier transition from school to life in the "real world."
There are so many fun ways to teach these skills to special education students, and it's even more rewarding if you can get the parents involved. Here are my tips. I’ll cover many of the Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) in a basic Life Skills Curriculum.
Hygiene: Teaching hygiene, while very important, isn't always the most comfortable skill to teach. It is, however, one that every special education student must know about. Therefore, it should be included in your curriculum. Having proper hygiene is a tool that will most likely help these students get a job, maintain a job, and also maintain friendships. Let's face it, very few people want to hire someone who doesn't have good hygiene. Besides that, hygiene is important for overall health. Therefore it is an important life skill for a special education student to learn.
- Discuss. This skill isn't one that can be taught easily by doing, but it is one that can be practiced in the classroom throughout the year. At the beginning of the school year, try starting with a unit on personal hygiene. Ask the students why hygiene is so important and ask them what they think of when they think of it. Explain when are good times to shower and bathe, either in the morning or at night, and why keeping clean is such a good thing!
- Plan. Once you have had a discussion, then it is time to start teaching how to take to care of your body. If you call a local doctor's office or hospital and explain that you are teaching hygiene to a group of special education students, most likely they would be happy to send you samples of different products that can be used for cleaning oneself. Each student may be able to receive a sample-size deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush, and even a sample-size soap and shampoo. When you have received these products, bring in some old washcloths of your own and instruct the students on proper washing.
- Model. Show the students how to lather up their soap and place it on their washcloth. Let them practice this once you have shown how to do it. Bring in a dentist to go over how to brush your teeth properly and let them practice with their toothbrushes. Remind students how often teeth should be brushed and how often you should go to the dentist. This isn't a life skill that should only be taught once. It is a good one to touch upon weekly or monthly, because it is one that special education students often struggle with.
Safety: Special needs kids need to learn how to be safe when they are on their own. First, teach them how to recognize the signs of an emergency. This includes power outages, severe weather alerts, and even just noticing that something is different. The second step is to teach the appropriate action to take. The pupils will need to gain knowledge about the use of the 911 system for getting help in an emergency.
Communication: In their daily lives the students will interact with a variety of other people. These will vary from the cashier at the store to random pedestrians. Teach the students common courtesies such as the proper greetings, saying “thank you” and “you're welcome” as well as being able to ask for what they need.
Housekeeping: Your students will need to know how to keep a home clean and livable. Teaching them how to cook, clean and preparing for repairs within the home is a skill set that must be learned. Give them a small area that will be their “home” for the year. Make them responsible for keeping it neat and tidy. You can even dock their classroom pay for not cleaning their area.
Money Management Skills: These skills can be taught all day long, every day in the special education classroom. Learning how to properly manage money is an essential part of everyday life. Skills such as counting money, managing a budget, balancing a checkbook and writing checks are used in transactions that you face on a constant basis.
- Why not implement a system in your classroom whereby the students earn a specific amount of "fun" money for doing certain things throughout the day? For example, if your students get all of their work done in class on time, they can earn a specific amount of money for doing so. This can be banked in checkbooks that the students keep in their desks. When money is received throughout the day, the student is responsible for recording this in their individual checkbooks. You can use play money in the classroom when utilizing this system.
- Of course, the special education teacher must teach the students how to record money in these checkbooks. Realistically, this is something they will also learn by you showing them one-on-one and then doing themselves with assistance every day.
- Students should also be allowed to spend their money throughout the day if they wish. Does your student want to have some free time during study hall? If so, why not have him write you a check, using some of his money to pay for that free time? As you can see, teaching this specific life skill to special needs students is a lesson that can occur all day long. This banking system is a good one to start right at the beginning of the school year and follow throughout the year. Knowing how to handle money is one of the most necessary and basic life skills students need to learn. By teaching them how to manage their money, you are doing them a great service.
Grocery Shopping: When teaching this important life skill, there is nothing better than actually going to the grocery store and doing a little shopping. Try contacting your local grocery store for some assistance by telling them that you plan to bring special education students into that store throughout the year. This will ensure that their employees will be ready to assist you. Of course, as with any field trip, you must get parental permission to take the children off of the school campus.
A good way to begin teaching special needs children how to go grocery shopping is to just start talking to them about it beforehand. Share with them stories of how you shop for groceries. Explain what a grocery cart is and explain how to find an item for a reasonable price. Tell the students that all groceries must be paid for and, to do this, you must stand in line patiently and wait until it is your turn to go through the line and pay for your items. You can even practice how to pay for groceries, how to ask assistance from a store employee if needed, how to make a grocery list, and how to stick to that list -- all within your classroom.
Once you have practiced this in the classroom, it is time to take the students out to the store for some live life skills training. Have every student prepare a list of items he or she needs to find. Obviously, these lists will be pretend, but this will help students practice for the real deal. Prior to the trip, call the store to tell them that you are coming and that you are doing a practice grocery-shop run. Once at the store, have each student pick a grocery cart and begin her shopping. With a teacher and, most likely, a teacher's aide, they will learn the dos and don’ts of grocery shopping. This is a process that can be repeated several times throughout the year.
Getting a Job: Students may need to get a job once they are out on their own. Therefore, they will need to now exactly how to do so. Teach the special needs children how to look for open positions at local stores through classified ads and online advertisements. Then have them fill out applications in the classroom. This will allow you to assist them in completing the paperwork.
The next step is to teach them how to conduct themselves during an interview. You want to show them how to dress for success, how to greet the interviewer, and the appropriate way to behave. Then give them a list of questions that may be asked. Have the students role play and answer the questions for one another.
Free Time: When they enter the real world, the students will have some time each day that is filled with no specific tasks. This is a fact of life. Introduce them to different hobbies and casual activities that can take up this time. This includes sewing, going out with friends, and watching television or reading a book.
Life skills are very important lessons for a special education student, and there are so many skills to be taught. When teaching them, it is important to remember that students, especially those in special education, learn best by doing. Anytime you can make a lesson into a hands-on activity is a wonderful learning experience! Now you're ready to start including life skills in your special education curriculum.