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How Do Functional Skills Fit Into an IEP? by Heather Cacioppo

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Imagine how you would feel if someone told you what you had to wear on a daily basis and never let you pick your own dessert. This person also picked what you had to watch on tv and never let you have an opinion of what to listen to on the radio. 

You weren’t doing these things yourself because nobody taught you how, but maybe you could if someone showed you.

Eventually, you would become frustrated, dependent on someone else, and lose your sense of autonomy.

This is why we all need functional life skills.

Functional life skills are necessary for daily living and for establishing quality of life. These are the skills that if not done by an individual him or herself, others will have to do. Think of the things that are “automatic” to you and you consistently do on a daily basis. Those things are functional life skills. 

As a special education teacher mentor I have seen individuals in special education programming often struggle to learn functional skills. It is important to develop these skills in order to increase an individual’s ability to achieve greater independence and life-long learning. This is why I want to remind teachers and parents that functional skills do have a place in an IEP document.

Functional life skills include things like:

  • Communication – A way to make wants and needs known through language, pictures, signs, etc., including how to say “NO”. 
  • Choice-making – Choosing a preferred item or activity
  • Safety – Knowing what to do to keep oneself safe in a dangerous situation, such as in an accident, or in case of a fire, or when encountering a stranger
  • Self-care – Taking care of toileting, bathing, and other health and hygiene issues
  • Leisure and recreation – Relaxation and having fun
  • Vocational skills – Work skills

It is important to select skills that are meaningful and allow the child  to be as independent as possible. Be thoughtful in your planning and distinguish between skills that are necessary and skills that are helpful. 

When prepping yourself to pick IEP goals, ask yourself these questions…

  • What is the purpose of the skill?
  • Will this skill matter in 1 year from now?
  • Will this skill matter in 5 years from now?
  • Will this skill allow the child to gain independence in their day?
  • Will this skill give the child more confidence?

Incorporating functional skills throughout the IEP may also help mitigate some maladaptive behaviors (for example, self-injury, aggression) by encouraging the individual to choose an appropriate replacement skill and develop their coping strategies and self-regulation skills.

Teaching a child to make choices and indicate what he/she wants gives them a way to express their preferences. This may reduce frustration and the likelihood of engaging in maladaptive behaviors.

You’re all in when it comes to teaching Functional Skills in the IEP, now what?

An effective way to teach functional life skills is to use task analysis. A task analysis breaks down the skill or routine into its component parts and creates routines. The routines should be consistent. They need to be practicing across varying settings and with different people in order to teach the individual to apply the routine in any relevant situation. This leads to effective generalization. 

For those who have difficulty with generalization, it is important to teach in context from the start. For example, when teaching the individual how to put on shoes, the individual should also learn that he or she needs to wear shoes when he leaves the house and that shoes stay on when out in public.

Important Tips: Make sure the student has enough opportunity to practice the skills. Reinforcement is a critical component of teaching functional skills. Following routines with motivating items and activities increases the likelihood that the learner will engage in the skill or routine at the next opportunity. Visual supports are a tool that can support the task analysis. These include picture schedules, video modeling, and choice cards.

About the Author: 

Heather specializes in Teacher Leadership and is a special education teacher mentor. She currently teaches middle school and has taught in Illinois for 8 years. I help self-contained special education teachers with individualized and personalized support to make self-assured educational decisions so that you can avoid the stress, overwhelm and burnout in this field. I believe special education teachers are better together!

Connect with Heather Here
Find Heather in the Master IEP Coach® Directory Here


If you liked this and want more functional skills added to your student’s IEP, then you’ll love these episodes of the Special Education Inner Circle podcast: 

  1. Ep 48 - Reaching IEP Goals during Virtual Learning with Heather

  2. Ep 109 - New Executive Functioning Skills with Mike McLeod



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