Recently, I’ve noticed that ‘functional’ has become one of those buzz words in education. We tend to sprinkle these words throughout our conversations and the real meaning of the word gradually gets lost. We talk so much about teaching functional skills and functional literacy and having functional independent work tasks that I think it’s helpful to get back to the root of that word. What does functional actually mean?

  • designed to have a practical use
  • used to contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole

What is functional for each student will change depending on their age. For a 6 year old to learn letters it will be functional because it well help him learn the larger skill of reading. However, for an 18 year old working on letters may no longer be functional because it may not serve that purpose of learning to read. When thinking about functional skills for a student, you need to consider the current skills of the student and the end goal. Continue to have high expectations for students. Just because they can’t read now doesn’t mean they won’t. Also, consider what is the best use of that child’s time. Think efficiency. We want to teach the best skills in the least amount of time so the child can learn more and more. There is no magic equation. It depends on the individual needs of each student. Some considerations to factor in:

Learning History

One important thing to consider is the learning history of the student. We know not all two classrooms (or teachers) are created equal. Some students may not have had the opportunity to learn specific skills prior to entering your class. Yes, you are putting your super judge-y hat on for a minute but that’s okay. Take what information you have based on student’s previous IEPs, parent report, etc. and determine if the student even had the chance to learn this skill before. If the student spent the last four years in a classroom with a teacher who let him eat doritos and watch YouTube all day – it’s time to really focus on those missing skills he simply didn’t have a chance to learn.

Strengths and Interests

Consider the strengths and interests of the child. Some students are very social, so targeting life skills from a social skills perspective will be immediately more engaging and motivating. For my kids that are all about food and cooking, target waiting, planning, organizing, etc. in the structure of cooking activities. We tend to try harder at things we enjoy (hence why you will never catch me trying very hard on a set of long division problems). So think about engagement while planning how to teach these essential skills!

Long Term Opportunities

Finally is where we get to the hard part. No matter the age of your student – think about the long term goals. Where will this child work? How will he get to work? Where will he live? How will he socialize with peers. Even for our itty bitty preschoolers – time flies from 4 to 21. We want to be constantly thinking about what skills the student will need to accomplish these goals and start taking the baby steps to get there.