Community based instruction is one of my favorite ways to assess learning. It is a way to prove generalization of skills with a change of environment. A place that an incredible amount of skills can be addressed is the mall. We have a mall close to us and it is one of my students favorite places to go for a bit of leisure time, working on goals, and eating a bit of yummy food! We have gone to shop for gifts several times and we are wanting to expand for students shopping for their own clothing in the future. The mall is a gold mine for functional skills that are also academic in nature. I want to highlight some of the many skills that can be worked on and assessed at the Mall.

Safety in Parking Lots

Right off the bat, as soon as you get off the bus or van, you’ve got a challenging skill that your students may or may not have. I highly recommend practicing procedures in a safe parking lot ahead of time and having lots of precautionary measures in place. Social stories with real pictures of the space are a great option. As we all know as teachers, the more preparation you are able to put in ahead of time, the smoother trip can go!

Walking Appropriately

This is one of the biggest victories that I have observed with my students. Some of my students have had a tendency to touch others in the hallway (usually if their shirt looks like it has a cool texture, or someone has eye-catching hair). Other students have a tendency to sit or lie down where ever it suits them. We did a lot of direct instruction with visuals on this skill and have a verbal cue with modeling to remind students of expectations. I’m proud to say that we have had zero issues with students walking in the mall and we are all getting our steps in appropriately! 

Shopping from a List

Most often the times that we go to the mall are around gift giving holidays in December and Valentine’s Day. We go through paper and online ads to get ideas for gifts for family members. We can also get suggestions and sizing instructions from family if needed. We scope out the stores ahead of time to see where might be a good place to shop for the items they have decided on. My students use a variety of list formats: paper based, dry erase, or electronic notes on their device. 

Reading a Map

Once we scope out the stores that we need to go to, we print out a map and mark the stores and plan a path for how to get there. We use bright colored highlighters to make reading the map easy for students. Each student gets an individualized map with the stores that they need to shop at. Be sure to note and prime students for any places that a student may want to go into, but you may not be able to go into for whatever reason. 

Expressing Opinions

I like to build in opportunities for students to express their opinions. I feel like this is a higher level communication skill that our students may not always be asked. They most often address their wants and needs, but may not always have the opportunity to express preferences between similar items. I love to see strong opinions from my students when they love (or hate) a certain color, style, or scent.

Staying Within a Budget

An important part of shopping at the mall is budgeting the money that the students will have to spend. Usually my student’s parents let us know how much they will have to spend and we work on an estimated budget based on how many items they need to buy. We research potential costs of items and estimate tax. Usually my students will also be eating lunch with the money that they are given, so we have to remember that expense as well.

Polite Communication

Even before a purchase needs to be made, several communication opportunities with unfamiliar communication partners arise. All of these can be pre-taught and coached ahead of time. As soon as your students enter a store, they may be greeted. As they shop, they may be asked if they need assistance finding something. There may be further clarifying questions. I love being in the community and teaching people out in the community about the various ways that our students communicate. We have students who are verbal communicators, we have those who use sign language to communicate, and others that use communication devices. Once our students are comfortable and confident using their mode of communication, it can more about educating the community on how to receive and respond to  some of the alternative means of communication.

Math Skills 

There are so many math skills to be taught, applied, and assessed at the mall. The most obvious is money exchange. This has to be pre-taught and practiced a lot ahead of time. This is a great skill to break down and task analyze because it is multi-step. Students will also possibly encounter the use of scales and weighing items. There is a candy shop that we have gone to many times and they are always welcoming, patient and kind. The scale at this shop has been a fun real world application of skills we have learned at school. Time is also important while on an outing. It is best to make a schedule for how long to shop and how long to eat, taking into consideration time to get back to school. Students can help plan out this schedule and help everyone stick to it! 

Appropriate Ordering of Food

My student’s very favorite part of going to the mall is being able to go to the food court! We have a lot of different tastes and varying dietary restrictions and everyone can find something that they enjoy! We practice ordering what they would like of the menu, paying, and thanking the service people for their food. No matter what their mode of communication, we make sure that we are polite to everyone. One of the moments that just made my heart burst as teacher was during our holiday trip to the mall when it was chaotic and crowded, especially in the food court. A student that I have that struggles with noise and crowds was so motivated by getting some delicious Asian cuisine, that he made it through the tough moments.


Have you and your students taken a trip to the mall? Let me know how it went and what skills you addressed with your students!

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