Teaching Life Skills to Students with Special Needs

Ideas for instilling essential life skills in learners with special needs.

By Bethany Stagliano

apple on a stack of books

Life skills are essential to living in the real world. Teaching these skills to learners who are in special education classes is not only important, but necessary. Though it may not be easy, there are techniques you can use to teach these important skills: reinforcing already learned skills, modeling, role playing, and practicing in the real world. 

Reinforce Recently Learned Skills

Start each day by reinforcing a certain skill in a creative manner. One great way to do this is by using pictures to garner responses:

  • Show a picture of a snowy day. What type of clothing would a person require?
  • A photo shows a person lying in the sun wearing winter gloves and a hat, while everyone else is wearing t-shirts and shorts. What is wrong with this picture?
  • A man is using a toothbrush to wash his coffee mug. What is wrong?
  • The cash register at a store says $1.12. A person hands the clerk a $1.00 bill. What is the problem?

Use a similar format to entice your learners to recall almost any recently learned skill. Once your learners have arrived at the correct answer, discuss and reinforce it with them. A great way to do this is through modeling.

Model Life Skills 

Model as many life skills as possible right in the classroom. If you have any assistants or classroom aides, use them to break up your class into smaller groups. Either in these small groups, or as a whole class, here are some skills that are easily modeled:

  • Deciding on a clothing outfit based on weather: It's cool and cloudy outside, I better wear a sweater and carry an umbrella in case it rains.
  • Brushing teeth: I need to brush at least twice a day, and make sure I get all my teeth!
  • Vacuuming: There are crumbs everywhere! I better take out the vacuum and use it in this manner to make sure I get every last piece.
  • Washing and drying dishes: I just need to add a little soap to water and use this washcloth to clean my dirty dishes so I can use them again. I can towel dry the dishes if I need them soon. Otherwise, I'll just let them air dry.
  • Using proper utensils: I need to cut my chicken so I will use a fork and a knife like this. Later, I will use a spoon to eat my ice cream!
  • Making a sandwich: I'd love to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so I will use this knife to scoop out the peanut butter and then spread it on my bread.
  • Answering the phone: I see that my friend is calling, so I will pick up the phone and say “Hello!”
  • Meeting new people: I will extend my right hand to shake the hand of my new friend while I introduce myself.
  • Making change: If something costs $1.90, I know that I need to give the cashier $2, and I will receive 10 cents in change. The change could be a dime, 2 nickels, or 10 pennies.

Make sure you have the right props as you model. Describe each step as you go, and repeat if necessary. After you model a certain skill, have your students practice these skills with each other.

Role Play Life Skills

Have students with varying skill levels work together in situations regarding life skills. If they are unable to work together, work with them yourself or ask an aide or assistant to work with them. It is beneficial to seek volunteers to help you teach these skills to your class. Role playing with immediate feedback is one of the best ways to reinforce a new, learned skill. Once the class understands a certain skill, attempt to have them practice it in real life.

It is helpful to have some sort of “guarantee” of mastered tasks before a student leaves your class. Based on the age/skill level of the pupils in your class, create a checklist for families to utilize to ensure that certain skills are being learned. It is important to individualize these checklists as well.

The key to truly teaching life skills is repetition. You may find that you go over the same material again and again. Do not give up. Change your approach if necessary. And remember, the more realistic and true-to-life you can make your lessons, the better chance your pupils will have to pick up your objective, which will in turn, have a huge impact on their lives. Encourage your pupils to be practicing the same skills at home.

It is imperative that the tasks you teach in the classroom are transferred to home life. Parents and caregivers should know exactly how you are teaching a certain life skill so they can reinforce practice at home and look for teachable moments. Also, be sure they are kept informed with regard to their student's progress. Ask that they also keep you informed. When the lines of communication are open, and everyone is using the same framework, teaching life skills becomes less difficult. After all, the reality is that whoever lives the student, is the person who can truly tell if they are learning what you are teaching.

Practice in Real-Life Situations

Create ways to put your students in real-life situations where they can practice their newly acquired skills. The following ideas will help get you thinking about how and where you can successfully and safely help your students use their new abilities:

  • Crossing the street: Pay attention to the crossing signals and crossing guards, and always look both ways for traffic.
  • Eating at a restaurant: Use proper manners, and do not forget to use your utensils and napkin.
  • Purchasing items: Buy only what you need, and make sure you have enough money to make your purchase.
  • Buying healthy food: Browse the produce section for delicious fruit and veggies. Next stop, the diary case!
  • Getting somewhere on time: We need to be back at school by 1:30 p.m,, make sure you check the time.
  • Social skills: If someone says “hi” or “goodbye”, say it back, and make sure you always wait your turn.

Related Lessons:

Cooking Basic Foods

A lesson with explicit details designed to teach your learners how to make noodles. 

Using an ATM

Here you will find an the steps explaining how to use an ATM and write a check.

Face Washing

Use this resource for tips in addressing hygiene.