Scope and Sequence to Teach Life Skills Special Education

functional life skills life skills special education teachers teacher experience transition Mar 06, 2021
LIfe Skills Scope and Sequence

Are you fresh out of college and just accepted your first job teaching life skills as a special education teacher at the high school or transition level? Or, was your department chair so impressed with your skills that they want you to bless the students in the functional foundations classroom with your talents? Either way, if you are feeling overwhelmed trying to figure out how to teach this type of content, then continue reading.

Since I’ve taught (and created schedules for) high school block schedule, high school co-taught, high school self-contained, and now three levels of young adult students in transition, I’ve learned a thing or two about creating scopes and sequences and lesson planning for content and what works best for each type of learner.

This blog post is intended for special education teachers:

  • Who are mapping out a whole school year
  • Who are thinking through lesson plans for each school day
  • Who teach functional life skills at the transition or high school setting
  • Who want to identify the right life skills subjects to include in their scope and sequence
  • Who are new or veterans to the secondary life skills classroom
  • Who are drafting schedules for various students in special education classrooms


Since this could get really wordy and I’m not here to be a professor, I’ll keep this straight and to the point and send you to other helpful blog posts, so you can keep learning. If you’d like to ask me a question, submit it here and I’ll reply via email!



Scope: What to Teach

Employment skills

This includes:

  1. Pre-Vocational Skills:  Prevocational skills are the foundation for pursuing any volunteer or paid employment position.  I share 125 pre-vocational skills for FREE in a blog post.  

  2. Vocational Skills: These are the hard skills, the skills you need to perform specific jobs.  As students are exploring careers, they will probably learn a variety of different hard skills until they find the right fit that matches their interests and strengths.  

  3. On-the-Job Training:  Whether your students are learning work skills through an in-school job or out in the community, on the job training will bring about organic opportunities to put all the skills they learned about in the classroom to use, while being supported as they navigate enw situations and make mistakes.  On the job training is great for building career readiness.  

    1. 30+ Community Vocational Site Ideas

    2. Meaningful Vocational Experiences for Students with High Support Needs

    3. 4 Student Small Business Ideas (that aren’t a coffee cart or dog treat business)

  4. Resume Building & Interview Skills:  From paper pencil applications, to online applications, to written and visual resumes, to answering common questions to secure a volunteer or paid job, these are the skills that help students put their learning and interests into action.  

  5.  Soft Skills: It's easy to think of job skills, but job skills are hard skills.  Soft skills are time management, social communication, task initiation, team work, and more that can be learned about and practiced in and out of the classroom. 


Communication Skills

Knowing how to interact socially and use AAC.  While typically something that is lead by a speech pathologist, communication is a part of our student’s everyday life.  From non-verbal communication to explicit verbal communication to picture and AAC communication, communication skills are key to sharing thoughts, needs, wants, feelings, emotions, and ideas.  

Communication skills include:

  • Initiating communication with familiar and unfamiliar people

  • Gaining attention to share a thought or need or want

  • Interpreting non-verbal communication in other people

  • Reading the room to determine the best means of communicating with others

  • Identifying a need and advocating to the right people for help

  • Communicating clearly with unfamiliar communication partners

  • And the list goes on, and on, and on, and on! 

To get communication flowing at the start of each day or class period, try a conversation starter resource, like a Question of the Day.  For additional ideas or specific ways to increase communication skill weaknesses in your students, collaborate with your resident support service provider speech pathologist!



Feelings, Emotions, and Social Communication 

SO important for secondary special education students and often overlooked. Feelings, emotions, and social communication includes platonic and romantic healthy relationships.  

May I recommend you check out Interoception (the book)?  I used this book to help me problem-solve why a student with intellectual disabilities was getting stuck.  It’s a concept I wish I had known more about years and years ago!  

On the same note, I’m far from an expert when it comes to teaching sexual health, but my program does partner with a local program whose staff presents lessons every other week on the topic.  Being able to support the class instead of the instructor has been so helpful and confirms that a special education teacher cannot simply be a master of all trades.  My tip would be to consult with your administration if your students would benefit from outside professionals providing sexual health lessons. 



Life Skills

The independent living skills skills you need on a daily or weekly basis to live as independently as possible! These include skills like functional reading, functional math, 

Here is a quick rundown of the topics included in my Life Skills Transition Curriculum:

Independent Living Skills

  • Cleaning
  • Laundry
  • Phone Skills
  • Problem-Solving
  • Time Management
  • Clean Room
  • Pack, Purse, & Wallet 
  • Advocacy 

Kitchen Skills & Cooking Activities

  • 5 Food Groups
  • Cleaning Dishes
  • Following a Recipe
  • Food Storage & Expiration Dates
  • Kitchen Safety (FREE sneak peek!)
  • Meal/Table Manners

Money Skills

  • Banking & ATM
  • Budgeting
  • Counting Money
  • Paying with Money (Cash & Debit Card)

Recreation/Leisure Skills

  • Recreation & Leisure
  • Fitness & Exercise
  • How to Write an Email 

Restaurant Skills

  • Budget for a Restaurant Meal
  • Ordering Food
  • Restaurant Manners
  • Sit-Down Restaurant & Tipping

Safety Skills

  • Digital Citizenship
  • How to Be Safe

Personal Care Skills

  • Bathroom & Hand Washing
  • Getting Dressed
  • Showering & Deodorant
  • Teeth Brushing
  • Washing Hair & Shaving
  • Nail Care 
  • Periods & Pads Personal Hygiene

Shopping Skills

  • Comparing Prices
  • Navigating a Store
  • Paying for a Purchase 

Community-Based Instruction

Getting out of the house is part of our daily lives.  You have to buy groceries, withdraw money from the ATM,  pick up a coffee or soda, visit family, buy or rent a new movie, etc.  While school is meant to learn, you’re preparing students for life outside of the school building.  So, you gotta get out!  

Community skills include:

  • Interacting with unfamiliar people
  • Looking for and buying things you want and need
  • Abiding by explicit and assumed rules and laws
  • Identifying risks and making safe choices
  • And more! 


IEP Goals

It’s the most obvious of the ‘What to Teach’ categories because you are a special education teacher, after all, and the student’s needs must be weaved into your school day.  

If you are looking for transition goals to address individual needs, check out my IEP Transition Goals for High School and Transition Students blog post. 



It’s an everyday life activity that is essential to a healthy body AND healthy mind. While high school students may have this as a requirement in their daily schedule, dedicating time for fitness and exercise in an adult transition program schedule is equally important.  




How to Teach

When I get ready to plan a lesson for a class, I keep the following 3 things in mind:


1. Find their current skill and background knowledge

I use my basic skills assessment (read how I use it three times a year), rubrics, and checklists with my transition students to get a sense of the classes overall strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the students, and areas for skill maintenance and growth. I also use this feedback to break my small class into even smaller groups, including who can can be pushed towards independence quickly and who will need more support from the outset with different skills.



2. Incorporate the 5 Senses

When I develop a lesson I try to appeal to all ‘senses.’ I include reading or read-aloud into lessons for verbal input, a video for visual input, application (doing the skill or process) for kinetic input, and self reflection for ‘emotional’ input. Obviously, certain life skills will appeal to the smell and taste (i.e. cooking) and that is key for students to learn valuable lessons (like 1 cup of salad dressing is not the same as 1 tablespoon). If you can throw in a song or dance, bonus points. My students ALWAYS remember the songs I developed for skill weaknesses.


3. Find Another Way

When the going gets tough, I look for other avenues. If a student is struggling to safely cut an apple for a snack, I determine if an apple-cutting kitchen tool is feasible or if it would be better to teach them to buy pre-cut apples. Safety and ‘what would they be expected to do at home,’ are both top of mind and really inform my decisions. Also consider, does it really matter if the student learns how to measure 1 cup if 1 serving spoon scoop would be more appropriate long term? #TheBestChangeIEverMadeToCookingRecipes



If you are blessed like me and don’t have to stick to a bell scheduled (love that Transition programming life), then you really have spans of time to fill. Don’t let this overwhelm you, it’s a blessing! Consider these 5 things:


1. Community

Ask your department chair how often you can go into the community. Daily is ideal! If their jaw drops when you ask for 5 days a week, then compromise with 3. If they shake their head, then settle for no less than 1 time a week (regardless of the level of student you teach).

Not sure what to ‘do’ in the community? Glance over my list of 50+ community based instruction outing ideas. Also, remember every trip into the community needs travel time there and back and a bus doesn't travel as fast as a car! Be sure to consult with whomever coordinates your transportation to make sure your dream community outing scenarios are feasible with bus availability.


2. Repeat Daily or Weekly

Decide what skills you should review daily and what should be reviewed weekly. Your allotted budget may play into this (i.e. cooking a lunch or snack daily may not be financially possible, even though it is one of the top life skills our students need). Do you students need communication practice daily (asking each other questions, follow up questions, and turn taking)? Do they need vocational skills daily, including task boxes OR community based learning at volunteer sites)? Should they have time to engage in recreation leisure activities (read why it’s SO important to teach) on a daily basis?


3. IEP goals and transition outcomes

Review your student’s IEP goals, see where you can fit in practice, application, and data collection into your current draft schedule, and then fill in opportunities to work on those remaining goals with the time you have left.

Where I teach, we end academic goals the last month of their senior year and maintain functional goals through transition programming. If your students have academic goals that aren’t applicable to your functional programming, then consult your department chair.

I have a free download to get you started!   Grab this money skills IEP transition skills goal bank resource to help inform what topics to teach, because money is far more than Dollar Over!


4.  Sensory Needs

If your student population has sensory needs that need to be met to increase focus, attention, and optimal learning behaviors, then build that time into your schedule.  This may range from a couple minutes to multiple breaks throughout the school day.  If your students are new to you, reference their IEP or consult with previous teachers to find out who would benefit from sensory input breaks, what type, and when.  

You can find sensory supports to meet their needs through my sensory toys blogs*:

 *All sensory toys included in the lists were chosen with the high school and young adult student age group in mind!  


5.  Grouping by Size or Skills

The rest of your schedule will likely dictate how and when you are able to group students.  It's okay (and probably normal) for a single schedule to include all of these different types of grouping options.  


Grouping students by size:

  • Whole class
  • Small group
  • Partners
  • One-to-one  


Grouping students by skills

  • By grade level
  • By age
  • By availability (those who simply have the same time open in their schedule are grouped together) 
  • By transition outcomes (students who desire to volunteer are one group and students who wish to pursue an associates degree are in another group)
  • Peer learners (where students with differing skill levels are in the same group so they can learn from each other)

Pacing & Sequence

Let it be known that every year the pace of your instruction will be different than the last. Learn about your students, find your groove and confidence, and then continually adapt. Remember, it can take months for students to learn a skill and then when they do, boom- they have it. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it feels like you aren’t moving through content quickly enough! I’ve been known to spend an hour a week for 5 months pushing students to learn how to log into their online banking account independently, then once they learned it took less than 10 minutes for everyone to log in and find their checking account balance! 


Here are 2 tips to consider:

Find out where each student is skill-wise, then identify where you want them to be! The Basic Skills assessment will help you identify gaps, what to focus on, and where your students are starting at so you can set realistic goals. This is a great resource for ESY or back-to-school. My tip: Repeat this again through the year to document growth!

I firmly believe that age-appropriate, better resources for modern-day students will give you the best, most meaningful feedback.  And, if you teach younger students in middle school through teenagers and young adults in transition, then assessment questions matter!  What was relevant skills in the 1980's is now an outdated, likely rarely-used skill.  



2. Identify the Key Skill and Address That First, Then Add in Those Buildable Skills After

For guidance on what the foundational skill is, the one that precedes the others, and the first domino to fall, one might say, reference the IEP Transition Skills Goal Bank.

With 900+ goals (and more being added periodically), it's divided by the 3 transition pillars, Independent Living, Education, Training, and Employment, with a total of 26 categories, and is organized into three levels- foundational, growing, and independence.  


You can use this resource in a few different ways.

  1. As a guide for creating a scope of skills for the school year or new curriculum (obviously), by identifying your students’ needs and the best order to build those skills
  2. To inform the sequence in which you order your units or lesson plans 
  3. To identify specific student IEP goals


Specific to students who have an IEP transition plan, meaning 16 and older, this resource covers a wide array of skills while also going in depth into each one.  

You can grab the FREE Money Skills section of the IEP Transition Skills Goal Bank to see how helpful and robust it is!  



I hope you were able to glean an idea or two to help create your next schedule. As I mentioned above, feel free to reach out if you want to bounce an idea or two off of someone who has created more schedules than I care to admit! And remember, if the first schedule doesn’t fit, just PIVOT!



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