Get a Life: The Tricky, Sticky Phenomenon of the “Life Skills” Curriculum

Hello, readers,

Life skills in school or no life skills in school, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler for students with disabilities to spend most of their time in school learning to dress, feed, and wash themselves, the denominations of coins, and how to speak on a telephone–or whether they, and we, should oppose this construct, and by opposing, end it.

With apologies to Shakespeare, I think Hamlet got it right: that is the question. What is the life skills curriculum, and is it as necessary as we think it is? To push further, why do we think it’s necessary? And if it is, how can we make that curriculum more respectful, more geared toward the dignity, of the student taking it?

Okay, first: the “life skills curriculum,” often also known as the “functional” or “occupational” curriculum, is a series of skills taught to students with disabilities in special education settings (including segregated classrooms or “special” schools). Skills may include shopping, cooking, doing laundry, making one’s bed, and handling money. For those students with “severe” disabilities, life skills may include the basic basics–feeding, washing, dressing, grooming, and cleaning up after oneself. I saw examples of these skill classes in my own high school–and yes, they took place in a segregated classroom. And even then, I thought: Okay. These students have severe disabilities. Maybe they can’t move around well, or maybe they’re low-functioning, so maybe they need these classes. But something’s wrong here, even if I don’t know what it is.

As my high school career continued, I got an idea of what was wrong. The “special” students were almost never seen outside their wing. But more than that, the school seemed to draw a thick, heavy line between “us” and “them” based on curriculum. My English classes consisted of World, American, or British literature, advanced grammar, and reading novels and poetry. The “special” students had Occupational English, where they learned to talk on the telephone, write basic information, and do other activities that would’ve bored me to tears, literally. My math classes were algebra and geometry. Theirs involved learning the denominations of and counting money. Although I admit, on days when I’d had it up to here with math, that sounded pretty good to me! 🙂 Occupational social studies must’ve been more of the same, though I don’t remember, and the same goes for science. Outside of class, these students’ “life skills” involved baking cupcakes or cookies, or going to the gym to practice for Special Olympics or–get this–wash athletes’ jerseys and jock straps. Memo to all male athletes: unless you’re my husband or my son, I am NOT touching your jock strap!

When I was a senior, the school yearbook dedicated two whole pages to “special ed,” which they titled “Simple Skills.” Looking back, I find the title demeaning. But that’s because the skills themselves are demeaning. Lately, I’ve been asking myself this question: no matter what your IQ or disability is, should you spend your school time learning the difference between a quarter and a nickel? How to have a phone conversation? Or–oh, Lord, help us all–how to use the bathroom or use your “indoor voice” and manners? Yes, they teach “special” students this–kindergarten skills–in middle and high school.

And folks, it BURNS ME UP.

Teachers, administrators, aides–the “experts”–all have excuses for this. “They’re very low-functioning,” they say of their students. “They’ll never learn otherwise,” they say. “They can’t understand,” they say of their students in relation to “real” classes. And for awhile, I bought these excuses. As a student in public school, it seemed to me that if your mental age was four, even if your body was ten, it would be unfair and cruel to expect you to do things a ten-year-old did. Thank goodness, now I know better. And the experts should, too.

I’ve already touched on the “mental age” issue. I’m not so sure I buy it anymore. After all, if a student with a disability is sixteen, what good will it do to place her in a class where kids act like six-year-olds or eight-year-olds, and then scold her for not “acting right?” Don’t you think that if you let her be with other sixteen-year-olds, with and without disabilities, she’d learn to be sixteen? Maybe she wouldn’t act exactly like your definition of a typical sixteen-year-old, but it would be a heck of a lot better than treating her like a kindergartner. The chronological age is how the child or young adult should be treated first, because the chronological age has nothing to do with the disability. And the non-disability traits are the ones that deserve consideration first.

That brings me to the “basic basics” issue. Why, oh, why, are we teaching middle- and high school, or even elementary school kids past kindergarten, how to use the bathroom and clean themselves? Why, oh, why are we teaching adults with disabilities how to brush their teeth, wash their hair, and dress themselves? And if you think this doesn’t happen in public schools, here’s a reality check. On my campus’ library shelves, there sits a book called Life Skills for Special Children. It is meant as a textbook for special education teachers, and pictures silouettes of several children on the cover–but the one child–that’s singular–with a disability is in a wheelchair. (So, all people with disabilities need wheelchairs?) And if the cover’s a little disturbing, the inside is more so. Each activity–including the basic basics–is broken down into a worksheet with illustrations, much like you’d give a first-grader. For example, let’s take the worksheet on washing one’s hair:

First, it’s broken down into steps: (1. Rinse hair (2. Shampoo (3. Get soap out (4. Dry (5. Comb. One per line, double-spaced, with a corresponding illustration of how to do these things. On the opposite page is an exercise: who is done grooming their hair? A girl is shown with shampoo still in her hair, saying, “I’m done!” Another shows a girl with dry, but tangled hair. A third shows a boy with dripping wet hair. And they all say they’re done washing and combing. The “right” answer, of course, is the person whose hair is BOTH combed and dry.

The textbook has no specific grade level listed, so I suppose it could be used with little kids. But whether it is or not: what was up with that activity? I’m sure the textbook writers meant well (see previous post). But in crafting that page, and the accompanying exercise, what they’re really saying is that children with disabilities (a) must be taught a basic skill in several small steps, one at a time and (b) children with disabilities aren’t smart enough to know when they’ve completed the skill, even after they’ve been taught.

But the problem doesn’t end with the fact that high school students are spending their days in classes learning what they could and should have learned at home. Let’s take, for instance, exercises like:

  • A page instructing readers on how to have a phone conversation and what to say in each
  • A page that asks readers, “Which one is an emergency?” Examples include a small cut, a small scrape, a headache, a broken leg, or falling from a high place. What does this exercise really say? “People with disabilities are so dumb, they’d call 911 if they cut their fingers.”
  • A page on which to write one’s name, birthday, and favorite things (kindergarten-level exercise)
  • A page identifying different monetary denominations (please write the correct money value in the blank. Wait–didn’t we learn this in first and second grade?)
  • A page explaining how to keep out of dangerous situations such as drug use or getting into a car with someone you don’t know. Now, I agree: everyone needs to learn this one. And I agree: people with disabilities can be vulnerable to unscrupulous people. But so can we all. And it doesn’t help the situation when, instead of explaining things as you would to a young adult without a disability, you go up to an 18- 20- or 30-year-old and say things like, “This is what a bad guy is. Now, practice saying ‘leave me alone.'” Of course, I’m not advocating the use of graphic detail, either, but you get the picture.

So, what often happens in these “life skills” classes? Several negative outcomes have the potential to happen. For example, because many school districts don’t “age out” students in special ed until age 22, many of these students spend years learning the same life skills over and over. (And why do they do that? Uh, maybe because they’re BORED? Or maybe they’d rather be doing something else, with other kids their own age who learn real material appropriate to their age?) Or, for example, a student whose life skills class goes to a Wal-Mart Supercenter to learn to shop for groceries, may be continually considered “not ready” to check that goal off a list. So what happens? They go back to gravitating toward toys, games, and DVDs in the store the next year, because they weren’t really taught about shopping for other items. They were just given that as an IEP or other goal. I should add, too, that oftentimes, parents who raise children with disabilities with an attitude of “can’t”, perpetuate this idea that, “We go to the store for toys,” no matter how old the kid really is. My aunt is a special education teacher and has seen it happen. So really, the parents are also underlining the idea that their children need “life skills,” but not really giving them any.

So, what should we do instead? This is, as you might have guessed, my favorite part of any post. I have a few ideas. Instead:

  1. Remember that kindergarten is for kindergarten. If you want children with disabilities to learn sharing, manners, or the difference between indoor and outdoor voices, teach them at young ages–the age you would for a child with or without a disability. If they forget, do what you’d do for any other kid–remind them. Don’t call an emergency IEP meeting and slap them in a life skills class.
  2. The basic basics–showering, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom? If at all possible, these can and should be learned at home, with the help of parents, not therapists or aides, the way everyone learns them. If therapists absolutely must be involved, have them teach the skills in a natural way that doesn’t demean the person learning them. And if a young adult’s hair is messy? If they don’t brush their teeth three times a day? Oh, yeah, like we all really brush our teeth that much–and have never, ever had a bad hair day? I think not. (Messy hair is actually fashionable).
  3. Skills like talking on the phone? Counting money? Stranger danger? As with #1, teach them, as much as you can, at the time you would appropriately do so for students without disabilities. Let students with disabilities, particularly older ones, learn from peers and real friends. For example, if a student with a disability hugs too hard, too much, don’t take them aside and in a patient-impatient voice, say, “What did we learn about hugs?” Let their peers say something kind, but directive, like, “I know you’re glad to see me, but don’t hug so hard,” or, “Thanks, but I don’t feel like a hug right now.”
  4. Especially for middle- and high-schoolers, consider the idea of auditing. Of course, my preference would be that students take the same classes as peers without disabilities as much as possible. But even if the disability is so “severe” that parents, the school–and the student herself–doesn’t know if she can handle “regular” high school English or math, don’t kick her out of the class. Let her audit–listen. Take in the “real” class. Be with her friends. Remember, IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) entitles everyone to a free, public, and appropriate education. And I personally don’t see how it could be inappropriate to let students have as much time in a general ed classroom as they can. They might just–gasp–learn something!
  5. For skills such as shopping, cooking, or laundry: Keep it real. Remember that people without disabilities still nuke frozen dinners, cook with Hamburger Helper, or leave the laundry in the hamper for more than one day. As much as is possible, let the student lead skill lessons by doing what they’re interested in first. Let the skills unfold naturally–at home, with a friend, or yes, in therapy, but not in an artificial environment. (For example, a real kitchen, instead of a small “play” kitchen or cooking area in a hospital or therapeutic facility). And if the student messes up a few times? C’mon, don’t tell me all your laundry never came out pink. It’s no reason to say “you’re not ready” and then “demote” them into an unnatural, artificial life skills class.

Let’s get radical, people. Instead of jabbering about life skills, let’s do what we can to give students with disabilities a LIFE.



  1. Hello: thank you for taking some time of composing up this knowledge. I generally seek to further my comprehension of elements. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree, I love info. I take into account the olden days if the only source of specifics was the library or even the newspaper. They both equally look so old. : )

  2. You’ve made some good points there. I looked on the net for more information about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.

    1. I appreciate that. Not everyone who reads this has to “go along” with me; that’s not my goal. However, I do heartily believe that we as a society have accepted a lot of conventions about disabilities and how to deal with them that are actually counterproductive. The life skills curriculum, as you saw, is a prime example.

  3. Excellent post! I’m in the middle of creating life skills curriculum, and your refreshing take is just what I needed to see. Totally agree with you about the teaching approach being targeted and relevant, rather than throwing people in a classroom setting that demeans their intelligence.

  4. I know that this is a very, VERY old post at this point, but I just want to thank you for writing this.

    Currently, I am a senior in high school; I’m Autistic and have psychiatric disabilities. As part of an elective I’m taking, I help out in my school’s life skills room for a period. In my instance, I accompany the students to their electives.

    What I find baffling is that the life skills students only go to an elective—that they DIDN’T choose—and lunch, and yet our school considers this “inclusive.” This is not inclusion. This is segregation, and when they’re in their electives and lunch, integration.

    With the two Autistic students in particular, they focus so much on making them appear “indistinguishable from peers” in the name of “inclusion.” If the philosophy of inclusion is about teaching everyone to respect each other’s differences, why is there such an emphasis on suppressing stimming in Autistic pupils? Why does one force the student who communicates best with facial expressions and echolalia to speak? I have had to actually report child abuse to district administration, but because these practices are written into the students’ IEPs, they can’t do ANYTHING about it.

    Currently, I’m in the process of “bailing out” one student with an intellectual disability from the life skills program. Hopefully, their freedom will free everyone else.

    Again, thank you for writing this. I was searching all over the Web for arguments against life skills programs, and this is excellent.

  5. Thank you!

    You’re right; what you describe is not inclusion, nor is it respectful, helpful, or fair. I wish you the best in helping these students, and in your own academic/other endeavors.

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