Whose Skills are These, Anyway?: Answering the Question of who “Life Skills” are For

Hello, readers,

Some of you may remember a post in the January archives concerning the “life skills curriculum” that many students with disabilities, from all grade levels, are subjected to. For those with mild to moderate disabilities, exposure is often thankfully not as prolonged as it could be. But if you recall, I pointed out some things about these “life skills” classes that are harmful to any student, with any disability. Often, these curriculums are not appropriate or respectful and, as Heward writes in Teaching Exceptional Children, the protected environment of these classes often don’t prepare students for real adulthood.

All that being said, I don’t think the inventors of the life skills curriculum intended it to become a disrespectful, pitiable alternative to real education. I think the people who came up with this concept originally wanted students with disabilities to learn real skills, such as cooking, laundry, balancing a checkbook, cleaning house, and so on, that everyone needs to feel part of the “real” adult world. But I also think many special educators, intentionally or not, bungled that mission. How so? Well, they forgot one underlying principle: everyone needs life skills, not just people with disabilities. And that is what today’s post is about. I want to present a radical idea to you. What if, instead of segregating life skills classes, labeling them as “what disabled kids do,” and stereotyping the kids in them, we made life skills available–indeed, a requirement–for every student?

I understand some of you might object. “Wait, Chick,” you might say. “Are you saying my kid should waste time in school learning to tie his shoes, use the toilet, cook,or do laundry? I can teach him that at home; he needs to focus on his academic future.” Okay, but I want to point out a few things:

1. Yes, life skills should begin at home if at all possible. No teacher–none, no matter how good–knows a child as well as his or her parents or guardians do, and those people should be the ones who head up the growth process of that child into an adult. But because school is often so focused on advanced academics (and there’s nothing wrong with academics!), we often see college students head off to university still asking how a checkbook works, or “Now, is it whites in hot and darks in cold, or the other way around?”

2. Everyone, disability or not, can have a future–academic AND life-skill based. But today’s school curriculums are often so wrapped up in one or the other, the other half falls by the wayside. And again, that’s often a matter of pigeonholing. “You’re normal; you get to go to ‘real’ school. Oh, you have a disability? You need to be in the ‘life skills’ class; it’s easier.” (Although in many cases, that’s a myth in itself).

3. The goal of life skills classes–any classes, in fact–should first and foremost be to RESPECT the student and treat them as individuals with valuable words, goals, dreams, and purposes. This is just me talking, understand, but it’s what I think. Therefore, I am in no way suggesting that your child with no disability, or a mild to moderate one, be placed in a “life skills” curriculum where a big part of what is learned consists of the skills he or she already knows, or the “basic basics.” That is, if your teen doesn’t need to learn how to dress and use the toilet, don’t subject him or her to lessons on it.

So, with those things in mind, what do I think a life skills curriculum for every student would look like? Well, keep in mind, I don’t have all the facets of this idea perfect yet. But here’s the kind of thing I’m thinking of: a curriculum where academics and age-appropriate life skills are given equal footing, and include all students, regardless of disability or lack thereof. So, in a kindergarten class, the kids still learn their ABCs, their numbers, colors, shapes, etc. But kindergarten also becomes the place where they master various physical, emotional, and social skills, such as:

  1. Tying shoes, buttoning coats, putting on mittens, etc.
  2. Waiting one’s turn to speak
  3. Using appropriate vocal volume in different environments
  4. If appropriate to the student, mastering the last fine points of toileting, grooming, etc.
  5. Beginning to clean up after one’s activities.

Yes, it seems obvious. But how often do teachers spend time trying to teach high-schoolers with disabilities the exact same things?

Or, let’s look at, say, upper elementary or middle school. There, inclusive life skills curriculums might include:

  1. Organization, academic and otherwise, and keeping up with one’s own assignments and belongings. (How many upper elementary or early middle school teachers out there are still tracking down lost fourth grade homework folders? Trying to decipher illegible seventh grade handwriting? How many of you have said, “I wish they’d be responsible, for once!”)
  2. Social skills: lessons on humor/the difference between laughing with and laughing at, friendships and maintaining them, responding to a classmate whose interests or needs seem “different”. (Personally, I think stuff like this has, and would, cut down on the clique phenomenon).
  3. Beginning to budget and keep track of one’s own money/beginning to learn how to work in a cooperative job (for example, a lot of schools have coffee shops, school stores, and so forth that the “special kids” run, but why are these places segregated?)
  4. Beginning to learn how to plan a meal and make healthy choices (again, something “special kids” are made to do, but that kids with disabilities are only exposed to in theory. If we make kids with disabilities take “field trips” to the grocery store, why can’t all kids do that? Too often, these “field trips” are based on the erroneous conclusion, “Without real exposure and constant supervision, disabled kids won’t learn.”)

High school could include a lot of “theory into practice” stuff, such as:

  1. Discussions of real career goals for everyone (as in, not limiting the kids with disabilities to menial jobs or “special college” programs.) Followed by shadowing and mentoring at the indivdual student’s chosen job (or research, if direct shadowing isn’t available).
  2. Preparation, cooking, and consumption of real meals in a social setting (with fellow students, teachers, and invited family members). And when I say “real meals,” I mean, meals that people actually eat. As in, allowing kids with disabilities to eat the dessert everyone else gets, rather than saying, “Remember, ice cream is not a healthy choice.” Using a mixture of “easy,” “medium,” or “hard” recipes, instead of expecting kids with disabilitis to either cook pheasant under glass or “only” be able to prepare microwaved entrees.
  3. Relevant lessons involving money and budgeting, such as debit and credit card management, salary interpretation, checkbook balancing, or online banking.
  4. Self-advocacy. Really, this should be happening throughout school, but as students grow up, these lessons should involve more and more complex situations, even and especially for those with disabilities. How many kids with disabilities have you seen who, when finally allowed to participate in their own IEP meetings, don’t have the confidence to do so or don’t know what to say? Right–because they weren’t taught! How many girls, with or without disabilities, have you seen or heard of who become anxious about approaching a male boss for a deserved raise? How many guys have you seen who may be anxious about expressing interest in the arts, home ec, and so forth because they’re not traditionally “guy things?”
  5. Etiquette. My middle school used to have a vocational teacher who would hold a Manners Meal for the eighth-graders every year. Sadly, he retired before I got to eighth grade, but it was a great concept. You dressed up, used more than one fork, and used your napkin. Guys pushed out girls’ chairs and opened doors, and girls were polite to their male escorts.
  6. Planning for marriage and family, using real-world scenarios and, where possible, simulations. (I hear what you’re saying–that’s what home ec is for! Ah, but when was the last time home ec included kids with disabilities?)
  7. Basic mechanics and/or home maintenance (cleaning, building, etc. And yes, guys and girls should all learn every aspect of this. The girls learn to fix a car, the guys learn how to get a mustard stain out of silk).

Again, I realize this isn’t perfect–because nothing is. But combining these skills with the academic ones most skills focus on would give us well-rounded, legitimately prepared students. And–thank goodness–it would cut down on segregation and pigeonholing.

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