What is functional about functional skills?

For many children with disabilities, learning life skills is a vital part of their education. Patrice Thompson and colleagues tell us why

WHILE MOST CHILDREN successfully make the transition into adult life, many are at risk of experiencing difficulty during this period. Even greater difficulty has been reported for young people with disabilities. Therefore, students with disabilities, and particularly those identified as having an intellectual disability, should be taught functional skills within school to help them make the transition. Functional skills are the skills set needed for individuals to function independently in their environment, for example, independent living skills, daily living skills, and vocational skills. Mastering these skills is important in becoming successful and independent adults.

What we know
● Functional skills help individuals become successful and independent adults.
● Functional literacy allows access to other academic areas.
● Teaching self-determination includes teaching skills essential for potential success.
● Employment and recreational skills can help children with disabilities learn skills necessary for successful adult outcomes.
● Functional skills may be viewed as a subset of transition which is necessary for successful post-school outcomes.

In the US, functional skills are often taught in “functional academics” lessons in schools, to help children become productive members of society and support post-school outcomes. Functional academics may include core subject content, vocational education, community access, daily living, personal finance, independent living, transportation, social skills and relationships, and self-determination.

Research into the transition to adulthood

Leaving school can lead to a period of floundering that may last for several years or more as adolescents begin to assume a variety of adult roles. Evidence of the difficulty experienced by students with disabilities during this critical transition was brought to light through a number of follow-up and follow-along studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, schools in the US are federally mandated to make available to young people with disabilities the techniques, skills, and guidance necessary to facilitate successful transitions to adult life. Furthermore, the No Child Left Behind Act mandated that such guidance be substantiated by scientifically based research.

Researchers have identified key functional skills that lead to post-school success: functional literacy, social skills, self-determination, and community involvement.

Functional literacy

Literacy can be considered a functional skill when viewed in terms of everyday spoken and written communication. Being literate is a means for children with disabilities to access other academic areas, and provides opportunities for interaction with peers and for gaining entry to community offerings. Literacy as part of a functional skills curriculum should focus on those skills that increase students’ ability to be autonomous and independent. An essential component of being literate is acquiring reading skills. For children with disabilities, reading allows them to find work, participate in leisure activities, and pursue interests outside of school and/or work settings. However, reading can be a struggle. Evidence-based reading programs can help students with learning disabilities acquire basic reading skills, including at the secondary level. Adolescents benefit from teaching that focuses on word study and text comprehension. Diagnostic, prescriptive reading programs (eg, The Wilson Reading System and Corrective Reading) are particularly effective in bolstering skills in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

A second essential component of literacy is the ability to write, which allows participation in class activities and a feeling of being a member of the classroom community. Because of the demand for writing in everyday life, students with disabilities must become as proficient as possible in this skill. A writing strategy, such as Cognitive Strategy Instruction, provides children with disabilities with a structure for understanding and approaching writing tasks. Writing, as part of functional literacy, presents an opportunity for children to develop essential skills, as well as to develop an additional meaningful means of communication and social connection within their communities.

Social skills

Children with disabilities can struggle with social skills, with a negative impact on their ability to navigate personal and educational environments. Social skills are those skills or behaviors that are perceived and positively reinforced by others as socially acceptable and therefore lead to the avoidance of socially awkward situations. It has been suggested that while an academic disability may not be evident outside the classroom, difficulties with social skills affect a pupil wherever they may go. Teaching social skills can involve various methods, such as:

  • Teach a specific skill to a specific pupil, giving opportunities to practice in various environments, and monitoring progress;
  • Give immediate, constructive feedback in a socially awkward moment;
  • Model appropriate skills and check for understanding;
  • Organize group projects with a focus on social skills, such as receiving a compliment, or thankfulness; and
  • Teach conflict resolution.


The need to provide students with disabilities with necessary functional skills to become active participants in their education and planning for their future has led to an increase in teaching self-determination skills over the last two decades. Self-determination is the capacity to direct one’s life in ways that are personally valued. Research has demonstrated a relationship between self-determination and optimistic outcomes for children as they transition to adulthood.

Teaching self-determination includes the skills essential for potential success, including decision-making with regard to education, leisure, vocational training, and independent living. It may also include how to develop problem-solving skills, how to set personal goals, how to make personal choices, how to set goals and develop plans to reach those goals and, finally, self-regulation.

Community involvement

Independence is essential in order for individuals with disabilities to successfully integrate into the community and employment. Independence skills can be taught across disciplines, and teachers should encourage children to think and function independently from an early age, and actively engage them in planning their futures.

Children with disabilities should be exposed to jobs in order to learn the skills necessary to be successful. They will need to learn through experiences on a job what skills and conditions are needed in order to successfully gain and sustain employment. When students with disabilities are provided with vocational opportunities through experiential learning and functional academics, they can learn first hand the skills that can be generalized into other environments and settings.

Recreation and leisure skills should also be taught. When recreation skills are taught as a component of functional skills lessons, students are able to effectively generalize those skills into other environments with their peers without disabilities. These skills help individuals with disabilities adapt in social situations through community involvement.

In the US, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act ensures that all children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education, along with special education services that prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. It states that transition planning should help students enter vocational education, post-secondary education, community participation, adult services, independent living, integrated employment, and/or continuing and adult education. Therefore, schools provide transition services in order to prepare children with disabilities for adulthood. Often, these transition services are taught through community involvement. Therefore, community involvement is a key addition to functional academics lessons. Through community involvement, students are provided with hands-on opportunities to learn the skills necessary for a successful adulthood.


For children with disabilities as well as others who are at risk, functional skills are an essential component of their education. Teaching should include a focus on transition to adulthood, functional literacy, social skills, self-determination, and community involvement. A functional academic program that includes these focal areas provides opportunities for at-risk students, such as children with disabilities, to experience more successful post-school outcomes.

About the authors

Patrice Thompson has been a special educator for seven years. She was a teacher for students with intellectual disabilities for four years and is currently a special education administrator. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in leadership studies from Lynchburg College.

Lisa JD Thomas is a special education administrator. She has worked in the special education field for 20 years focusing on writing and children with learning disabilities and is pursuing her doctoral degree in leadership studies at Lynchburg College.

Sharron J Gunter has been a special educator for 22 years. She was a teacher for children with disabilities for 15 years and is currently a special education program director. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in leadership studies at Lynchburg College.

Jenevie Bailey is a high school special educator in St. Lucia and has taught students with disabilities for seven years. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in leadership studies at Lynchburg College.

Ed Polloway has taught at Lynchburg College since 1976 where he currently serves as Dean of Graduate Studies and Rosel H. Schewel Professor of Special Education. He is the author of 25 books and approximately 100 articles in the special education professional literature.

Further reading

Bouck EC and Joshi G (2012), Functional Curriculum and Students with Mild Intellectual Disability: Exploring Postschool Outcomes Through the NLTS2. Education and Training In Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 47(2), 139–53.

Carter EW, Lane KL, Crnobori M, Bruhn AL, and Oakes WP (2011), Self-determination Interventions for Students With and At Risk for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Mapping the Knowledge Base. Behavioral Disorders, 36(2), 100–16.

Forts AM and Luckasson R (2011), Reading, Writing, and Friendship: Adult Implications of Effective Literacy Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disability. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 36(3–4), 121–5.

Halpern A (1992), Transition: Old Wine in New Bottles. Exceptional Children 58, 202–11.

Johns BH, Crowley EP, and Guetzloe E (2005), The Central Role of Teaching Social Skills. Focus on Exceptional Children, 37(8), 1–8.

Malmgren KW and Trezek BJ (2009), Literacy Instruction for Students with Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 41(6), 1–12.

Vandercook TL (1991), Leisure Instruction Outcomes: Criterion Performance, Positive Interactions, and Acceptance by Typical High School Peers. Journal of Special Education, 25, 320–339.

Wagner M, Newman L, Cameto R, Levine P, and Garza N (2007), An Overview of Findings from Wave 2 of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2006-3004).


October 2013