Explore Functional Academics for Students with Disabilities

Functional AcademicsStudents with moderate to severe disabilities are significantly more likely to struggle with postschool life, including finding employment, community involvement, postsecondary education, and independent living. As we know, students have a finite amount of time in the public education system to prepare for adulthood, and it is vital that their education incorporates functional academics.

In this blog, we’ll explore what functional academics entail and how functional academics can be incorporated in instruction for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

What is functional academics?

Functional academics focus on teaching students real life applications of academic skills to enable them to be as independent as possible. For example, does a student need money management skills in their adult life? Yes, they do – so that would be an example of functional academics in math. Does a student need to be able to write their name in their adult life? Yes, they do – so that would be another example of functional academics in English Language Arts.

Functional academics can be applied to all the core subjects!

Functional English Language Arts (ELA)

Learning to read is a catalyst for learning and accessing the world around us. Providing students with moderate to severe disabilities with high-quality reading instruction that incorporates the Science of Reading principles will be invaluable for their life after school.

Functional reading can also include identifying the meaning of common signs in the environment (e.g., restroom, exit, danger, etc.), identifying common sight words, or reading and following a schedule, etc. Functional writing instruction may include practice with writing personal information, responding to an email, filling out a job application, and handwriting legibility.

Functional Math

Money management and time management skills are two of the most common functional math topics. Functional math instruction can focus on math skills for daily living, as well as skills for employability. Teaching a student how to purchase an item with a debit card or cash to increase their independence in their daily life, or teaching a student how to provide a customer change as a cashier to prepare them for potential jobs are just two examples of functional math. Other functional math skills may include measurement, using a calculator, and interpreting appropriate situations to use the different math operations.

Functional Science

Functional science focuses on science content that is related to health, problem solving, and understanding the physical world. Teaching students about nutrition and healthy eating, basic first aid procedures, and basic inquiry skills are a few examples of functional science instruction. For example, if a student gets hurt while out in the community, teaching them how to clean a wound can prepare them for greater independence and success as adults.

Functional Social Studies

Instruction in functional social studies should provide students with a greater understanding of their citizenship in the community. This may include teaching about different places and people in the community, their legal rights, how to be a good citizen, how to participate in government/civic activities, and current events.

Teaching Strategies

Legal mandates require students with disabilities to have the opportunity to access, participate, and progress in the general education curriculum. Although there is a long-standing debate surrounding the focus of curriculum for students with moderate to severe disabilities, grade level academic instruction and functional academic instruction are both essential to a well-rounded education and preparation for the future.

Educators do not need to choose one over the other, but rather integrate both into their classroom instruction. Oftentimes students with moderate to severe disabilities struggle generalizing skills taught in the classroom to real-life applications and therefore explicit instruction in the academic concept and in the functional aspect are necessary. Fortunately, successfully integrating both functional and academic goals into instruction has been demonstrated in the research literature. For example, while learning about plant life cycles in academic curriculum, students can also learn the everyday skill to care for a plant. During math academic instruction on the order of operations, students can also learn how to compute sales tax for items at a grocery store. There are immense possibilities to integrate academic and functional skills into instruction for students with moderate and severe disabilities.

Finding a curriculum that incorporates both grade-level and functional academics, such as TeachTown’s enCORE curriculum, can save valuable time and ensure students are receiving the high-quality education they deserve. Interested in more information about enCORE? Request a demo today!

Contributor Bio

Dr. Lauren Hills is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Special Educator. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Utah State University in Special Education-Severe Disabilities and her Master’s Degree from Utah State University in Special Education-Transition to Adulthood. She worked as a Life Skills middle school teacher for six years before she went back to school and earned her Ph.D. in Autism and Developmental Disabilities from The University of Texas at Austin. While obtaining her Ph.D., she supervised undergraduate special education interns and student teachers in PreK to Post High settings. In addition, she worked in home and clinic settings as a BCBA and eventually as a consultant for a school district. Lauren is passionate about helping students with disabilities reach their potential through inclusive and evidence-based practices.

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