The title of “Life Skills” in a public school system is a bit misleading. The course is often confused with those where health or biological sciences are taught. It even gives the impression that these are normal, mainstream courses that all schools have. However, the truth is that the skills taught in this particular course have little to do with general education, and more to do with teaching daily life skills for a very special group of students.
Courses for students with moderate to severe disabilities – in particular, those with intellectual delays (mental retardation, low functioning autism or severe head trauma) are often called Life Skills classes. In other cases, they are known as Basic Skills classes. Students enrolled in these courses are rarely mainstreamed into the general education population and spend most, if not all, their time in this particular classroom. In some cases, the students have their lunches delivered to them.
Whatever the course is called and what the general curriculum is being taught, the students are fully supported by a teacher and two or three paraprofessionals. Related services such as a speech therapist or adaptive P.E. instructor are offered to the students as well, with these instructors visiting the classes to work individually or in groups with the students.
The curriculum for these courses are very rudimentary; lessons in counting, spelling and writing their names, and art are taught throughout the day. Students may have an hour for adaptive P.E. and are usually escorted to playgrounds or field by special education teacher and/or adaptive P.E. instructor.
Life skills can go beyond an all-day classroom. There are adult-age classes for these students. Some of the same things that were taught in elementary and secondary school settings are taught in this particular setting. However, the emphasis on helping the student transition into the world outside the classroom is stressed. Here, in accordance with a local regional center agency and regional occupational center, students are taught basic job skills such as counting money, personal etiquettes to use when dealing with other people or personal hygiene maintenance.
Life skills can involve field trips. Part of the curriculum for the students is to learn how to read street signs, use the crosswalks, read and use street and pedestrian signals, use the transit system or how to shop for necessities. In many respects, the students need to learn how to do menial tasks that an average person may do instantly.
Like most special education programs, Life skills courses are driven by individual education plans (IEP). IEPs are the backbone of special education. Its function is to establish the student’s disability, accommodation/ modifications needed for access to education, and have yearly goals and objectives for the students with special needs to reach. Since the student population of these classes is relatively low (eight – fifteen students) and well represented by the teaching staff that serves them, lesson plans can be individualized for each student. It’s not uncommon that a student will have a goal and objective to be able to tie his/her shoes independently 80% of the time.
Life skill classrooms can be found on almost every public school campus. Sometimes, the district runs the program. Other times, the county education program in which the school is located coordinates it.
Life skills have a lot to do with daily living. The skills most people with normal intellectual abilities take for granted are the challenges these particular students must learn. As basic as this course’s content may be, it is essential for students with intellectual delays to learn in order to function as independently as possible in a world that must be very complex to them.