Teaching Functional Skills to Students with Disabilities

Teaching Functional Skills to Students with Disabilities

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Teaching functional skills will look very differently depending on the age and level of function of the students. With young students with disabilities, it is really a matter of creating structure for acquiring those skills not that long after their typical peers. Still, success in those skills are a mile marker those students need to put behind. In many cases parents over function for their children with disabilities, and it is often left to the special educator to encourage and coach the parent through self dressing, tooth brushing and the other skills required for independence.

For older students with more significant disabilities, it is incumbent on their teachers to address those functional needs in the present levels of their IEP's and create programs that lead to success in the functional areas. These are unquestionably essential for helping students with disabilities reach their full potential, for if they can't care for their own teeth or dress themselves, they will be unable to live in a supervised group situation that will offer them the possibility of employment and their own highest level of independence.

Functional Skills

These skills are skills our students need to master before they can truly develop independence:

Self Care

  • Dressing
  • Tooth Brushing
  • Washing Hands
  • Eating with Utensils
  • Bathing

Housekeeping Skills

  • Washing tables
  • Loading the Dishwasher
  • Making the Bed
  • Elements of a Program to Successfully Address Functional Skills

Task Analysis: Breaking it Down

Applied Behavior Analysis talks about the “topography” of behaviors, and there is nowhere the need is clearer than in teaching functional skills. A task analysis will be the foundation of your data collection and even the way you define success in your student's IEP.

It is essential not only that you describe each discrete step in the process, but that you do it in a way that is clear to anyone, i.e. aides, substitutes, substitute aides, and parents can clearly understand. It is also important to also understand the student: do they have good receptive language? Will they respond to modeling or will they need hand over hand prompting? Have you chosen vocabulary to describe the tasks that you can make part of a simple visual or picture prompting system?

Sample: Pencil Sharpening

You will find task analyses attached to the articles about these skills. For our purposes, I will make a simple task analysis for a skill they will want in the classroom.

Then the student identifies that his/her pencil needs sharpening, he/she will:

  1. Raise hand and request trip to the sharpener
  2. Walk quietly to the sharpener.
  3. Insert pencil in the correct opening.
  4. Push the pencil in, until the red light on top lights.
  5. Remove the pencil.
  6. Look at the point. Is it sharp enough?
  7. If yes, return quietly to seat. If no, repeat steps 3, 4, and 5.

Teach Each Part of the Task

There are three ways to teach functional multi-step skills: Forward, backward and whole skill chaining. This is the one place your knowledge of your student will be critical. Using either forward or backward chaining, your goal needs to be sure the student feels successful at each step he or she masters. For some students, backward chaining is the best, especially when preparing food, because that step leads immediately to the reinforcement: the pancake, or the grilled cheese sandwich. For some students, you will be able to prompt each step verbally, or with pictures (see social stories!) and they may be able to master all the steps without the visual prompts after only a few probes (or grilled cheese sandwiches!)

Other students will benefit from completing each step as they learn it, and then prompting or modeling the subsequent steps. This is a great way to teach a skill to students who may have great receptive language, but may have some difficulty with executive function, especially when it comes to remembering multi-stepped activities.


As a special educator, you want to be sure that you have evidence that you have met the goal that should accompany the need expressed in the Present Levels. A well written task analysis will provide a great platform for assessing student success. Be sure that you have operationalized each step so anyone observing the student would check off the same items (inter-observer reliability.)


  1. Terrys

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  4. Jamian

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  5. Matsimela

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