two teens cooking. text reads functional life skills curriculum for special education

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Are you a special education teacher looking for ways to teach functional life skills to your special education students?

What exactly are life skills, you may be wondering?

Functional life skills are the skills that people need to have a better chance of independent living or just being a more independent member of their community. The word functional in this case means skills that support a person’s independence.

Lesson Plans for Essential Life Skills Instruction

In this post you will find different activities to use in lesson plans that focus on important life skills for special needs students. Many of this skills are even pre-vocational skills that students will one day need if they are able to enter into the work force.

I’m talking about everything from independence to personal hygiene to learning how to count money and clean.

Let’s make sure every student gets the skills they need to rock life, both in and out of the classroom!

Personal Hygiene & Self-Care Skills

Personal hygiene and self care skills are some of the most important life skills to teach kids. 

Let’s face it-nobody wants to be around someone smelly so personal hygiene is a MUST at every age. This is something we teach as early as the toddler age (such as washing their hands) all the way through high school and beyond. The types of self care that students need just becomes different depending on their daily living skills and their age.

Personal Hygiene Task Boxes can be helpful to teach kids the vocabulary words that they need to understand in this category. I liked to use these during independent work stations or during small group sessions.

Here are some other ways to practice self-care skills at school:

1. Toothbrushing – practice after lunch

2. Hair care – provide mirrors, brushes and even ponytails and help students practice these skills. I would typically do this with older students (3rd grade and up).

3. Shoe tying practice

4. Putting on deodorant – always make sure you get permission from parents/guardians to work on this kind of thing at school.


Washing Hands Unit

Personal Hygiene Task Boxes

Life Skills Task Boxes-Laundry

Social Skills

Social skills are extremely important for students in special education as they form the foundation for their overall well-being and success.These skills enable students to build positive relationships, communicate effectively and navigate the different social situations that they will come across in life.

When they learn these abilities, they can join in class activities, solve problems easily and feel more sure of themselves. 

Plus, strong social skills get them ready for success in school and beyond. 

To work on social skills, I loved doing community-based instruction with my students (also called CBI trips). This simply meant taking them out into the community to work on these valuable life skills like social skills. 

We would go to places such as the grocery store or a fast food restaurant to work on specific skills in those places. The hope is that by practicing it with guided instruction together out in the community, students will start to generalize the skill you are working on. Try these FREE Life Skills Community Places worksheets.

Mindfulmazing actually has an entire unit over social skills in their newest social emotional curriculum called the HeartSmart Curriculum. It has 6 units of daily social emotional activities meant to last you all year:


Life Skills Cut & Paste Grocery Shopping

FREE Life Skills Community Places Worksheets

grocery shopping worksheets for life skills

Functional Academics

In special education, students in cross-categorical, self contained and autism classrooms are typically working on more functional academics. This is not always the case but for the most part, special educators want to teach students the basic skills of academics that will help them with functional life skills. They are not always working in grade level curriculum because they are working on their IEP goals (more on IEP goals for functional skills at the end of this post) in their busy school day.

Functional academics might look like: 

  • understanding the coins and how to add money amounts together
  • telling time
  • reading signs in the community such as STOP, RESTROOM or EXIT

Money Skills:

Let’s dive into money skills first. Learning about money and how to use it is absolutely a necessary skill for our students. They need to understand that everything in life costs money and as we grow older, we have to understand money management in order to pay rent, make a living, purchase groceries and buy clothes.

In elementary school, you may want to start by introducing the basics of money such as naming and identifying the amount of each coin and learning how to count coins up to $1.00. Try using these money task boxes for help with money introduction. Using the next dollar up strategy is also helpful to teach when you are on CBI trips. 

In middle school, you can focus more on grocery shopping and how to make change; at the high school level, you could actually teach students how to create a personal budget for going to the grocery store.          


Money Task Boxes

Count coins up to $1.00

errorless money work tasks for special education

Time Management:

Being able to tell time is one of the simplest life skills you can teach. Most all clocks are digital now but students still need to understand how to read a clock and understand the basics of telling time and whether it is A.M or P.M.

Do you know why teaching time management is so important?

It helps them do things on their own and feel less stressed. Plus, it gets them ready for grown-up stuff, like showing up for a job on time. 

Learning to manage time also makes kids more responsible. It’s a skill that can boost their confidence and success in lots of different parts of their life!

Functional Reading

Functional reading is super important for our students in special education because it helps them navigate everyday life. It’s all about understanding community signs, labels, menus and important information they encounter in the world.

With functional reading, they can make sense of things around them, like reading street signs to know where they’re going or understanding food labels to make healthy choices.

In addition- It also opens up doors for them to be more independent, like being able to follow recipes, read schedules and handle money. So, functional reading isn’t just about books – it’s about giving these students the tools they need to be confident and capable in their daily lives!

Visual supports have always played a HUGE part in teaching my students functional vocabulary.


Life Skills Community Signs

Community Signs task Boxes

Visual Supports for Special Education


Teaching students to do things independently is possibly the most important life skill, in my opinion. Of course, every child’s level of independence will be different and that’s okay.

Recognize each student’s unique abilities and provide the appropriate level of support to help them succeed in developing independence as a life skill.

independent work station life skills

Here are some practical tips to remember:

1. Break tasks into small manageable steps: this helps make the task feel less overwhelming to kids.

2. Use visual supports: This provides a clear checklist and concrete example of what the student needs to do. 

I used visual supports for everything in my autism classroom in order to encourage independence. I’m talking during small group, PE, music, Art, you name it!

3. Demonstrate the task for them: Modeling is huge to kids. It shows them the visual of what a task looks like and exactly how you are executing it, rather than just verbally telling them.

4. Provide CLEAR instructions: Give instructions in a clear, concise manner. Break down each step and offer verbal or visual prompts if needed.

5. Repetition & Practice: Make independent tasks part of everyday routines. That could look like activities such as doing jobs around the classroom, hanging up their backpack in the mornings or completing independent task boxes during a certain time of day.

I loved using the Life Skills Morning Work Bundle for independent morning work with students when I was in the classroom. The repetition of doing the same format daily really helped them with being able to stay focused on an independent task for longer. Try this FREE Morning Work Sample with your students!


Life Skills Morning Work Bundle

FREE Morning Work Sample

Independent Task Boxes

Cleaning Task Boxes for Life Skills

life skills chores tasks

Coming up with IEP Goals for Functional Skills

In most school districts, you will find that students with developmental disabilities have functional goals on their IEP. Functional means that the student is working more on life skill type goals rather than the academic goals of the curriculum.

When trying to come up with new skills to create functional goals for in your special education program, try to look for gaps in the student’s life skills. Are they able to name the coins but do not know the value of each? Can they work on a task by themselves for even 5 minutes? How do they do in the restroom? Do they need reminders for everything or are they self sufficient? When someone greets them in the hallway, do they respond?

What is your favorite way to work on life skills in your classroom?

Functional Life Skills Curriculum for Special Education