Life skills are essential to job functioning, and they must be included in instruction for students with special needs. Several million individuals with learning problems are still denied the opportunity to engage in meaningful employment in the United States. Large numbers of students with disabilities, both high school graduates and dropouts, earn very low salaries (Edgar, 1988). These students do possess the potential to live and work in the community if they receive appropriate life skills instruction (Rusch & Phelps, 1987). However, without this instruction they often fail to hold their jobs. A life skills curriculum approach blends academic, daily living, personal/social, and occupational skills into integrated lessons designed to help students learn to function independently in society. 

What are Life Skills?

Life skills include a wide range of knowledge and skill interactions believed to be essential for adult independent living (Brolin, 1989). At present, many students with handicaps have special needs that are not being met. These students require education and support to learn these necessary behaviors. They must be able to dress and groom properly, use appropriate table manners, make decisions about money, and use transportation to get to work. The three major skill areas that need to be addressed are daily living, personal/social, and occupational skills. 

What are Daily Living Skills?

Many students with disabilities will marry and raise families. The majority will probably earn modest salaries; therefore, it is crucial that they learn how to manage a home, family, and finances as effectively as possible. Some states require that these skills be taught to students with special needs. Instructional responsibility lies with special educators, regular educators, parents, and peers. The following skills are some that have been identified as essential for independent adult living (Brolin, 1989): 

Managing Personal Finances

  • Count money and make correct change. 
  • Manage a savings and checking account. 
  • Maintain a personal budget and keep records. 
  • Demonstrate personal finance decision-making skills. 
  • Make responsible expenditures. 
  • Calculate and pay taxes. 
  • Use credit responsibly. 
  • Pay bills. 
  • Deal with renting or leasing.  

Selecting and Managing a Household

  • Perform or arrange for home maintenance. 
  • Perform housekeeping tasks. 
  • Plan and prepare meals. 
  • Fill out warranty cards for new appliances and mail them.   

Caring for Personal Needs

  • Exhibit proper grooming and hygiene. 
  • Dress appropriately. 
  • Obtain health care. 
  • Avoid substance abuse. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of common illnesses, prevention and treatment. Maintain physical fitness, nutrition and weight. 

Safety Awareness

  • Identify safety signs. 
  • Identify unfamiliar odors. 
  • Identify unfamiliar sounds. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge and ability to evacuate a building in an emergency. Read and understand basic safety procedures. Obey safety rules when walking during the day or at night. 

Raising, Preparing, and Consuming Food

  • Purchase food and plan meals. 
  • Clean food preparation areas. 
  • Store food properly. 
  • Prepare meals, read labels, and follow recipes. 
  • Demonstrate appropriate eating habits. 
  • Plan and eat balanced meals.   

Buying and Caring for Clothing

  • Wash clothing. 
  • Purchase clothing: Demonstrate knowledge of prices and sales. 
  • Iron, mend, and store clothing. 
  • Demonstrate use of dry cleaners and laundromat.   

Exhibiting Responsible Citizenship

  • Demonstrate knowledge of civil rights and responsibilities. 
  • Get legal aid. 
  • Report a crime. 
  • Register with Selective Service at age 18. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of local, state, and federal governments. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the law and ability to follow the law. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of citizen rights and responsibilities. 
  • Vote.  

Using Recreational Facilities and Engaging in Leisure Activities 

  • Demonstrate knowledge of available community resources. 
  • Choose and plan activities. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the value of recreation. 
  • Engage in group and individual activities. 
  • Plan vacation time. 
  • Plan a social event. 
  • Engage in hobbies, sports, music, arts and crafts.   

Getting Around the Community

Differentiate between right side and left side, front and back, to demonstrate location. Demonstrate knowledge of traffic rules and safety. Demonstrate knowledge and use of many means of transportation including carpools. Understand and use a map. Drive a car; obtain a learner's permit, then a driver's license. Obtain car insurance. 

What are Personal/Social Skills?

Personal and social skills are critical in keeping a job and maintaining friendships. Learning to get along with others is a challenge for everyone. Lack of appropriate personal and social skills is one of the most frequently cited causes of termination of employment. Students with learning problems often do not learn by observing. Skill instruction in this area should include the following: 

Achieving Self-Awareness

  • Identify physical and psychological needs. 
  • Identify interests and abilities. 
  • Identify emotions. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of physical self. 
  • Demonstrate proper care, use, and maintenance of prosthetic devices or sensory aids required. Use appropriate methods to cope with stress. 

Acquiring Self-Confidence

  • Express feelings of self-worth. 
  • Describe others' perception of self. 
  • Accept and give praise. 
  • Accept and give criticism. 
  • Develop confidence in self. 
  • Identify and distinguish the proper way to answer and use the telephone. Wear appropriate apparel, using clothes or uniforms to fit social and work situations. 

Achieving Sociallly Responsible Behavior

  • Develop respect for the rights and properties of others. 
  • Recognize authority and follow instructions. 
  • Demonstrate appropriate behavior and social etiquette in public places and when dating or eating out. Demonstrate knowledge of important character traits. Recognize personal roles. 

Maintaining Good Interpersonal Skills

  • Demonstrate listening and responding skills. 
  • Establish and keep close relationships. 
  • Make and keep friendships.  

Achieving Independence

  • Do things without help. 
  • Accept responsibility for actions. 
  • Get around the community and be able to travel. 
  • Cope with changes in travel schedule. 
  • Cope with being lost. 
  • Follow travel safety procedures. 
  • Choose friends. 
  • Get to school on time. 
  • Decide what to wear.   

Achieving Problem-Solving Skills

  • Seek assistance when needed. 
  • Recognize problems. 
  • Anticipate consequences. 
  • Develop and evaluate alternatives. 
  • Develop goals, solutions, and plans.   

Communicating WIth Others

  • Recognize and respond to emergency situations. 
  • Communicate with understanding. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of social cues and the subtleties of conversation, both verbal and nonverbal. Listen to others. 

What are Occupational Skills?

Between 70% and 80% of students with disabilities are unemployed and underemployed following graduation. Educators and parents still have much to do in this area. Early educational efforts need to be directed toward the following skill areas: 

Knowing and Exploring Occupational Options

  • Explore occupational possibilities. 
  • Identify the rewards of work. 
  • Locate sources of occupational and instructional information. 
  • Identify personal values met through work. 
  • Identify societal values met through work. 
  • Classify jobs into categories. 
  • Investigate local occupational and instructional opportunities in the community; make site visitations. 

Selecting and Planning Occupational Choices

  • Make realistic occupational choices. 
  • Identify requirements of appropriate and available jobs. 
  • Identify occupational aptitudes. 
  • Identify main occupational interests. 
  • Identify major occupational needs.   

Exhibiting Appropriate Work Habits and Behavior

  • Follow directions and observe regulations. 
  • Recognize the importance of attendance and punctuality. 
  • Recognize the importance of supervision. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of safety. 
  • Work with others. 
  • Meet demands for high-quality work. 
  • Work at a satisfactory rate.   

Seeking, Securing, and Maintaining Employment

  • Search for a job. 
  • Apply for a job. 
  • Interview for a job. 
  • Maintain postschool occupational adjustment. 
  • Demonstrate knowledge of competitive standards. 
  • Know how to adjust to changes in employment.   

Exhibiting Sufficient Physical and Manual Skills

  • Demonstrate stamina and endurance. 
  • Demonstrate satisfactory balance and coordination. 
  • Demonstrate manual dexterity. 
  • Demonstrate sensory discrimination.   

Obtaining Specific Occupational Skills

  • Attend prevocational learning stations or centers. 
  • Take advantage of in-school work experiences. 
  • Take advantage of volunteer experiences. 
  • Serve in community rotations. 
  • Take advantage of work/study services. 
  • Take advantage of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). 
  • Attend vocational classrooms. 
  • Obtain special vocational education. 
  • Obtain on-the-job training. 

What can the Schools do?

Schools can require an entry and exit plan for every student with learning problems wherein the life skills listed here are completed prior to graduation. At present, too many educators continue to use the same old approaches with a nonfunctional curriculum. Educators must become advocates for each child with special needs and stress "hands-on" life skill mastery. 


Brolin, D. E. (1989). Life Centered Career Education: A Competency Based Approach (3rd ed.). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. 

Edgar. G. (1988). Employment as an outcome for mildly handicapped students: Current status and future direction. FOCUS ON EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN, 21(1), 1-8 (EJ380199). 

Rusch, F., & Phelps, L. A. (1987). Secondary special education and transition from school to work: A national priority. EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN, 53, 487-92. 

Further Reading

Dever, R. B. (1989). A taxonomy of community living skills. EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN, 55, 395-404 (EJ387194). 

Edgar, G. (1990). Quality of life: Is it time to change our view of the world? BEYOND BEHAVIOR, 1(1), 9-13. 

Elder, J. (1986). Transitional services needed to help disabled enter work forces. EDUCATION OF THE HANDICAPPED, 12(19), 5. 

Heal, L., Copher, J., Stefano, L., & Rusch, F. (1989). A comparison of successful and unsuccessful placements of secondary students with mental handicaps into competitive employment. CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR EXCEPTIONAL INDIVIDUALS, 12(2), 167-77. 

Wircenski, J. L. (1982). Employability Skills for the Special Needs Learner. Rockville, MD: Aspen. (ED223839).