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Functional Curriculum: use it or lose it

To celebrate the new school year here are some of my favorite posts:

Article 1: Why Do We Go to School?

Article 2: Back to School| A New Year of Learning

Article 3: Back to School| What is Inclusion?

Aaron learning money skills

Aaron learning money skills to use in store

Functional Curriculum

When my son Aaron was in school, shopping was part of his curriculum. From the time he was ten years old he went to the bank and grocery one day a week as part of his special education school program.

This was best practice and came from the work of Drs. Lou Brown, Alison Ford, Sharon Freagon and many others. The idea of a functional curriculum for people with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities is:

* it takes longer to learn skills, so let’s make sure we teach important skills and not waste their time on dumb stuff

* it takes lots of practice, so let’s give the student lots of opportunities and trials

* use it or lose it, so let’s make sure the skill is something the student will need their whole life

* transition from school to adult life will be smoother

* we only teach skills that if the person didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it for them

* the ability to purchase items would give the person more dignity, self-esteem, self-determination skills and choices in their life

The way it worked was each week, Mom sent in a check for $10.00 and a shopping list. The class went to the same grocery store (because each store is different). Each student cashed their check at the bank and then bought items from the list to take home.

In addition, students also planned a lunch to be made in the classroom the following day. Each would purchase a couple items for that group lunch. These items were purchased with the classroom credit card.

This functional curriculum was based on the philosophy that Aaron would go to the grocery the rest of his life. Before the school year started the IEP team decided this was a high priority skill because he would need to buy food and other items when he was an adult. If he didn’t learn to purchase these items, someone else would have to buy them for him. If Aaron could purchase the items he would have more choices and say in his life and therefore a better quality of life. (Who wants someone else deciding you can only have Cheerios for breakfast all your life.)

Related Service Staff

The curriculum was designed by the IEP team including specialists and the parents. After all, who would be taking the student to the grocery on the weekends, summer, and after school. And who knew what the student liked better than their parents?

I was in the school a lot and went on many of the community training trips with Aaron and his class.

It takes a Village

The speech and language therapist helped Aaron build picture sequences of “shopping at Krogers,” check-off lists with pictures for grocery lists, and learn to interact with the cashier “Thank You” and give a High 5 to the bagger….

The occupational therapist helped Aaron figure out which coin purse/wallet worked best, learn to pay with the next highest bill, learn how to take the money out of his wallet (hold wallet in left hand and take out bills with right) and after many failures of getting the change back in the wallet–it was decided Aaron should just put the change in his pocket….

The physical therapist helped Aaron figure out how to climb up and down the steps on the bus (hold on the rail with his right hand and count the steps), how to maneuver the parking lot (and yes we had an IEP goal that said with 50% accuracy), how to enter the right door–even if there are two “in” doors,
how to reach the items on the bottom shelves (hold on to the grocery cart with his left hand and reach with his right)….

Depending on the therapists schedules, they might only be involved in periodic assessments, or they could go with the class every week. This was an excellent way for the therapist got to really see Aaron in this environment and practice REAL life skills.

The teacher and assistant teachers went every week with the 6-8 students in the multi-handicapped class. She/he helped Aaron match his pictures to the actual items in the store, find his favorite items and put them in the cart, learning appropriate social skills….

After High School

Unfortunately now that Aaron is out of school, he has lost most of those skills because adult service staff refuse to take him to the store or don’t have the knowledge or support they need. Here is a story about Aaron’s home (click here). It is not the fault of the staff. Some of them are very loving and do a great job.

So I take him every weekend when he is home with us. Here is a story of a recent shopping trip (click here).

Aaron and I are a team and we have worked out our own system. We only shop for about 10 items and Aaron puts the items in the cart. Sometimes Aaron will grab something off the shelf and if it is anywhere close to something he might want, I’ll let him buy it. ie. if it is a bag of cookies or cereal –he can keep it. If it is a box of denture tablets probably I’ll tell him what it is and put it back.

Choices: Quality of Life and “If Only”

If I had the opportunity to change things in Aaron’s life, it would be that adult services used a functional curriculum and adult residential services gave Aaron and others with autism and severe disabilities the opportunities to practice their skills. There is no question Aaron would not currently be LOSING these skills. There is no question these skills would enhance Aaron’s self-esteem and quality of life.

The reason I could insist on these skills being taught and used when Aaron was school age was because of the federal mandate in IDEA. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act said that parents were part of the IEP team and the parents had due process if they disagreed with the school personel. There is no such mandate for Adult Services, no due process for parents and/or guardians. Plus, in Adult Services the staff does not have to be trained or have any teaching license.

As my friend Deb used to say, “When I am made Queen of the Universe” I will declare it. Until then, I’ll take Aaron every weekend and give him as many functional experiences I can.

And of course, I’ll dream of the day I am Queen of the Universe. *smile*

What ifs? Comments?

Any stories about your child’s school experiences preparing them for the future? Any luck with using those skills in their adult life?
Anyone else want to be “Queen of the Universe”?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best,


Related Posts

Building Community| One grocery trip at a time

It’s a Jungle out there| Inclusion in the grocery store

Kill the Turkeys! Life Lessons for People with disabilities

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13 Responses to “Functional Curriculum: use it or lose it”

  • Elijahjuan Pennington says:

    It really breaks my heart to know that all of Arron’s hard work has been lost. However, he is very lucky to have you in his life to enjoy great weekends. I love system when Arron goes to the bank and then to the grocery store, the story touched my heart.

  • Erica Baldrick says:

    I think that it is awful that Aaron has lost most of the skills he learned because the adult services won’t continue to help him with those skills. I wish there was a way for him to continue to practice those skills. I think it is great that he is able to go shopping with you and be able to learn from you so that he can still sort of practice those skills, just not every day.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Erica, this is probably one of my greatest regrets. I let this happen without even knowing it. I try to take Aaron out every chance I get. He comes home every weekend and we always go to a store and out to a restaurant. Last week we went to Michaels and even with the crowds Aaron pushed the cart and was perfect. Use it or lose it, right?

  • Mary says:

    Jessica, I’m sure your family will make sure Elizabeth keeps active in the community and learns the functional skills she will need.

    I took Aaron to the book store and Michaels yesterday. He pushed the cart and even though both places were very crowded he was great. Sure he made noises and sure people looked (especially a couple kids who actually followed us around the store) but Aaron was perfect. Several people were extra nice to us and I tried to talk with the kids but they ran away. I know they were just curious and probably hadn’t met anyone like aaron before. I was very proud of him and we found a couple holiday activities I could send to his day program which were age-appropriate. Even if Aaron doesn’t do them, it will give some of the other participants something to do.

  • Jessica Osterday says:

    I thought it was very efficient that Aaron was going to the bank and the grocery store with his special education program once a week from the time he was ten years old. However, I don’t think it is fair that Aaron can not continuing going to the store with this program just because he is out of school. I wish there was a group in the community that would do these kinds of activities and life skills outings for anyone with disabilities. I know my family would want to utilize this with my sister, so that she too could learn to do tasks like those on her own. I think it is great that you take Aaron to the grocery store to continue his shopping skills.

  • I think it’s very necessary for students to learn skills that Aaron learned and you continued teaching him. Life skills are extremely important, and I feel that it is great that you continued taking him to the grocery store and reinforcing the skill of grocery shopping. Implementing those skills into curriculum would benefit many students and teach them how to go about every day life. What other kind of life skills like that did Aaron learn?

    • Mary says:

      Aaron had to learn everything in every environment. Those are the functional curriculum items I brought to class yesterday. Talk to me more about this.

  • Barbara @therextras says:

    You make a critical point, Mary. So many parents are unwilling to place their children in non academic curriculums – early when it is optimum for retention.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You’re right Barbara, the functional curriculum can look like a non academic curriculum and be scary to parents. But, if done well, a functional curriculum is full of academic content: literacy, math, language arts, science… Only the learning is not to pass a test, it is to do a real task in the real world. And, we don’t have any time to waste.

  • How heartbreaking that all that hard work has been lost – for Aaron and for everyone who got him to that place. I know from my own experience the due process of the IEP and the importance of the parent in that process. To not have that as an adult seems crazy.
    Alison Golden recently posted..How Much Halloween Candy Is Too Much

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      One of Robert Schuller’s quotes is: “Look at what you have left, not what you have lost.” I try to think of that when I get depressed.

      Aaron is a great guy. We are going to be picking him up in a couple hours and will give him a good weekend. Tomorrow we go to Grandma’s for lunch and he will see his baby niece. He will have people who care about him, and some good eats. He’ll like that.

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