As a high school special education teacher, I want to make sure I am preparing my students for the real world. Unfortunately, school isn’t always very reflective of real life; for example, when was the last time someone gave you a worksheet to complete while grocery shopping? That’s what I thought. As special educators, our challenge is to think outside the school setting and determine what our students really need to be successful once they leave us.
Moving Beyond Worksheets
How do we do this? Well, when I first started, I decided that this meant no worksheets for my students. Instead, we were going to role play and make everything as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, this didn’t work very well for my students’ parents; they were eager to know what their children were doing while in school, and since I wasn’t sending any (or much) work home, they weren’t able to get that information. I then began supplementing our classroom exercises with worksheets; since then, my views on worksheets have shifted. While worksheets aren’t necessarily bad, they definitely can’t be all that we do. Often, I will start my class with a worksheet. Then we will take the information from that worksheet and practice with real-life scenarios, such as role playing a dollar-over purchase or choosing a healthy breakfast.
Finding (or Making) the Curriculum
Sometimes the challenge in teaching real-life skills to students is finding the appropriate curriculum — even though the perfect curriculum simply may not exist. If you have higher-level students (who can read at or above a second grade level), there are many resources available from companies such as Attainment or Pro-Ed/PCI. However, if the composition of your classroom is like mine, then you likely do not have many, if any, students who can perform at that level. Nevertheless, there are also resources available for these students, including those offered by companies such as News-2-You and even a few from the companies mentioned above.
Even still, I often want to practice certain real-life skills, but I can’t find the right materials to incorporate them into the classroom. When I make a community unit for my classroom, I think about the steps I would go through, and I break those down in a variety of different ways. I make worksheets, social stories disguised as coloring books, games and more. As much as I was against worksheets in the beginning, they are a great place to start and make sure everyone (paraprofessionals, parents, etc) is on the same page in order to move students forward. You can see some of the worksheets and materials my class used to prepare for our first community trip to a fast-food restaurant in this blog post.
“Real Life” Practice
Many special education students have a difficult time transferring skills across settings, so one of the best ways to help your students practice is to take them out into the community where they can apply the skills and lessons they’ve learned. Of course, some programs don’t allow for frequent community trips. If that’s the case at your school or program, then you can create simulated experiences in the classroom to help students prepare for real-life scenarios, such as setting up a grocery store with empty food boxes or paying for items using an old cash register and fake debit cards. If you can take community trips every once and a while, take advantage of the opportunity by combining a few of them into a single trip, such as going shopping at the Goodwill and then stopping at the Wendy’s next door. On the other hand, maybe there are places within walking distance of your school that you and your students could visit. Remember: Creativity is one of the key prerequisites for being a special education teacher.
I hope this helps give you some ideas on planning functional and community experiences for your students with special needs. It may be difficult at first, but it is definitely worth it when you see your students successfully engage with the broader community. Feel free to check out my blog and Teachers Pay Teachers store for more ideas and resources.