Learning for All

Balancing Functional and Academic Programming

There is some debate in the literature over the benefits of functional life skills programming versus academic programming grounded in the standard curriculum. There are a number of factors to consider when planning for instruction and often the most responsive and robust options are blended from these two distinct approaches.





One of this presentation’s objectives is to create a shared understanding of key terms and concepts related to instructional programming for students with significant disabilities.

Reviewing these terms is an opportunity to consider where we’ve come from in terms of special education practice, and help us look forward and think more clearly about where we want to go.


As students with significant disabilities entered public schools for the first time in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a checklist of skills became the typical focus of instruction. Students were expected to move through a sequence of skills in a lockstep manner, mastering one discrete skill before moving on to the next.

This was a well-intentioned model but it did not take into account that individual students may have differing developmental patterns. A developmental curriculum is a bottom-up model, and too many students just stayed at the bottom and made limited, if any, progress.


When we hear parents lamenting that their child had the same IPP goal year-after-year (often involving recognizing colours or shapes), this is the result of bottom-up thinking. This approach also means that many students never have the opportunity to learn age-appropriate skills.

In the 1970’s Lou Brown and colleagues challenged educators to focus more on age-appropriate skills (versus focusing on instruction at a student’s so-called ‘mental age’.)


Take a moment to reflect on the questions above.


In contrast, ecological assessments, which are top-down approaches, were championed as part of the movement toward greater inclusion of students with significant disabilities.

This approach starts with the preferred future for an individual students, and then identified specific skills and experiences that the student will need to participate successfully in that future.


This framework is an ideal, it is based on individual strengths and builds on collaboration with families and community building. This person-centred approach is widely used with adults who have disabilities.


The ecological approach looks at what belonging means for individuals and their families. When expectations shift from just being physically present (in both the classroom and the community) to actually participating in these environments, the importance of connectedness and relationships becomes obvious. This is one of the main drivers of inclusion—how can you learn to live in a community when you are excluded from the community?


Another term closely associated with the ecological framework is ‘quality of life’. This seems to be a term that many people have an implicit understanding of, but often find it difficult to define.

The term emerged during the era when segregated institutions were being phased out; it provided a context for identifying supports and resources needed that ensured individuals with disabilities were not just ‘existing’ but were having quality life experiences.

Quality of life is a common term in the field of adult disabilities, and is often linked to standards for service provision. The challenge is that quality of life cannot really be standardized—it has to be meaningful to the individual involved. It is not necessarily a comparison to what others might be experiencing, it is unique for each individual, and will evolve over time and context.


There are a number of schemas for identifying and planning for quality of life outcomes. In the COACH model Michael Giangreco offers five overarching life outcomes and encourages school teams to collaborate with families in the development of individualized programming that works toward these outcomes.


Participants in the community of practice responded to the above question with the following ideas:

  • belonging to community
  • personal preferences and passions
  • peer interactions
  • having your own choices
  • life long fitness


Looking at functional and academic programming is not an ‘either or’ proposition. Curricular (or academic focused) programming and functional life skills programs often share common terms and practices. Many schools use an instructional approach that is a hybrid of the two.


A functional approach focuses on skills that are considered useful or necessary but the emphasis can be on either:

  • the present and those skills that are immediately useful in a student’s life, or
  • the future and what it is assumed the student will need post-school.


Functional life skills can take various formats, from a curriculum outlining an extensive set of learning outcomes to a single intervention designed to teach an isolated skill.

Most of the research on functional life skill instruction looks at single interventions such as teaching a student how to count coins to a dollar or how to use a crosswalk. These interventions can range from a single session to multiple sessions over several months. Very few studies, if any, have looked at comprehensive lifeskill programming and how it links to post-school outcomes.


The literature contains dozens of examples of how functional skills can be labeled and organized, but contains little information on how to actually teach these skills in meaningful and effective ways for students with significant disabilities.


The term ‘functional academics’ is another way to describe basic literacy and numeracy skills such as reading selected sight words, writing your names, counting coins and reading time on an analogue clock.


There are two basic approaches for teaching functional academics. In a generalized approach specific skills are taught that can be used across contexts. Both Karen Erickson and Caroline Musslewhite are advocates of this approach. For example, they believe that learning the letters of the alphabet is a basic life and communication skill that can be used across contexts and tasks.

In contrast, an embedded approach begins with the discrete life skill and then includes academic skills that correspond directly to the life skill task. The limitation of this approach is that sometimes the selected academic skill has limited application across other contexts. For example, learning to sight read the names of specific ingredients in one recipe would not be as helpful as learning beginning letter sounds.


The literature also references other kinds of programming that is used as a curriculum focus for students with significant disabilities.


Academic options tend to be on a continuum from grade-level programming with universal supports to more individualized adaptations where tasks are adjusted and strategies and supports are customized for the individual student.


The literature identified four basic models for blending a functional and academic instructional approach.


Take a moment to reflect on the questions above.


The next 18 slides offer highlights from key studies on effective instructional practice for students with significant disabilities. See the References section for full citations and please check out the full articles on topics you want to learn more about.


As most of the research is American, it is important to consider the difference between the two educational systems.
The most significant difference is that American research is based on the assumption that there are two discrete groups of teachers:

  • special education teachers who have specialized training and understand the needs of students with disabilities, and
  • general education teachers who are curriculum experts and understand typical development.


Another major difference is that in the United States much of the shift in curricular focus is happening because of federal legislations and initiatives, not necessarily as a result of research or documented best practices.


This tour begins with a seminal article from 2011, with the subtitle “What Happens When the Curricular Focus for Students with Severe Disabilities Shifts”. The title is based on a sanitized version of a quote by a parent.

The main argument of the researchers is that students may be ‘accessing general education standards’ but this does not necessarily mean they are learning what they need to learn.


The author takes a stand that academically-focused programming for students with significant disabilities (referred to as “a standards-based approach” in the article) is a violation of a student’s right to an appropriate education.


The authors argue that instructional time is a limited commodity and should not be squandered on ‘nonessential’ learning.


Take a moment to reflect on the authors’ arguments and how this relates to what you know about students with significant disabilities.


In this next article, four researchers respond to the preceding article by offering up seven reasons why students with severe disabilities should receive programming based on the general education curriculum. Perhaps the most persuasive of these reasons is that we can’t know student’s potential, and when there are high expectations in place (via an academic curriculum) students are changing expectations with their own achievements.

Additional arguments include:

  • Students have the right to a full educational opportunity
  • The curriculum is relevant to these students
  • One type of curriculum does not replace the other, and having access only to an individualized curriculum is limiting.


The debate continues in a third article when the authors of the original “I Can’t Brush My Teeth” article counters with the argument: the common core [curriculum] does not include skills that are taken for granted by typically-developing students.


The authors argue that for a student’s educational program to be truly meaningful, it must be based on the family’s expectations and priorities. And in a standard curriculum there is little room, if any, for family voice and choice.


The authors also point out that functional skills (such as self-care skills) are needed if students are to participate in postsecondary programs.


The authors do concede that there needs to be additional research regarding how instructional time is being used and that linking grade-level learning outcomes to real world outcomes can be challenging for teachers.


In 2012 another team of researchers offered a compromise between the two positions and proposed that an ecological approach should be used to develop IPP goals.

They describe a layered process for goal development that includes:

  • Collaborating with family to choose goal areas related to specific quality of life indicators
  • Using the context of selected outcomes from grade-level curriculum
  • Identifying the ‘critical function’ of the selected outcomes, as well performance standards that would demonstrate these critical functions
  • Considering students’ communication skills and literacy and numeracy developmental levels

All of this data is then used to inform the development of goal and objective statements.


One of the original authors of “I Can’t Brush My Teeth” responded to the proposed ecological framework with the metaphor “putting the horse before the cart.” He challenged the assumption that the present state of the curriculum is standing in the way of better outcomes for students with significant disabilities. He suggested that if we don’t have necessary social supports and learning opportunities available in the community, we are looking at the issues in the wrong order.


Diane Browder also offered some cautions about the use of individualized curriculum. She noted that literacy is often overlooked in ecological assessments (and may not be a priority for parents) and that, with this approach, it is all too easy to underestimate the potential of a student.


The last article we will look at is a longitudinal study examining how curriculum influences post-school outcomes for students with disabilities.


Overall, the post-school outcomes are less than impressive.


The conclusion was that that there is no correlation between types of curriculum and post-school outcomes.


The study prompted the researchers to identify a need to examine the quality of curriculum (versus the philosophy of the programming) provided in self-contained special education settings, where over 90% of high school students receive their education.


Questions for reflection:

  • As the world gets bigger for students with significant disabilities, they need different and more robust skills and understandings. Typical so-called functional skills such as counting coins and matching colours may not even be relevant. What kinds of functional tasks will be most relevant  in the near future?
  • What would a quality curriculum for students with significant disabilities look like?