Where do “functional skills” fit in?

Cupcakes must be the right height or you are a failure! (image source)

Remember “HomeEc”? Wasn’t it great? I don’t remember which year it was, but I took a home economics class. Over a semester we cooked and we sewed. I loved the hands-on aspect of the experience. It felt very different from the rest of my classes. Then in ninth grade I took “Typing” at the insistence of my grandmother. She figured that if everything else failed at least I could be a secretary. Knowing how to type? Priceless. And that was the end of my formal instruction in basic, functional living skills.

A good friend/coworker and I often lament the fact that many kids graduate high school with a limited skill set. The curriculum is geared towards the college-bound (and so is much of the testing!). But what about the kids who aren’t going to college? What about the kids that don’t have the grades or the test-taking prowess to get into college? Or the students who don’t have the money to attend more school? I’m concerned they graduate without the key skills they need to move ahead in life and into productive employment.

Coming from a special education perspective, functional skills sometimes matter more than academic ones for many students. Although I don’t have any experience working in special schools set up for individuals with cognitive disabilities, many of my speech path friends do work in those settings (and love it). They tell me that these schools focus on daily living skills, interpersonal skills, and other occupational skills. For example, one of my friends observed students learning how to write checks. I researched some other examples of things that many of those students learn at school:

  • How to count money, how to budget, make purchases, and perform banking tasks.
  • Learn about the community and living arrangements, use of basic appliances, and setting up a living space.
  • Appropriate dress and grooming, personal safety, basic first aid, and maintaining physical fitness.
  • Planning balanced meals, purchasing food, preparing meals, and cleaning up and food storage.
  • Demonstrating appropriate responses to emotion and demonstrate giving praise and criticism.
  • Identify how personal behavior affects others and demonstrate respect for others and property.
  • Set personal goals, learn how to organize, and how to use effective communication.
  • Figuring out occupational interests and personal strengths and weaknesses, and making realistic job choices.
  • Responding to authority and supervision and working cooperatively with others.

So while I was sitting in Geometry class and hating every second (I love algebra, but geometry just did nothing for me), other students were learning how to write checks!? Is it assumed that I would have known all of those things because I am not cognitively disabled? Or is it assumed that my family took over that kind of instruction? I’m betting on the latter: my family would be teaching me those basic skills and that I wouldn’t need additional reinforcement of that information. My family did teach me a lot of things. Everything else I just learned informally and “by doing.”

But is it the school’s job to teach all students that kind of stuff? I think there is a benefit to the instruction of that kind of material, but it has to be in a way that engages. What I like about so much of the special education curriculum is that it is community-based. Those programs get kids out in the community interacting with community members from cashiers to policemen. Everything is focused on “This is how you do this…”

At one of my previous schools, the autism classroom went on a field trip to learn how to make pizzas at a pizza restaurant. I loved the idea of students learning that pizza isn’t something that comes out of a box that is delivered to your house by a friendly delivery guy. Then I thought, “Well, wouldn’t all kids benefit from a field trip like that??” I have encountered regular education students who don’t know how to make cupcakes from a box so I think there is a need. Many principals think that a pizza making field trip is not academically-focused enough for regular education kiddos. Trips to any science-related museum are much preferred and easily approved by administration. I don’t want to discount the museum experience (because museums are amazing), but I do believe there is value in non-traditional field trips. And the pizza field trip doesn’t even have to be full-day and could be walkable!

I’m lucky. I had parents who loved me and taught me the basics about life. But so many of those things I’m not near mastery. For example, I don’t budget well and I still struggle with dreaded weekly meal planning. I really could use a refresher course.


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23 thoughts on “Where do “functional skills” fit in?

  1. In our kindergarten through second grade cross cat special ed room, we have morning play time where everyone plays together and learns how to work cooperatively in the same environment. We teach sharing, emotions, and appropriate behavior during this time. We also have snack time where the students much ask politely for the snack that they would like and tell us how much of the snack they would like. They have to use a napkin to wipe up any spills and use appropriate behavior at the table. Our students also have to complete tasks like vacuuming, wiping the table, and cleaning up after themselves. We work on knowing our names, writing our names, and reciting our address and phone number. These are all skills that will keep building to the skills needed when they get out into the real world. I love that Illinois Center for Autism has two workplaces that they train their students at. One is a dried flower shop and one is an Italian restaurant. What better way to learn to have a job than to actually spend time at a job learning the skills with the safety of a job coach watching over them? Every teacher should incorporate these skills into their classroom. Maybe it’s practicing reading using recipes or practicing fractions while making an easy snack. There are plenty of ways to add “common sense” lessons into your classroom.

  2. With obesity at such a high rate and many individuals unemployed I certainly think skill courses would benefit a significant portion of the population.

    I too took home economics and typing classes and still see their fundamental values years later.

  3. But what about the kids who aren’t going to college? What about the kids that don’t have the grades or the test-taking prowess to get into college? Or the students who don’t have the money to attend more school? I’m concerned they graduate without the key skills they need to move ahead in life and into productive employment.

    Wow … as person who didn’t attend college but instead opted for a trade school (nursing) I can assure you, I, like you suffer from too much productive employment. I have no doubt that my daughter who has recently finished her first year of automotive shop class will also no doubt have a long productive employment history. It isn’t always about a traditional college diploma. That said I do agree now that the train of knowledge such as check writing or even preparing a simple baked item has been broken who will teach since most parents are also without that skill set ?

  4. I think that you’re right, so many people graduate from formal education without the basic life skills. It isn’t so much that the focus is academic, it’s just that schools don’t want to “waste time” teaching something that doesn’t contribute towards the league tables. Pelenaka, I don’t think the point was that people who don’t go to college can’t learn the life skills or gain employment, more that when the focus is purely on getting people into either further training or higher education, life skills get side-lined.

    One of my friends arrived at university without knowing how to boil pasta (she asked me if she needed to put water in the pan…). Another is about to graduate from a three-year degree and still exists on microwave pasta and ready-meals. Whilst Food Technology is on our national curriculum, I spent most of my lessons making baked potatoes and cups of tea, not learning how to cook a healthy meal.

  5. Absolutely remember my home economics class and the value of learning functional skills! I’d also add to the list: how to (properly) wash and fold laundry, pack a suit case, prepare pizza (from scratch) and read food labels – our son’s end of the year high school AP Statistics class is teaching them a load of functional skills to keep them engaged and he’s really enjoying it.

    There really is something to be said to teaching functional skills – remember when everyone had to take a typing class too! Who ever thought everyone would need to know how to type even if you didn’t plan on being a secretary. Home row anyone?

    Best health to everyone…

  6. Wow, very thought-provoking! When I was in high school almost 30 years ago there were a lot of electives for the mainstream kids that taught life skills. I took home ec and also a class in parenting skills. For that class, we took a field trip to a local daycare center where I ended up getting a summer job a couple of months later. I also took a class called Independent Living where we learned to write checks, manage a bank account, set and maintain a budget, look for housing, find employment, etc. I do think I learned valuable skills in these classes and like I said, one of them led directly to a job.

    I have two kids in mainstream high school now and you’re right, there is nothing like this anymore for the college-bound kids. All of the emphasis is on core academics. They get a few electives but most of those have to relate to which career-oriented “academy” they’re in. They do learn some general job skills, how to write a resume and conduct themselves in an interview and things like that. I think the school tries to integrate life skills in with the academics — money management in with math, typing in with language arts, etc. — and there are still vocational classes for the kids who will be entering directly into the workforce or attending trade-specific secondary schools. But, at least for the mainstream college-bound kids, there are no real options for classes that focus specifically on life skills.

  7. Amen! I learned how to cook, clean, sew, garden, etc. at home or on my own but my academic career was focused on just that. So little of what Iis taught (like parallel themes in Shakespeare) have translated into real skills.

    Because I have some domestic skills, I am referred to as “martha stewart” amongt my friends and family. It makes me want to hide these skills too though because so many women are intimidated by them.

    Most people are never taught how do basic things and begin think its so very complicated. Once it’s “complicated” its overwhelming and something to be avoided. Then they don’t teach their kids and it continues. It’s such a sad cycle that desperately needs to be broken.

  8. I really think that a basic finance class should be required in high school. I took one in college (thankfully) and really learned SO MUCH! But honestly learning how to budget and about income vs expenditures (necessities vs. wants) can be very valuable. I was recently reading a parenting book where it suggested discussing how much it costs to live on your own if your teenager wanted to move out (while still in High School.) I honestly feel that if schools taught finances this would not be an issue for most kids because they would have a basic understanding that rent, utilities, etc cost a lot of money and making minimum wage (or a bit more) is not really easy to live on.

    In our Middle School we (all students) actually had to take 3 classes (we were on trimesters) throughout the year – Home Ec, Typing, and Woodshop. It was required and was part of a Technology teaching thing. I am glad that I my school required them! I really feel it balanced my education.

  9. I think about this quite a lot. When I started college, my major was Family and Consumer Sciences (the name for Home Ec at the time. Not sure if they still use this name). I wanted to teach basic life skills like the ones you mentioned above. Goodness knows it was needed. There were other college aged students around me who didn’t know how to do their own laundry, budget their money, interview for a job, etc. I remember one person who didn’t even know how to boil water (I am not making that up)! After my first semester of study, I was strongly encouraged by my advisers to switch majors, because FCS was being phased out of schools at a rapid rate. I ended up majoring in Apparel Merchandising and Product Development and deciding that wasn’t really my thing. So, here I sit, with a few semesters of college under my belt, wishing I had stayed the course and stuck with my original plan.

    An organization I would highly recommend to parents who want their children to learn life and leadership skills outside of school is 4-H. It’s not just livestock projects, I promise! Over the course of 8 years I took projects in child care, food and nutrition, sewing, and beekeeping. They just have a huge variety of things for kids to study and learn about on their own. Growing up I was very shy, and 4-H really helped to boost my confidence. It can be a really fun and rewarding extra activity.

    1. Anna –
      What a shame, we need teachers who have a passion for teaching life skills.
      I also studied fashion merchandising, spent 30 years in business doing just that, then transitioned to teaching FCS in the public school system.
      We are only being phased out because of the lack of teachers to join our ranks.
      There is a shortage of FCS teachers, and those who are qualified for all elements of the field will have a job if dedicated.
      Some states are beginning to require the practical arts as well as financial literacy. If you are interested there are ways to gain your certification in the field you are interested. contact me @ suzinstitches.blogspot.com

  10. I think you raised a lot of relevant points about education. I know when I went to college, there were so many friends and acquaintances who didn’t know how to launder their clothes, balance their checkbook, cook things from a box much less from scratch. It blew my mind! When I was in middle school, our grade was divided into “pods” so that we would be able to have a smaller community within the larger one. I was a member of one of the so-called cooler “pods” because we had a practical skills program–we got “paid” based on our grades and then had to “pay” utilities, “buy” things from our “pod” store, “earn” prizes, etc. I also took home ec. and sewing in junior high and parenting in high school, all the while taking AP classes, being involved in many clubs such as the National Honor Society, etc. I felt, in many ways, much more prepared for the “real world.” However, I wish there had been more focus on financial literacy, including financial literacy for college.

    1. Oh, and I think we were required to take typing in middle school, along with a health class that was also required in junior high.

    2. Oh, I forgot to mention that I also work at a community college that is really trying to become more like a traditional university, which limits its offerings to students who have other expectations of what a community college is. I believe everyone should have access to college, but I don’t think college (at least, a traditional college lifestyle) is for everyone. There needs to be as much focus on learning a trade in this country as on everything else.

      Sorry I’m so forgetful today!

  11. I agree that HomeEc needs to return/stay! I only graduated six years ago, and my school still taught cooking, sewing, and a life skills class. All of these were mandatory, and as far as I still know, they still are. We learned the basics of cooking, and everyone sewed a gym bag with a zipper and a piece of clothing. (I made a vest, but most people made shorts with an elastic band waist). In my life skills class, we learned to write checks and we even invested in real stocks on a mock-stock website. In addition, we all learned how to make ceramics and build a website. These classes were under the umbrella title of “Family and Consumer Sciences.” Frankly, they’re some of the most useful classes I ever took.

  12. Well, to all you that feel home ec should be included in the curriculum I salute you … but do you show up at your Board of Education meetings.

    Under full disclosure let me tell you that I am a Family & Consumer Science educator (Home Ec), a graduate of a Home Economics Degree in Fashion Merchandising, and a Masters Student in Educational Technology. I was always college tracked, and believed that one could be an HONORS student in the functional skills of life. Family & Consumer Science still exists, although many districts are cutting it down to bare bones because “it is fluff”. Our economic and health of this nation has proven that it is something that needs to be taught. As a teacher I focus on integrating all the academic skills that students will be tested on into real life application. Students learn proper nutrition and meal planning, the basis of food and where it comes from, resource management and consumer skills as well as child development. I cram it into a fast, ten week session focused solely on hands on projects. Kids enjoy, I get tired!

    So if you think it is needed – get to your school board and state department of education. Alot is going on, and all should be aware.
    Check out http://www.FCCLAinc.org to see what FCCLA: Family, Careers and Community Leader of America – the only national co-curricular organization focused on the FAMILY!

  13. I don’t know that everyone going to school NEEDS Home Ec.; in my house we spend a lot of time cooking as a family, so that is one aspect that my children are probably fine without. However, I believe it is vital for schools to have strong elective programs, not only because some of them cover functional aspects of grown-up life that will be more pertinent in the workplace than knowledge of Shakespeare, but also because that power of choice in what you are learning creates better learners.

    1. John-
      Family & Consumer Science is much more than cooking. It is the science of utilizing the resources that are available in life today. As consumers we must make decisions constantly, and being informed as a consumer will make a world of difference for the upcoming generation.
      I do applaud you for cooking with your family – it has been shown that cooking improves childrens health and flexibility – they tend to eat a greater variety of foods, it improves math skills as well as develops many fine motor skills.
      Elective programs are of great importance to help students learn decision making and to take ownership of their life decisions. Lets face it if you have the choice of one thing, you most likely will not truly want it.

    2. John-
      Family & Consumer Science is much more than cooking. It is the science of utilizing the resources that are available in life today. As consumers we must make decisions constantly, and being informed as a consumer will make a world of difference for the upcoming generation.
      I do applaud you for cooking with your family – it has been shown that cooking improves childrens health and flexibility – they tend to eat a greater variety of foods, it improves math skills as well as develops many fine motor skills.
      Elective programs are of great importance to help students learn decision making and to take ownership of their life decisions. Lets face it if you have the choice of one thing, you most likely will not truly want it.

  14. Thank you for this blog! Some of the points you raised and the comments received have been very insightful. I agree about quite a lot of the things mentioned. Specifically, we need more passionate teachers and the need for being active in our local communities to let the local and national governments, parents and principles know that these “functional skills” are important us (parents and teachers). I am a Home Economics person too (although I failed home ec sewing in high school – shhh – don’t tell anyone) and I have a bit more of a global perspective (I’m Australian) but I see reports of Home Economics and Family and Consumer Science department’s closing all over the place. It is scary! However, I am grateful that there are thousands of Home Economics teachers around the world who care enough about teaching everyday “real-life” skills – but we need more.

  15. If you put into dollar amounts what these skills save you over a lifetime, it’s probably incalculable. Cooking, for example. If all you can do is boil pasta, that’s still an option that’s better than the fast food window. But if you’re a deft cook who can plan and prepare delicious meals of whole foods that are heavy on fresh produce, the boost to your quality of life, health, and wallet is immeasurable.

    I have rudimentary sewing skills at best. I can operate a sewing machine to do quick hemming and easy alterations. If I added up all the simple tailoring tasks I’ve done over the years and what I would have paid a professional for each of them, that’s a lot of money! Plus, repairing and adding lifespan to my kids’ favorite garments also cuts down on the need to shop.

    These modest but very useful skills either started with or were bolstered by home ec classes we were all required to take in our upstate New York public middle school. In fact everyone was required to take both home ec AND shop. (My shop skills never saved me a penny, I am sad to admit.) Now, if everyone had these skills, maybe the prepared food and retail garment industries would take a hit, but individually, I’m glad to have acquired these skills.

  16. Even for the college bound, the lessons you mention are valuable. Everyone needs to understand nutrition. It’s like gravity, only slower if we don’t obey the laws of nutrition we will pay for it in sickness and obesity. And almost everyone needs to understand budgets, and taxes and raising healthy children.

    There has been a resurgence of FACS classes in the last few years – we hope that we will reap the benefits with healthier graduates – some will go to college, some won’t – but they’ll understand money, nutrition and balance!

  17. I too remember Home Ec, required in my first year of high school. I remember hating it. I had been cooking for my family since the age of 9 or 10, had made most of my own clothes for a year or two, knew how to balance a checkbook, and so on. My mother had taught me all of that when I was little, so I was bored sick. Learning how to make Jello and chocolate chip cookies, and to hem skirts, did nothing for me.
    Plus, in my school district at that time, only girls had to take it, so only girls did. Boys got to take wood shop (which girls were not allowed), or even auto mechanics.
    Now, typing class was another thing. My mother insisted that I take it, and being able to touch type 50+ per minute made writing my dissertation a MUCH easier enterprise.

  18. I know I’m a late commenter, but I wanted to put my two cents in. I have been working as a Life Skills para for two years and I have brought so much home to my children in terms of teaching them functional life skills. I hadn’t thought my kids were ready to learn to do anything but simple chores, but I was wrong. Every time we would teach something at school, I would teach my kids at home. Consequently, they can now make their own toast, pop their own popcorn (I put kernels in a paper bag, can’t stand the processed stuff), and my 6 and 8 year old can start a full load of laundry with soap, switch to the dryer, and fold/put away the clothes. They are so proud of themselves and I am proud of them too because there are college age kids who can’t do that.

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