Monday, September 18, 2017

When "Functional Skills" Aren't

In special education for children and young adults with significant disabilities we often assume that functional skills is our most important goal.  Yet, we often don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what functional means or which skills are actually functional for our learners. This is the dictionary definition of functional:

adjective: functional
  1. 1.
    of or having a special activity, purpose, or task; relating to the way in which something works or operates.
    "there are important functional differences between left and right brain"
    • (of a disease) affecting the operation, rather than the structure, of an organ.
      "functional diarrhea"
    • (of a mental illness) having no discernible organic cause.
      "functional psychosis"
  2. 2.
    designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive.
    "she had assumed the apartment would be functional and simple"
    synonyms:practical, useful, utilitarian, utility, workaday, serviceable; More
    minimalist, plain, simple, basic, modest, unadorned, unostentatious, no-frills, without frills;
    impersonal, characterless, soulless, institutional, clinical
    "a small functional kitchen"
  3. 3.
    working or operating.
    "the museum will be fully functional from the opening of the festival"
    synonyms:working, in working order, functioning, in service, in use; More
    going, running, operative, operating, in operation, in commission, in action;
    informalup and running
    "the machine is now fully functional"
  4. 4.
    relating to a variable quantity whose value depends on one or more other variables

In this definition, the part that applies to functional skills for our learners is "2. designed to be practical or useful." Functional skills should be practical and useful.  They should be skills our students will use over the course of their education and their lives. Often times these functional skills are futher broken down into activities of daily living/domestic skills, social skills, community skills, and self-determination.  Perhaps the best reference for functional skills I've ever used is the Syracuse Community Reference Curriculum. If you are looking for a good source for functional curriculum is is one place to turn.  Yet, it should never replace access to the general education curriculum.

Ironically, self-determination is often under emphasized in some functional skills curriculums.  Some such curriculums actually teach students skills that increase their likelihood to be abused or mistreated in addition to ignoring self-determination, for exaple curriculums that teach "accepting no" or "tolerating distress".  If a functional skills increases the likelihood of abuse or even just unhappiness as an adult it isn't actually functional.

When we are working with children who have developmental or intellectual disabilities but no additional physical or sensory needs it is easier to assess that child and design an educational program to teach skills which are practical and useful in addition to the general education curriculum.  This become more challenging when we are working with children with complex physical and/or sensory needs and/or complex communication needs.  Those children are much more difficult to assess and it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that just because a child cannot be assessed they are not capable of learning and progressing in the general education curriculum.  Over and over we hear stories these days of such children being underestimated and denied an education.  We need to ask ourselves, "if this student writes a book someday, what chapter do I want to be in?"

These students with complex bodies and communication needs may still need to be taught some practical and useful skills.  However, parts of the curriculum typically considered practical and useful/functional, such as hand washing, setting a table, or dressing cease to be practical and useful for some of these students.  Especially if our first response to physical and sensory challenges is turning to hand over hand methodology.  This is because some of our most complex students cannot physically do these tasks independently and we don't think about changing the activity instead of stepping in and forcing the child to participate physically.  It is, of course vital that these students be able to participate as fully as possible in these activities or alternatives to these activities.  A student who cannot wash his own hands need to be able to know when to ask to have his hands washed, ask to have his hands washed and participate as much as is needed.  He also needs to know to be sure those who care for him wash their hands and be able to request they do so.  A student who cannot physically set a table still needs to understand a table setting and know how to ask for table items they might need.  A child who cannot physically dress herself needs to be able to notice when she needs to change her clothes, choose clothes, and direct someone to find her clothes and assist her in dressing.  We need to analyze what would make each activity practical and useful for the child and then teach those skills.  However, none of these practical and useful skills and adaptations eliminates the needs for access to the general curriculum.

Some questions to ask ourselves about functional skills:
1) Are we teaching "functional skills" because we have never considered teaching the general education curriculum to this student?  For 99% of children in our schools the general education is functional.  Learning to read, write, do mathematics, learn from what we read and understand our history, society and world around us is functional.  These skills will allow typical children to understand and participate in their own lives.  Learning these skills is also functional for our learners with very significant disabilities.  The importance of what is taught doesn't disappear because our learners have complex needs.  Learning about Einstein means the child, typical or disabled, has a shared understanding of a scientist and political figure.  It means a child can understand a reference to Einstein such as, "It doesn't take an Einstein."  Learning the general education curriculum gives the child a schema to understanding.  In terms of neurology learning complex ideas such as those found in the general education curriculum  create news neuropathways which can then be reused and strengthened.  It gives the child a social currency that matches typical peers.  Have we really considered teaching general education content to our kids?  This is an area where those of us in the field of education for children with severe or multiple disabilities should take our cues from teachers of the blind and visually impaired.  Such teachers do not see a functional skills curriculum as a replacement for an academic curriculum, they see it as an extension of the general educational curriculum.  They call this the Expanded Core Curriculum

2)  Are we teaching literacy, the ultimate "functional skill"?  We use literacy skills all day everyday.  We wake up, check our phones for texts and the news - reading those things.  We read the buttons on the remote, the coffee maker and go through our morning routines.  We write a note to partner or child.  We read the messages on signs on the way to work.  Not just the road signs, but all the signs.  Here in Massachusetts the latest LED road sign messages have been "Use your blinkah!"  Even if you aren't the driver that's fun.  Maybe you see a sign for sale on something you love, or a potluck dinner or an upcoming civil event - my town just had a Yankee Doodle Parade.  How can our kids beg mom to go to the parade if they can't read the sign about it? Once we get to work we might read a bulletin board.  We might check our email.  And we aren't even at 9 am yet! Nothing is more functional, nothing is more of a life skill, than literacy.  By this I do not mean community signs and environmental print.  That isn't literacy.  Literacy is the ability to encode and decode words.  If you can encode and decode words you can read community signs and environmental print, these skills are gained through literacy.  Literacy is also a civil rights issue.  It always has been.  One of the ways one group of people exerts oppressive power on another group is to bar the teaching of literacy.  In the case of our students it is more a lack of expectation for our students, a lack of knowledge on now to do it and, to some degree, neglect.  I was tempted to say benign neglect, but it isn't benign.  It is malignant to not be taught literacy.  It is disenfranchising.  If all children except those with disabilities are taught how to read that is discrimination.  Maybe some of our kids will age out of school at 21 and they won't know how to read, but it should never be because we didn't try teach them every single day they were at school!  
 4)  Is this student capable of physically doing this "functional" task independently? If not, is working on an unattainable skill the best use of the time this student should be spending time learning?  Is it practical and useful for the child to spend time working on something they will not physically accomplish?  For example, if you have a student who is physically not able to hang up her coat because of her physical challenges should a portion of each day be spend forcing the child to hang up her coat via hand over hand methodologies.  Would her time be better spent working on some of the other skills that are typically being used during arrival or coming in from recess?  Perhaps she could be focusing on socializing with peers during the transition.  Perhaps her time would be better spent learning to direct someone else to hang her coat and put away her bag or take out her notebook.  

5) How does this functional activity teach communication skills?  Communication is the most vital skill we teach to children with multiple disabilities and complex communication needs.  It is possible to incorporate true, child generated communication into every single activity we do in schools, from functional skills to the general education curriculum.  True, child generated communication is not activating a voice output switch with a pre-recorded message that the child had no part in creating. A fact of communication is that your partner doesn't know what you are going to say!  Switches can't do this, in fact sometimes when we use voice output switches it is sometimes the child who doesn't know what she is going to say!  That is so backwards! Every student should have access to a robust communication system.  Communication partners should be using those systems to speak to the child every time they speak to the child.  We should be targeting vocabulary and communication skills at one step beyond what the child can currently do.  Making every activity a communication activity is a quick way to make a curriculum functional.

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