Functional Based Curriculum is NOT the end of the Road

Functional Based Curriculum is NOT the end of the Road

I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed the look of loss in the eyes of parents when school district personnel say, “Your student would be better served in a functional based program”.  At that moment the walls are go up and the hopes for their son or daughter to enjoy a positive quality of life, like everyone else, deteriorate.

I would like to tell you about a school in the South San Francisco Bay area where a functional based program does lead to a positive quality of life where families still hold onto hope.  I would like to demonstrate how functional based programming can incorporate all critical educational areas.

Wings Learning Center, located in Redwood City, California, embraces the idea that when a student is highly engaged in a task that is meaningful, purposeful and fun; learning is not only more possible but it will stick and generalize to other environments outside the school setting.

At first glance, cooking, seems like a just an ordinary skill of daily living that should just be taught in the home as a child prepares for adult life.  But, let’s take a closer look at how it incorporates language expression and comprehension, how fine motor and motoring planning occurs during the activity, how mathematical concepts are embedded as well as science, social studies, problem solving and reading; while it also prepares the student for a positive quality of life.

But before we look at cooking, let’s start by thinking how to use an activity like Laundry in educating our students in a meaningful and purposeful way first.   We need to understand that this purposeful task also teaches language concepts such as dirty, clean, wrinkled, dry, wet, darks and lights. Through learning to fold, operate machines and follow sequences it builds fine motor and motoring planning. It offers problems to solve (hot, cold, bleach) and reading comprehension (reading labels) and builds math skills through understanding amounts and making estimations, while teaching our students to take care of their personal needs.

Functional Based teaching starts with a teacher, who honors the value of this type of learning and who uses assessment to understand where the student is developmentally in the areas of social, cognition, communication and physical, is able to develop effective goals and can address a variety of student learning needs through meaningful activities.   Then the process proceeds with the teacher designing the key steps to reach the goal and the specific supports that are needed to have the student reach the goal.  Once the activity is broken down into its essential steps, pictures could be taken of each step or words written to describe each step (for readers) and a story written to fully explain why laundry is an essential daily living skill.  The story can be in pictures version, video version or in written version (depending on the student’s learning style).

The story is sent home for home reading opportunities to support school reading.  The story might include why we do laundry, where we do laundry, when we do laundry, how we do laundry and what materials may be used to accomplish the task. The teacher and the parent will discuss how the activity is taught during school, during home time and in the community and design a plan for implementation.

The occupational therapist and speech & language therapist as well as the teacher will work together to design and implement the activity in such a way that the student’s developmental challenges are supported and the outcomes successful.

Some potential challenges/solutions to teaching Laundry skills:

  • Hand strength to work on turning, opening and closing
  • Pincer grasp for folding and appliance operation
  • Balance for carrying the laundry
  • Muscle tone for task completion
  • Sequencing for following task steps
  • Vocabulary and concept building for comprehension
  • Making of visuals, check list and schedules for starting and completing task
  • Social Stories Development
  • Data taking to measure outcomes
  • Parent involvement and generalization activities

Now let’s look at the activity of cooking. There is a plethora of learning outcomes through cooking:

  • Learning to design appropriate meals
  • Learning to design meal planning budgets
  • Shopping and purchasing
  • Choice making and problem solving
  • Communication skills
  • Social Thinking skills (likes, dislikes, allergies, manners) and serving friends and enjoying group meals
  • Reading and understanding recipes/directions
  •  Understanding Amounts (Math)
  • Using cooking appliances and utensils
  • Fine Motor development (pour, slice, dice, cut, stir, whip)
  • Memory skill development (sequencing task)
  • Nutrition (Science Curriculum)
  • Social Studies (foods of different cultures)

Once again, at the Wings Learning Center the student’s team, led by the teacher will come together to share developmental learning information on the student, break the task down in manageable learning chunks, design visual supports, schedules, activities, engage the parents, take data and develop measurable goals so that meaningful outcomes are reached. 

While typical students are usually sitting at a desk for 40 to 60 minutes, listening to the their teachers deliver a lesson in a group of 20 or 25 students and then completing a ditto master, by filling in blanks or answering why questions or filling in answers on a page in their language arts book, science or math books on making change, understanding the value of coins, identifying the 4 food groups, solving math word problems or listing the  steps required to complete a task, our students are acquiring skills in a more functional based way aligned to their unique developmental challenges.

Parents, you can make sure that a functional based program addresses: cognition expansion, reading, writing, mathematics, science, history and more.  These areas of education do not need to be abandoned in functional based programs but integrated in new, more meaningful ways through:

  • Reading recipes, newspapers, applications, advertisements, maps, web sites, bus routes, event schedules, menus, community signs and interest based magazines to increase comprehension.
  • Writing out recipes, menus, schedules, invitations, email, applications, and shopping lists with excellent spelling, punctuation and sentence structure
  • Mathematical skills can be taught through cooking, measuring,  mapping, exercising, scheduling, music activities and art activities
  • Science skills can be taught through gardening, community access activities (parks, beaches, hikes, museums)

When we think creatively;   

When we understand our student’s development learning challenges;

When we understand the key educational standards at each grade level;

When we use engaging and meaningful activities;

When we use evidence-based strategies that help our learning challenged students’ access educational information;

We can truly design effective functional learning environments where our students enjoy learning in a meaningful way.

Functional based programs are a great beginning!

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Written by: Karen Kaplan See other articles by Karen Kaplan
About the Author:

Karen Kaplan is currently working as the Executive Director at Wings Learning Center, a school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Redwood City, CA.  She is founder and coordinator of The Marin Autism Lecture Series/Autism Information and Resource Fair currently in its fourth year. She is an adjunct professor at Alliant University in San Francisco, CA, in the Autism Specialist Program. Karen sits on the Marin Autism Collaborative and is chair of Youth Autism Committee. She has worked with families for over 30 years as a private educational consultant. She founded and directed a residential program for children on the autism spectrum in the Sacramento area for 20 years and served on the California Autism Committee, addressing the Housing Challenges in our State. Visit her website here.

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