Including Life Skills Goals in the IEP

Development of life skills occurs naturally for most students throughout their school career, mastering various skills as their brains and bodies mature. Teacher and peer expectations for social acumen and executive function management capabilities increases throughout their school life as well. For students with special needs, the development of these critical skills may lag and require direct teaching, modeling, and practice in order to keep up with their neurotypical peers. Learning these skills is essential as it will enhance a child's ability to successfully participate socially, and academically in school, grow their confidence in their capabilities and ultimately, foster their independence and love of learning for college life and beyond.

Expectations and life skill acquisition should focus on the age appropriate skills necessary to manage academic tasks and grow self advocacy. Very young students may need to develop life skills for helping their brain and body focus during instructional times; middle school students learn how to begin assignments and understand what tasks need to be done for various teachers; and high school students how to break a long assignment into manageable chunks or cooperate with a team of students on a large project.

Pro-tip: Here are some key elementary, middle, and high school life skills:

Elementary: Self Management in and outside of the classroom, using words

to express thoughts and needs; practice focusing attention during learning

times, and being kind and respectful to self and others.

Middle: Approaching others to initiate conversation in order to offer or re-

ceive help, listen carefully to understand others' points of view and sustain

attention during learning periods.

High School: Time Management for both social and academic pursuits, initiate

and sustain conversations with peers and school personnel, respectfully

coexist, making choices to participate within the school and community, in

personally valuable ways.

Including Life Skills In the IEP

Educators understand the connection bewteen life skill development and student success. This is why goals for life skill practice is a key part of IEP planning.

As a parent, if these skills are not already in your child's IEP, you may request they be explicitly included with specifics on how the skills will be taught, measured and progress reported. The most effective way to advocate for this is to plan ahead and outline specific goals in advance of the meeting, along withe the reason you would like these goals addressed. If the team has questions you will be prepared to answer them and clarify your view. This may include sharing examples of how the lack of proficiency manifests at home and how it might appear at school. This collaborative spirit enables the school to understand your perspective and make informed decisions on how best to help your child gain these skills.

This translates into the IEP as goals aimed at practice with these and related skills. For example,

"John will be taught how to ask for help when he doesn't understand how to complete an assignment. He will use words to state his needs in a clear and respectful way."

Another example may be,

"John will practice self awareness, first asking himself to reread directions out loud to perform a self check in, before requesting assistance. Methods to teach this skill include games, role plays, modeling with bi-weekly probes to check for understanding and proficiency. Therapist will teach the teaching assistant to work with the student on the same skill, in order for daily practice to occur in the classroom. Therapist will check in with the teacher and case manager as well as other related service providers to determine the student's generalization with the skill. Therapist will communicate with parents every quarter through quarterly summaries or parent conferences as well as at the midpoint of each quarter."

While goals to address specific learning disabilities are also critical to the IEP, if the child is provided with practice for how to "do school," less time is wasted and frustration felt for issues resulting from these deficits. With life skill challenges addressed alongside learning difficulties, your child's ability to learn will improve.

At the middle level, students continue to need practice and encouragement with these skills as well.

A Real Life Example

I recently learned of a young man with diagnosed attention issues who was a very strong student but struggling due to family and instructional changes. The child's world was upside down due due to a parental split and the new virtual learning environment. He was feeling overwhelmed and needed help. He had difficulty checking in with himself to to assess what he needed and and did not know how to seek help appropriately. As a result, he was frustrated, acting out, and avoiding school altogether. Self awareness and self advocacy are necessary life skills throughout life, but this boy needed help to develop them in short order.

At a parent teacher conference, the family of this young man requested additional counseling be put into place because they worried he would act out due to his frustration upon returning to a typical school day. This forward thinking is commendable and will result in their son building a relationship with a trusted mentor in the school system. This individual is aware of the life changes in his family and can work with him to teach him skills for checking in with himself and accessing resources at school when he feels overwhelmed. The school agreed to a 504 plan upon the parent's request, which is a terrific start. To implement this strategy, the team will develop a plan for how the child will be taught to do a self check in, and by whom, and how the family will be communicated with regarding the child's progress with the skills.

Approaching Independence:

At the high school level, life skill development is urgent because college and independence are so much closer. There is also great opportunity in this time of life because certain skills may be more easily acquireds with their greater ability to reason logically at this stage.

So, the previously mentioned life skills like self management and self check ins may be necessary goals in the plan, to either provide practice or consistent reminders for how to appropriately verbalize needs and who to to reach out to for assistance. If you have other skills or your child lets you know of areas in which she is struggling, you can advocate accordingly. You can also coach her in how to take the lead by encouraging her to approach teachers/peers, with requests or for extra help.

Understanding what is required to complete an assignment/project is a life skill practiced in high school and required to manage oneself in college, the workplace, and in day to day living as an independent adult. When students struggle with this, it is a learning opportunity that can be life changing if the skills the student needs are identified, and taught with consistency. For example, a young lady who is a junior in high school was struggling to keep up with homework assignments due to slow processing, anxiety, and depression as well as attentional issues. Her teachers reported that she was very engaged during the classes but missing homework assignments and low test scores were preventing her from earning higher grades. Her parents requested implementation of goals for how to teach their daughter to check in for understanding of assignment directions, because this is what the child relayed prevented her from completing work. In addition, the parents requested targeted skill building aimed at time management. This was a change from general check ins with the counselor; the parents felt their child would benefit from more structured goals to work on during that time.

The parents asked that their child be offered opportunities for extended time for work completion given her mental health and medical needs required greater mental capacity than a typical student. The team agreed that this was a necessary modification to add to her IEP. All of the requests made by the family were valid, especially because their daughter was a child with medical AND mental health diagnoses. However, without strongly advocating, the school may not have understand the significant impact these challenges presented on a daily basis to this young lady. The most imprtant lesson from this case is to be very direct. If the results are not adequate, seek help, either from a trsuted support or an advocate who can help to identify your areas of need, and then communicate to the team.

Has your child benefitted from explicit IEP goals that teach self management and independence? IF so, please tell about your experience in the comment section below. As always, thanks for stopping by, and feel free to send questions to:

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I offer over twenty years of service In K-12 education as a school counselor and administrator. My school counseling expertise has benefitted children and families because I know that all students hav