Balancing Functional and Academic Skills for Students with Significant Disabilities

Key Takeaway

Students with significant disabilities deserve to (and can) learn academic skills from the general education curriculum along with the functional skills needed to master daily living. Teachers and paraprofessionals should ensure they provide a balance of these skill areas in a child’s educational program. The challenge of providing high-quality academic instruction can be addressed in part by utilizing evidence-based best practices to target academic skills. —Ayla Reau 

Why Focus on Academic Skills?

Authors Cannella-Malone, Dueker, Barczak, and Brock list three compelling reasons for a focus on academic skills.

  • A focus on academic skills can lead to improved outcomes in adulthood as “increased literacy and mathematical competencies that can expand job opportunities, broaden leisure skills, and promote independent living.”
  • Students with significant disabilities are capable of making progress in the general education curriculum. 
  • All students with disabilities should have access to academic instruction since all students deserve to have access to inclusive and quality education. 

The authors conducted a systematic literature review of 225 experiments in 222 articles published in 54 peer-reviewed journals between 1976 and 2018 in order to analyze academic instruction for students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities across all areas of academic content. 

Post-School Outcomes

The increased focus on academic outcomes for all students across the years has led to an exponential increase in the number of studies in this field. With regard to students with significant disabilities, research has shown that it is possible to teach both academic and functional skills effectively and “in a way that promotes positive post-school outcomes for students with disabilities.”

A majority of the participants in these studies of academic interventions have moderate disabilities. While students with severe and profound disabilities have had the least attention paid to them with regard to academic instruction, they are known to have the worst post-school outcomes. It could be argued that “access to functional reading, writing, math, science, and social studies could have a dramatic impact on outcomes for these students.”

Content and Instructional Strategies

Studies disproportionally focus on reading skills, with a majority of studies targeting sight word instruction. “However, there are a growing number of studies moving beyond simple, rote targets and focusing on more complicated skills such as reading comprehension across content areas, essay writing, and math word problems.”

While the authors identified 16 instructional strategies used to teach academic skills, the studies mainly focus on five—reinforcement, prompting, time delay, modeling, and visual support. The 16, in order of reported use, are: 

  • Reinforcement 
  • Prompting 
  • Modeling 
  • Visual support 
  • Time delay 
  • Technology-aided instruction 
  • Least-to-most prompting 
  • Scripting 
  • Discrete trial training 
  • Peer-mediated instruction 
  • Naturalistic intervention 
  • Video modeling 
  • Graduated guidance 
  • Early reading intervention
  • Most-to-least prompting
  • Varied error correction

Learning Context

A majority of studies did not frame academic instruction within a functional context. The authors recommend that “a shift from targeting single skills to teaching relevant skills within a functional framework would likely increase the efficiency of instruction and potentially have a more powerful impact on students.”

Most studies used only a one-to-one format for instruction, with a few using small groups alone or in combination with one-to-one. Most also occurred in a self-contained special education classroom. The authors “found the lack of focus on teaching academic skills in general education surprising given that previous research has shown that students make more progress in the general education curriculum when instruction is provided in the general education [classroom] setting.”

Practical Application

Since students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities can acquire and make progress with academic skills across content areas, teacher training should ensure that new teachers engage with both functional and academic content. Educators should also be using evidence-based practices such as reinforcement, prompting, time delay, visual supports, and modeling to teach academic skills. There is also additional research that supports the effective use of these strategies by paraprofessionals who assist teachers in providing academic instruction. 

Summarized Article:

Cannella-Malone, H. I., Dueker, S. A., Barczak, M. A., & Brock, M. E. (2019). Teaching academic skills to students with significant intellectual disabilities: A systematic review of the single-case design literature. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 1744629519895387.

Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.

Researcher Scott Dueker participated in the final version of this summary.

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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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Join the MARIO Family

We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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