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Unlocking Independence: A Guide to Assessing Functional Life Skills in Special Education

In the realm of autism and ABA classrooms, one of our primary goals is to empower our learners with the functional life skills they need to lead independent and fulfilling lives. Central to this mission is the assessment and development of those essential abilities that enable individuals to navigate daily tasks and routines with confidence and autonomy. In this guide, we’ll delve into comprehensive assessment strategies for identifying and prioritizing functional life skills, laying the foundation for effective IEP (Individualized Education Program) goal development.

Understanding Functional Life Skills

Functional life skills encompass a broad range of abilities necessary for independent living, social interaction, and participation in the community. These skills can be categorized into various domains, including:

  • Self-Care: Tasks such as dressing, grooming, toileting, and personal hygiene.
  • Daily Living: Activities related to household chores, meal preparation, cleaning, and organization.
  • Community Participation: Skills required for navigating public spaces, using transportation, shopping, and engaging in recreational activities.
  • Pre-Vocational: Tasks related to job readiness such as stocking shelves, sorting canned goods, and stuffing envelopes or delivering mail.
  • Social Skills: Interpersonal abilities like greetings, answering social questions, taking turns, and collaboration.

Assessment Strategies

Assessing functional life skills requires a multifaceted approach that considers the individual strengths, needs, and preferences of each learner. There are two broad approaches to take when assessing future IEP goals in the area of functional life skills.

  1. Observation: Begin by observing the learner in various contexts and environments, including home, school, and community settings. Obtaining input from parents and guardians can be helpful if you do not have the opportunity to see each learner in each setting. Take note of their performance during daily routines and activities, paying attention to areas where they may require support or instruction.
  2. Structured Assessments: Once you have observed broad areas in which your learner may require more support, you can begin to use a structured assessment tool to choose specific skills to baseline. When baselining a skill, provide any relevant materials and ask the learner to complete the skill, without providing them any assistance. For example, if you were assessing the skill of stocking shelves, you would provide a shelf with items, and matching items in a basket or box, and asking the learner to stock the items in the correct place. If the learner already demonstrates mastery of this skill, it would not be an appropriate goal; whereas, if the learner struggles to complete the skill independently, it can be an appropriate goal for his or her upcoming IEP.

Prioritizing Goals & Objectives

Once you’ve identified the learner’s strengths, needs, and areas for growth, the next step is to prioritize goals and objectives for their IEP. Consider the following factors when setting goals:

  • Relevance: Ensure that goals are meaningful and relevant to the learner’s daily life and long-term aspirations. Ask parents and guardians for input so as to tailor the goals toward their home environment (e.g., do they typically wash dishes by hand or load the dishwasher at home?).
  • Hierarchy of Skills: Prioritize goals based on the foundational skills needed to achieve greater independence and autonomy. For example, you would not expect a learner to master a goal for preparing a sandwhich if they cannot first identify common grocery items within a kitchen setting.
  • Individualization: Tailor goals to the unique abilities and preferences of each learner, taking into account their strengths, challenges, and personal interests. While it would be nice to teach every learner every skill, the reality is that we are limited on time. Especially in the area of pre-vocational skills, assessing learners’ interests can help identify areas that they will be most likely to succeed in in the real world after their educational years are complete.

Although it can be scary to think of our learners “in the real world” after graduation, prioritizing functional life skills can empower our students with the tools they need to unlock greater independence and success in all aspects of life.


In conclusion, assessing functional life skills is a crucial step in any autism or ABA classroom, laying the groundwork for meaningful goal development and targeted intervention strategies. By employing comprehensive assessment strategies and prioritizing goals that address the individual needs of each learner, we can foster greater independence, confidence, and self-determination in our students.


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