Learning Life Management in the Classroom
Kaiser, Denise, Abell, Michael, Teaching Exceptional Children
Have you seen these shameful statistics?
* 47% of adolescents with learning disabilities drop out of school by the age of 16.
* People with disabilities have an employment rate that is among the lowest of any group of Americans under 65years-old.
What are we doing about these outcomes for our students with disabilities? This article investigates the challenges of providing education for life, examines some shortcomings of the traditional high school special education curriculum, and looks closely at an innovative secondary curriculum designed to assist students with mild disabilities in their successful transition to adulthood (see box, "Transition to What?").
Challenges of Providing Education for Life
The traditional special education curriculum at the secondary level, driven by both graduation requirements and deficits in the student's present level of performance, often does not meet the transitional needs of youth with mild disabilities. These academic deficits have been the primary factor driving teachers' instructional content and delivery of services (Phillips, 1990). Students exit school with a collection of fragmented information and skills that have little meaning or significance in their lives. According to Halpern (1992):
Curriculum content still tends to focus too much on remedial academics and not enough on functional skills. Instructional design often ignores the issues of maintenance and generalization without which we have no reason to believe that the skills being taught in the classroom will be used in the community settings where they are relevant. (p. 208)
Across the United States, students with disabilities generally lack effective selfadvocacy skills. Self-advocacy refers to a person's ability to effectively communicate, convey, negotiate, or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs, and rights. It involves making informed decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions (Van Ruesen, Deshler, & Shumaker, 1989). Despite the fact that current legislation encourages student involvement in transition planning, student involvement is generally negligible, with goals and objectives traditionally teacher-generated (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1993).
When students are not involved, they tend to lack motivation to achieve the teacher's goals and objectives. Further, educators provide little direct instruction to students in self-advocacy skill development, and educators seldom acquaint students with federal and state regulations governing special education. According to Phillips (1990), academic programs for students with learning disabilities traditionally teach students how to compensate for skill deficits, but this instruction does not sufficiently prepare adolescents to advocate for themselves in an adult world.
Low motivation to remain in school is a widespread problem among students with mild disabilities (The Council for Exceptional Children, 1994). We see many effects of low motivation: poor school attendance, dropout rates, low grades, and behavioral problems. Researchers have found that student motivation is a critical component in the effectiveness of academic programs for adolescents with learning disabilities (Ellis, Deshler, Lenz, Schumaker, & Clark, 1991) .
Lack of Post-High School Opportunities
Students with mild disabilities generally do not pursue postsecondary educational opportunities, an outcome that further impedes their progress toward successful transition to adulthood (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; also, see box, "Life After High School"). This effect is intensified by the fact that once the student exits public high school, there is an abrupt cutoff of the long-term resources and support that specially designed instruction provided.
Life Management Curriculum
To demonstrate the relevancy of school curriculum to adult living, the educators involved in the Student Transition Enhancement Project (STEP) developed the course "Life Management" for secondary students with mild disabilities. …