Developing and assessing life skills for students with SEND

A curriculum which meets the needs of young people as they prepare for adult life requires life skills to be taught daily throughout the school day. Gill Barrett shares how best to implement and measure life skills in the post 16 curriculum

Author details

Gill is the principal of The Loddon School, a residential special school, providing 52-week education and care for children aged 8-19 with autism. The school is part of the Loddon...

Schools are required to develop a 16-19 curriculum that ‘provides progression, stretch, mathematics and English skills, as well as work experience or industry placements and non-qualification activities’ (Ofsted Framework 2019).

For a special school or a school with a high level of SEND students, the post 16 curriculum must embrace these elements while having a clear focus on the needs of the students to allow them to live their adult life as independently as possible with a good quality of life.

What makes a good life skills curriculum?

The essential ingredients of a life skills curriculum must reflect the needs of the cohort. Therefore, the curriculum offer should link directly to the aspirations for the students within the school. It is important to marry high expectations with a realistic approach to the life skills individuals will require.

Although these are broad-based headings, each programme of study should be individually crafted for each student.

Key ingredients

Independent living home-based skills

  • Household chores
  • Shopping and meal preparation
  • Using household appliances
Personal care and appearance
  • Personal care skills
  • Laundry
  • Dressing and selection of clothes
Financial literacy
  • Using an ATM
  • Using a debit or credit card
  • Weekly or monthly budget planning
Community access
  • Using public transport
  • Using leisure and social recreation centres
  • Keeping safe in the community


The curriculum should have well formulated objectives for each section. These objectives can then be broken down into learning steps.

Example objective: to travel on a familiar vehicle safely and appropriately

  1. To get into a vehicle
  2. To find a seat
  3. To accept a seat belt
  4. To clip seat belt
  5. To keep seat belt on
  6. To remain seated for journey
  7. To accept vehicle stopping (at lights, traffic etc.)
  8. To accept end of journey
  9. To allow seat belt to be unclipped
  10. To remove own seat belt
  11. To get off vehicle without support and stand safely outside

Implementation – learning that sticks

The implementation of a life skills curriculum is equally as important as getting the right content.

Students with SEND find it far more difficult to generalise their learning, so learning general rules and then applying them to different situations can be non-productive.

Learning in context, learning the routines and then slowly introducing highly similar contexts which slowly progress the skill forward works and results in the acquisition of life skills.

The SUCCESs Formula

Chip and Don Heath (2008) describe the ingredients required for making learning stick, the SUCCESs formula. Their research explored why some learning memories stuck more than others. The ingredients are:

  • Simple – when a student can use everyday objects, familiar items in situ, the learning experience can be repeated easily, giving the student confidence to use and explore further.
  • Unexpected – student-centred discovery learning establishes flow, engaging the student in the zone of learning.
  • Concrete – when learning is linked to real events, practical skills are developed. Active or kinetic learning responds well to the needs of many children with autism or ADHD.
  • Credible learning experiences – learning in a multisensory environment links well to the interests of the student and makes it engaging and memorable.
  • Emotional – when the inquisitive, enquiring mind makes a discovery the ‘wow moment’ happens and learning flow sticks firmly.
  • Stories – adventures in the community act as a springboard to create a narrative, recalling the story many times making it a truly enriching learning moment.

Loddon School case study

The Loddon School uses their PLLUSS curriculum (Personalised Learning for Life Using Supportive Strategies). This curriculum draws upon the framework for adulthood and includes three key areas.

  1. Life skills - personal care, dressing, cooking, household chores, shopping, travelling, healthy living, and self-occupancy skills.
  2. Vocational skills – work experience including gardening, animal care, recycling, helping in school café and tuck shop, community work experience delivering magazines and litter picking. Mini enterprise through the horticultural work of the school allows students to be involved in small scale enterprise selling produce and seeds.
  3. Enrichment skills – experiencing sports, art, dance, music, gardening, minibreaks, leisure activities.

Through all aspects of the curriculum the functional skills of literacy and numeracy are interwoven, concentrating on those skills required for everyday living and enrichment.

Discovery session

A recent discovery session focused on personal care and hand washing. The students had a multi-sensory exploration using a variety of cleaning substances to investigate washing away germs.

The lesson progressed to watching a video of hand washing as the students stood and copied the actions. This was a highly fun and multisensory lesson which engaged students and provided in context learning of safe hand washing.

Measuring the impact

The most productive way to measure the impact of a life skills is through student-centred targets. At the Loddon School each student has a target for each area of the PLLUSS curriculum.

These short-term targets form part of their framework for preparing for adulthood.

The targets can be levelled to identify the changing levels of support that the student requires to complete the various skills.

  • Level 6 – no help required.
  • Level 5 – spoken or signed prompts.
  • Level 4 – gestural prompting.
  • Level 3 – physical prompting (hand over hand guidance).
  • Level 2 – sensory experience – engagement in a sensory way rather than completing task/skill.
  • Level 1 – experience recorded – student is present but no physical engagement.

Each skill can be recorded and the progression with the prompt level also shown.

Skills will have to be repeated many times until the student become proficient. Due to their needs, some students may be able to do certain life skills at level 6 but others to level 3.

Traffic light system

If each skill within the curriculum is tabulated, the level of proficiency can be recorded, and a summary traffic light system can be used to show the progress within each level as well.

At the Loddon School a colour coded system of targets is used.

  • Black – achievement at a particular prompt level is below 40%.
  • Orange – between 41-60% is achieved.
  • Green – 60% and above is achieved.

Above 60% would be deemed a correct level to move on to a higher prompt level, and the use of photographs or film clips can be used to record the skills.

Using external qualifications like the AQA unit awards of the ASDAN programme is important as it provides external validation for the student and also allows for continuation of skill development beyond 19 if adult placements.


  • Blackburn, R. (2000) Within and without autism, Good Autism Practice Journal, 1, 1, 2-8.
  • Department for Education (21 February 2017) SEND: 19- to 25-year-olds’ entitlement to EHC plans - A guide for local authorities about EHC plans for 19- to 25-year-olds with special educational needs and disability (SEND).
  • Heath C., and Heath D. (2008) Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck.



Last Updated: 
06 Oct 2020