I previously shared that grocery shopping has a lot of tasks that are overlooked. One is working with unit costs. There are two math tasks related to unit cost, interpreting what a unit cost is and computing the total cost for buying multiple items.

When I take a student into a grocery store to work on unit costs, where is what I do. I start with a pack of items (photo on the left) and ask the student to compute the cost for 1 item, in this case, “what is the price for the pack of chew sticks, how many in a pack, how much for 1 chewstick?” Then I prompt the student to compute the total if he buys 3 packs. This allows the student to differentiate between the two tasks. The cost per items is easier to grasp and then is followed with the same prompts for a jar of sauce (below right).

I then have the student compare unit costs for the large vs the small jars and ask, “do you want to pay $4.99 per ounce or $5.99 per ounce.” This language is more accessible than “which is a better deal?” You can work towards that language eventually.

These tasks can be previewed at school with a mock grocery store. The price labels can be created on the computer.

If you have a student who is learning to count money, here is a virtual set up to do so. I suggest having the student do a test run by moving coins into a box and bills into a box. It is easy to duplicate each item by clicking on the item to duplicate it.

If it works, you can insert images of items to purchase. Note, I start with just pennies or just $1 bills and incrementally add additional currency. I also present items to purchase that are of interest to the student – the image below was used with a student who loves Minecraft.

The way a student counts money in school on a school desk or table (top photo) is the way he or she will attempt count at the register as seen in the 2nd photo in which the student pulled all bills from his wallet then counted, with some bills folded. (Bonus if you can identify the woman in the photo!!!)

In the top photo (below) I had the student pull bills out from his wallet, with the bills unfolded and in order in his wallet (you can see he pulled a $20 bill first). In the next photo you can see that he is counting out the bills from the wallet as he did in practice.

The images shown are excerpts from the latest iteration of a budget project I have used for years. The content addressed in this project can be used as stand alone activities and are relevant real life examples for our students. Even the younger students could benefit, e.g., learning addition by shopping for items online and recording the prices (for older students throw in computing tax). These topics are especially useful for multiplication word problems, rate, single variable equations, and linear functions (slope being rate of change such as car payment per month).

Here is an overview. You graduate from high school and are living on your own. You have a job, but your car is getting old. You need to figure out how to save for a down payment in your budget and for when you must pay a car payment and insurance. (You will have to get your OWN insurance.)

The image below shows the table for all monthly expenses.

The students have imbedded activities such as

estimating monthly food costs by estimating cost for meals for a single day

shopping for disposable household items

shopping for car insurance based on the car they shop for (more on that at the end) NOTE: they do not share personal information other than a school email address (or my email address) to receive the quote

searching for a job with a hourly pay and estimate after tax income

They shop for a car last as the idea is they need to save up for a down payment. The amount they can save is based on how much money is left over after paying all other bills. How much they save will be converted to how much they can spend on a car payment and monthly insurance payment.

As a parent of a child with a disability and as a math educator, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that a group of adults (educators and professionals) convene to discuss and plan how to help a child. A great deal of time, resources, and money is concentrated on that child. Awesome! Unfortunately, in math education I frequently encounter situations in which this collective energy is concentrated on math that is more about boxes to check than engaging the student in math that he or she will need in post-secondary life.

IDEA enumerates the purpose of special education, with the transition goals aligned with employment, living skills, and future education that are desired for each individual student. This is explicit and aligns with the goal most teachers likely have, to make a difference in the lives of their students.

Despite this, when I am called in to help with math programming for a student I often find the math being presented to the student is not aligned with the post-secondary goals and often appear to the result of following the general ed curriculum, by default. Here are some examples.

I co-taught an algebra 1 class with a student impacted by autism to the point that he needed a paraprofessional guiding him through the daily work. He worked in isolation with the para and struggled with the basic elements of the course. It was not until his junior year that he was moved to a consumer math class.

A senior was in a consumer math course I taught. The course was for students who could not access the general curriculum, yet her transition goal for education was to attend a community college. This setting likely require a math course (that did not have consumer math topics) and a placement test.

Over 25 years of teaching math I have periodically heard educators minimize the struggles of students with math with the rationalization “they will never need this math.” My response is to ask why “then we are presenting this math to them?!”

So what math do they need? Here is a list of blog posts that address this question. In short, here is what I share with IEP teams, educators, parents, and special ed teacher candidates I teach.

If the goal is a career that involves a 4 year degree, then boxes must be checked. The student will have to have the math courses needed to get into the collegeÂ andÂ to prepare for the math in his or her major. This is the “mathy math” that will be on a college placement test as well.

For a 2 year degree at a school with open admissions, the focus of the high school math can be narrowed to the math course required (if any) and on the placement test. Typically, this would involve a focus on algebra. For the aforementioned 10th grader, we did not cover geometry and prioritized the algebra topics to cover.Â

For another middle school student whose goal was to have a job and to be as independent as possible. He loved sports and his mother said he would love to work in a sports related store. For him I recommended data and statistics (not the mathy type but meaningful and applied stats and data) to help him make sense of and discuss sports stats. This was complemented by a recommendation for consumer math.

As I wrote previously, shopping is dense with math tasks as are grocery stores. Here are some division situations that are sneaky challenging and require a student to know when and why to divide before even reaching for the calculator. I will use these to help illustrate the fact that life skills math is not simply counting money or using a calculator to add up prices. There is a great deal of problem solving and thinking skills that need to be developed.

For example, if a student has $60 to spend on gifts for her 3 teachers the student needs to understand that she can spend up to $20 per teacher (before even talking about taxes).

An entry point for division can involve a dividing situation the students intuitively understand, e.g., sharing food. Start with 2 friends sharing 8 Buffalo wings evenly (below).

This can lead into the 3 teachers sharing the $60 evenly (below). In turn, this can be followed by the online shopping shown above.

This approach can be used to develop an understanding of unit cost (cited in the shopping is dense post). Start with a pack of items to allow the students to see the cost for a single item before getting into unit cost by ounces, for example.

I have had success with teaching these division related concepts using sheer repetition as much of our learning is experiential learning. Using a Google Jamboard as shown in the photos allows for the repetition.

I recently worked with a student on an online grocery shopping activity – finding ingredients for mac and cheese. We had the ingredients listed in a column on a Google Doc (allows both of us to edit the doc simultaneously) and then he cropped and pasted a photo of each ingredient (see photo below). The goal was for him to identify the total he need and the total cost in planning for actual shopping or to continue with the online shopping. Note: he wasn’t actually buying anything at this point but this was a step in preparing him to do so.

This activity is dense with math tasks and shopping related tasks. The math tasks include the following:

Identify the price (vs quantity of the item or unit price).

Interpret the quantity for the ingredient.

Identify the units (oz and cups)

Convert units

Compare amount in box with amount needed.

Determine how much more is needed, if any.

Compare choices before selecting the item, (Barilla Pasta vs another brand).

To convert units, the “mathy” approach can be used or the student may simply use an app. For this student we chose an online unit converter (see below). This is more complicated that it appears. The student must choose the units and the order (in this case convert cups to ounces or vise versa), distinguish between imperial and US cups, understand that you enter the quantity (the search results in 1 US ounce appearing by default), and then interpret the decimal (keep in mind the ingredient quantities are in fractions).

Life skills math is more complex and challenging that parents and educators may realize. As a result, the planning for developing these skills should begin much sooner rather than later – not to mention the actual logistical tasks of shopping, e.g. finding an item in the grocery store.

Counting out the total value for a set of coins can be very challenging for students who struggle with money.

Here is a video showing how to use a WORD document table a former colleague and I created to support students in a life skills class. The video shows how this handout is used but does so with a virtual version the can be completed on the computer (see image below). Here is a link to the virtual document.

In working with students, parents and IEP teams, I find that there is an assumption that math at some point, possibly beyond arithmetic, is simply a science fiction movie that is minimally related to real life. I hear from students as well as adults, statements like, “algebra, when are we ever going to use it?” My response is, ALL THE TIME!

The math we often present in school is a “mathy” version of the math we encounter in life. For example, the top photo below shows a pizza menu and a situation that is realistic. The calculator screen shot below the menu shows how we likely would solve the problem using a calculator on our phone.

Below is the same type of problem, but solved using “mathy” math. How many of us (besides me) are doing this at the pizzeria?

The point is, we engage in algebra but maybe do not use all the symbols and vocabulary of algebra, e.g. when we typed in 2.25 repeatedly in our calculator, we were working with the math term “slope.”

This has implications for secondary students whose post-secondary plans do not include college. If the math class is teaching “mathy” math but you want your student to learn math as it is used in real life, then an alternative math course is needed. This could be addressed through the IEP.

Below is a photo of a hyper-doc that I use to map out a long range plan for math services and academics for students receiving special education services. Here is a link to a video explaining how the document is organized and how it “works.” (Note, the image of the document on the video is not crisp, so I suggest you look at the handout while watching the video.)

The document contains several links to resources such as videos, websites and blog posts that provide additional information. Feel free to reach out to me using the Contact Form on this page if you have questions or would like input. I am happy to help.