Working independently and effectively with money is a crucial component to independent living. When I started working on math for students receiving special education I was taken aback by the number of high school students who could not work with money effectively, including counting out the total value for a given set of coins.
One of the first situations I encountered involved an upperclassman who, as reported by the parent, was learning to count money by completing handouts at school. This is NOT the way to learn to handle money. Worksheets can be used to target a specific individual skill but to learn to handle money the student has to actually handle real money.
This can take the form of baby steps – learn to crawl before walking. If a student has limited money skills here is one way to get started.
Have the student simply hand money or a card to a clerk (see photo below). This can be done while you are shopping and the student only hands over money and receives the money.
Pick a single item that costs a couple of dollars (and some change). Hand the student an appropriate number of bills (no change yet). Have the student count out the bills for a total and hand it over to the cashier. If necessary, have the student count out the money at a table or empty aisle in the grocery store then take the money over to pay. Then the student receives the coins and hands them back to you.
Same scenario but this time provide the student the bills and count out the pennies needed to pay. Choose an item that costs just a few cents, e.g. $2. 08. The student practices counting out bills and pennies.
Continue this with just dimes then dimes and pennies etc.
At some point you will want to address the concept of change returned by the cashier. To do this have the student pay with a higher bill (5 or 10 dollar bill), receive the change then count out the change at the table. Compare to what is on the receipt (see photo below).
For many of our kiddos this process can take a long time because the simple steps like counting out dollar bills takes practice. For example, students often count out money by laying the bills side by side and this takes time. This is not an effective approach to use while standing at the aisle facing the cashier.
Saw the following price tags, shown in the two photos, at an office supply store. $4 for 4 batteries or $9 for 8 batteries. To compare we can double the smaller pack to see that 2 packs would cost $8 for 8 batteries for a better deal.
Another method is to use unit rates. Rates are a measure of one quantity, with units, per 1 unit of another quantity, e.g. you make $10 per hour. To compute
Below is an example of instruction for unit rates to help a student conceptually understand (pretend that gas price shown on this pump is $2 per gallon). Say you pumped 3 gallons and it cost $6. Show the 3 1-gallon gas cans together and the 6 $1 bills together. Separate them to you have equal groups to get $ per 1 gallon. You can use actual gas cans (unused) or cutouts from Google Images.
Very clever activity implemented by the teacher who runs the Life Skills program at our school. She created envelopes (below) for each teacher. The envelopes do not contain any content but are used for practice sorting mail for the students in the program. The students in the program sort and deliver them to our mailbox. We return them to this return bin for reuse.
Such experiences should be available to all of our students who are more severely impacted. Many will need YEARS of practice to develop skills which means a transition program from 18-21 years old may not be enough.
Math is often considered an esoteric set of information that is disjointed from the reality people face, aside perhaps from money. Sadly, in school, especially in older grade levels, math is indeed presented this way.
A situation as simple as riding an elevator provides opportunities to show and engage a student with math applied in authentic and common situations. For example, the elevator buttons address counting and cardinality (4 indicates a total of 4 floors – ignoring the R), comparison (if we are on floor 2 and need to go down, which floor do we go to?) and measurement (height above ground floor measured in floors). Such situations also provides opportunities for generalization into other settings – the important settings of every day life!
Below is a photo of a typical worksheet for money. I worked with a parent of a high school student severely impacted by autism and she explained that her son worked on nothing but worksheets when he worked on math. For students with more severe disabilities the worksheet may not be real or meaningful as the photos and the setting may be too abstract.
Below is a photo of shelves in a mock grocery store we set up at our school for students who were in a life skills program. They would have a shopping list, collect the items in a basket then compute the total cost. We had a mock register set up (eventually we procured an actual working register) and the students made the same types of calculations they would on a worksheet but in an authentic setting, which was more concrete. We would start with simple money amounts, e.g. $1.00 then make the prices increasingly more challenging, e.g. $1.73.