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.

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.

The students loved playing the game, it was engaging so they practiced the counting out money, I was able to collect data, and I was able to differentiate. When I co-taught a Consumer Math course, I would assign a para (instructional assistant) to facilitate the game with a couple students and to collect data.

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.

Here is an example of what data collection can look like. (The IEP objective should have been indicated on here as well.) It shows the data, any prompting from the teacher (P with a circle around it), notes and at the bottom is 3/9 for 33% correct.

Also note that I was working on finding the value of a set of nickels and pennies only before moving onto other combinations of coins and more coins.

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 is not real or meaningful. The photos and the setting is 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.

It is difficult to individualize instruction in a whole class or small group setting. I created and taught the curriculum for a Consumer Math course at the high school where I teach. For a class of 10-12 students, all with an IEP, I developed an approach that allowed me to individualize the instruction for each students.

In the photo below is an example of a folder set up I used with the students in Consumer Math. Each student would have a dedicated folder, kept in the room and updated daily. The smaller paper shows the individualized agenda. The other paper shows an example of how the folder can be used as a resource. Student computer login information, accommodations like a multiplication table or notes can be secured inside the folder. The agenda would be changed out each day. (In case you are wondering about the label in the agenda, “Math Group 4.” This particular folder was used in a special education training session for teacher candidates.)

The photo shows a pre-posttest for a student in a consumer math class. In the course I taught we would conduct a pretest at the start of the class to determine which of the related skills a student lacked mastery. The course focus for this student was on the identified skills – highly individualized. The assessment also provided present level of performance information, allowed us to monitor progress and to evaluate instruction.

At my school we are looking to develop a track for math for students with disability for whom the traditional math courses are inappropriate. Many of the topics and concepts from the traditional courses are addressed but in a practical approach with the principles of UDL incorporated. This is not a typical dumping ground situation that many of us have encountered. These are courses for students who need support in being independent and who will not benefit from being exposed to simplifying (5x + 2y – 3xy) – (7x – 8y + 9xy). Here is a link to some documents, including the units and topics. Contact me if you would like more info!