Functional Math Skills to Succeed in the Special Needs Population

Students Count on Functional Math Skills to Succeed

What are functional math skills?

Before you answer, let’s be clear we are referring to the ones we teach our students. We don’t want you to remember how much you hate math and stop reading this article. This post is about the math skills our students need to live independently in the community, to care for themselves and to make choices about their lives. More specifically, we must anticipate that our students will eventually have to make choices about how they will make money, be able to count money, tell time, read a bus schedule, follow directions at work and know how to check and balance a bank account.

Where do we begin?

Like anyone about to build something, we need a foundation. In order to build a child’s grasp of math concepts, we start with one to one correspondence. The goal is to count in increments of one. By matching items to numbers, a student will eventually understand that a number represents a matching or corresponding number of items. The real-world application could be household tasks such as setting the table and matching socks.

From here, we move on to recognizing and being able to write the first ten digits, then place value: fives, tens, hundreds. Building on that, we teach skip counting. In order to tell time, the ability count by fives is necessary. This is the minimal application of skip counting. Obviously, it is also important for counting money.

Before we focus on the big three aspects of functional math skills, we do expect students to have a basic grasp of operations, such as addition and subtraction. Depending on progress with these, it is sometimes possible to move up to multiplication and division.

Our goal at Alpha School is not for them to demonstrate understanding independently, like you would for an exam or a grade. Rather, we want them to be able to use a calculator to do different sorts of functional calculations, like balancing a bank statement or paying bills.


Teaching time as a functional skill comes down to understanding time and telling time. This means using time in a reasonable manner and being able to use both analog and digital clocks to get to work on time, make the bus or meet a friend for a movie.

Students with significant cognitive or developmental disabilities often get “stuck” on preferred activities, which then override all subsequent activities, such as lunch.

Visual clocks, like a Time Timer, or a picture schedule, work best in these situations. Seeing their schedule tends to give them a better sense of control.


With money, we progress through several levels of skill. It starts with recognizing denominations: pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Next, they count by single denomination, followed by mixed coins. The end goal is for students to understand the value of money. This involves budgets, as well as understanding wages and paying bills.


We could have left it at time and money. We are talking about life, after all. However, being familiar with units of measurement, in terms of length or volume, is too useful a skill to leave out. Using a ruler or tape measure, for example, at least until the student can recognize inches, feet or yards, can lead to an aptitude for carpentry or graphic arts. We must never forget that we want our students to not merely function, but to thrive. Grant them the knowledge of measures of volume, I.e. cups, quarts, galls, etc is useful for filling tubs, cooking and following directions. Cooking is yet another life skill we teach, after all. Being able to do so for themselves is one level of success. Seeking and gaining work in the culinary arts, even as kitchen assistants, is another level.

Monica principal alpha School New Jersey Special Needs School

Alpha School an private special education school in New Jersey

Our Mission at The Alpha School is to help all of our special needs students with the learning, social, language, and behavioral support they deserve. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student to becoming the best they can while providing a safe and nurturing educational environment.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child’s specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.370.1150, or request a tour of Alpha School of Jackson, NJ located just minutes off of Route 9 and Route 195 in Ocean County.

— Monica DeTuro, Principal-Alpha School, Jackson, NJ

About RKS Associates

At all the RKS Schools we pride ourselves in discovery the hidden treasures of all of our students. Our academic and support services are appropriately customized for a student unique and diverse needs so that they can reach their full potential.

Alpha School is part of special needs network of schools located in Monmouth, Middlesex and Ocean County New Jersey. Since 1980 the RKS Associates schools have been leaders in helping special needs helping students with various disabilities including autism, Down's syndrome, communication, learning, social, behavioral and emotional disabilities. The range of services RKS schools provide is academic instruction and speech, occupational and physical therapies. In addition to Life Skills, Technology, and a full complement of Support Services.

network of special ed schools in NJ