A Guide to Life Skills Education for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

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Inside: Special education expert, Hendrix Brakefield, gives his best tips for teaching life skills education to adults with intellectual disabilities.


Life is more difficult without life skills.

I’m Hendrix Brakefield, and I’m a special educator who has been in the field for more than ten years helping to support individuals with intellectual disabilities. My website, Hendrix Learning, offers a digital solution for individuals of varying ability levels who want access to engaging and enriching content anytime it suits them.

From teaching in self-contained classrooms to overseeing recreation activities at a residential school for 300+ adults with intellectual disabilities, being able to impact and be impacted by these people has altered how I approach life.

It is all too common to take for granted the life skills that adults with intellectual disabilities struggle with daily. My life has been shaped by the people I have had the pleasure of working with and it is why I have developed such a passion for the promotion of life skills to all ages and ability levels. 

What Are Life Skills for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities?

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Life skills benefit adults with intellectual disabilities the same way they benefit kids of all ability levels in primary school, Ph.D. students, presidential candidates, and retirees. Basically, life skills benefit all of us no matter our level of intellectual ability.

The reason I started Hendrix Learning was to specifically address a lack of life skills that I had observed in my work with special education. Sometimes it is a lack of exposure and sometimes it is a lack of education but having unaddressed life skills always results in diminished opportunities for an individual.

Let’s talk about how…

Cooking

Hendrix cooks with two students in a kitchen while wearing masks.
Hendrix practices cooking skills with two students in a kitchen while wearing masks. Learning to cook is an important part of life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities typically includes cooking. However, I’ve worked with too many individuals who lack practical cooking knowledge. Being unable to cook for oneself tends to result in poorer nutritional intake, limited food choice, and a reliance on others to keep you fed. Adults with intellectual disabilities should have more options than heating up a frozen meal or getting their food from a restaurant.

Cooking skills should focus on general kitchen familiarity and confidence in a few basic areas. Some examples of this would include learning how to measure ingredients (including doubling or halving amounts), knife safety, judging the “doneness” of food, and following recipes.

How to teach the basics of cooking as part of life skills education?

A great way to start is with scaffolding cooking instructions that allow incremental successes in the kitchen and promote a positive connection to making meals.

For example, you can start by modeling cooking skills. This will allow an individual to observe what you’re doing without the risk of accidentally messing up their meal – it will also likely get them interested in the cooking process.

From there, you can move into hand-over-hand practice where you can safely show the individual how to use a knife or measure ingredients. This will let them experience the cooking process with you as their guide without the student being told that they’re not doing it correctly.

Lastly, simply putting the student in charge of reading the recipe and making sure the directions are being followed in the correct order, helps teach cooking independence. Generalized cooking skills are a great way to learn the fundamentals behind cooking anything. By teaching cooking skills in this way, you’ll give the student the basic support and confidence to try any recipe they want.

Reading

A man and a woman sit beside one another reading books.

Developing your reading skills is far more important than just being able to enjoy a good book during your downtime. If the life skills education curriculum views reading as simply an educational benchmark, it will be a disservice to adults with intellectual disabilities.

It’s integral that adults with intellectual disabilities have a functional reading ability or they will risk losing out on innumerable opportunities. For example, it’s hard to follow a recipe for dinner if you cant read it. Likewise, filling out an application, following signage, identifying prices of items, and more become inaccessible without reading skills.

Reading is as much word identification as it is understanding the flow, so actually reading out loud to your student will help with literacy in addition to technical practice.

Health and Fitness

A white woman with down syndrome practices a yoga pose on a yoga mat in a studio.

Living a healthy lifestyle is more than weight control and eating celery instead of chicken fingers. Being active and eating right makes you feel good, gives you more energy, and keeps your mind sharp. However, life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities is typically quick to teach the benefits of healthy nutrition but does not provide practical person-centered solutions.

It’s important that the educator or caregiver is willing to join the person with a disability in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. For example, asking an individual to go to the gym could easily turn into a disaster. They may go but probably won’t feel confident enough to partake in the activities successfully.

Don’t leave it up to the individual to be active. A better option to encourage participation is by joining in with them! Get out there and pass the basketball, go swimming, walk a mile, or do some pushups! Ultimately, if you aren’t willing to model a positive outlook on health and fitness, then they probably won’t make the commitment, either. 

Social Interaction

Hendrix and six of his students pose for a photo while holding vegetables that they harvested on a farm. Social interaction is part of life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Hendrix and six of his students pose for a photo while holding vegetables that they harvested on a farm.

It has become commonplace for adults with intellectual disabilities to have more virtual relationships than physical ones. Once public education services expire, an individual with an intellectual disability will be left with far fewer options for making friends. The accessibility of the internet means most of this population will rely on it as their only option for engagement.

This can be problematic because spending more time interacting virtually will cause interpersonal skills to regress and the person may end up lacking the confidence to make in-person relationships. Community interaction is crucial to developing social skills and allowing access to relationships and vocational opportunities. Life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities must prioritize expanded opportunities for real-world interactions with other people.

Relaxation

A young woman with down syndrome looks at a dandelion in front of a garden.

Being able to manage your emotions and cope with stress are high level skills. In my experience, most people think relaxation is the one thing that human beings can do automatically. In fact, relaxation has been one of – if not the most – difficult skills to teach an adult with an intellectual disability.

Behaviors are learned and changing them takes time. You can start by teaching the basics of breathing as a stress response, but, eventually, an adult with an intellectual disability will need to learn how to manage their emotions in a crisis situation (and especially when given critical feedback).

There should be an emphasis on practical coping strategies and emotional regulation in life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities. Losing out on an opportunity because you do not know how to manage your emotions and stay calm is a devastating setback for individuals who have such limited opportunities to begin with.

How Do You Teach an Adult with Intellectual Disabilities?

The image shows the back of a man's head as he stands in front of a classroom of students.

Easy-To-Make Mistakes

Two of the biggest mistakes we can make when trying to provide life skills instruction is assuming people already know a certain skill or that by simply going over a topic means that an individual will retain that knowledge. Learning takes opportunities and repetition to be effective and educators can quickly tire out when there are multiple areas to cover at the same time. 

Another thing life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities needs to include is real world experiences. Classroom presentations and exercises using theoretical examples are great, but it’s when you take those theories into the community and see them in practice that the most effective learning takes place. In my experience, the best questions come from someone seeing a challenge firsthand and being unsure of the best response. Without leaving the classroom you can never expect an individual to be confident in what they are being taught. 

Scaffolding

A concern I have heard often from special educators is that some skills are too difficult for individuals with intellectual disabilities to master. To this I say: You need to practice scaffolding! When properly executed, scaffolding can allow any individual to master any skill given enough time and energy invested in them. Being able to break down a large skill into smaller parts is not easy but an effective educator can do so almost subconsciously. While I am not opposed to jumping right into a full-scale skill and seeing what happens, I always anticipate that scaffolding will be needed for someone and am ready to offer that on a moment’s notice. 

Modeling

Modeling is a survival technique that humans use to learn how to act in different situations. If you see me act calmly in a stressful situation then you are more likely to be calm in a stressful situation of your own. Likewise, if I do not exhibit emotional maturity when dealing with others then how can I expect you to act any differently?

These examples show how modeling can be both a negative and positive teaching tool. And it is a strong one! Be aware that your actions are being watched and you are teaching behavior whether you intend to or not. Maybe the most successful strategy I use when teaching life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities is being aware of my own behaviors and intentionally modeling the actions I want to promote.

You only have yourself to blame if you fail to model positive behavior and are disappointed in the progress being made by those you work with.  

Final Thoughts on A Guide to Life Skills Education for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

A woman with down syndrome sits at a coffee shop reviewing content on a laptop with another woman.

Providing life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities requires someone dedicated to offering the best possible chance for growth and success.

To make a positive impact, the person must:

  • Be willing to grind away at a skill even when they have already been working on it for a long time.
  • Use best practices when it comes to educating the individual and working towards goals.
  • Identify areas of learning that will provide the biggest benefits to the individual’s life.
  • Hold themselves to the highest standard because they know how important modeling behavior is.
  • Be confident that what they are doing is making life more attainable and less intimidating for an adult with an intellectual disability. 

Life skills education for adults with intellectual disabilities continues to improve and hopefully will continue to receive more support from lawmakers and service providers.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities do not disappear when public education services expire, and it should be a priority to make sure all of these individuals have the best possible chance at success in their adult lives.

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Hendrix Brakefield
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Hendrix is the founder of Hendrix Learning and HendrixLearning.com and has spent more than ten years in the special education field. He has taught in the public school system, at a private residential school for adults with intellectual disabilities, and most recently has been working with LifeWorks @ WKU, a transition to independent living program for neurodiverse adults.

He is passionate about providing engaging and educational recreational options for adults and young adults with intellectual disabilities. He also provides autism awareness and inclusion training to businesses and organizations in different communities. You can contact him at [email protected] and on social media @HendrixLearning.

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