Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs, Third Edition, Third Edition by Darlene Mannix

“Return of a classic…. updated for today's youth. A comprehensive compendium of proven activities for middle and high school students.”

—Nick Elksnin, PhD, NCSP, Retired Visiting Professor of Education, the Citadel, and co-author of Teaching Social-Emotional Skills at School and Home

“Darlene shares practical, ready-to-use content for teachers of general and special education students in need of social-emotional supports and modern-day living strategies. This book offers guidance and direction on how to address difficult topics with students from drug use to safe use of the internet to obtaining a job in the working world. A great resource to help today's students begin learning those tough ‘adulting’ skills!”

—Sue Beres, MEd, Educational Diagnostician, South La Porte County Special Education Cooperative

“I teach Life Skills at the high school level to a group of students with multiple disabilities. This book would be useful in a variety of areas. My autistic students would benefit from some of the social-emotional learning content (Chapter 5, Relating to Others; 5.1 Encouraging Others), and parts such as Practical Living, Skills and Vocational Skills are invaluable for preparing for transition discussions leading up to students' IEPs. I appreciate the simple format and easy-to-use lesson plans that Darlene has created, along with extension activities for my higher-functioning students to challenge their learning.”

—Sarah Gartshore, Life Skills Teacher at La Porte High School

“No matter how long you have been in the field, one of the best things we can do as educators is continue to actively seek out new information and practices. In this book, Darlene provides a symphony of life skills lessons that are easy to implement, effective, and sequenced for easy navigation.”

—Caty Swan, Special Education Teacher, English/Language Arts at La Porte Community Schools

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Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs

Third Edition



Darlene Mannix




Wiley Logo

About This Book

Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs is a resource for special education and regular education teachers, counselors, parents, paraprofessionals, and others who are involved in the education, training, employment, or socialization of students.

What Are Life Skills?

Basically, life skills are a group of skills that an individual needs to acquire for a fulfilling and independent life, as far as that life is possible. One could argue that the most important skills one acquires in life are the skills of sound character, such as honesty, kindness, and being responsible. At school, students need to acquire the whole realm of academic skills, including reading, writing, and solving math problems. Now, technology and communication skills are equally important. In addition, school is a microcosm of society that demands the acquisition of appropriate social skills. Life skills also includes the many tasks that make up daily living, such as shopping, saving money, traveling, and eating. Vocational skills form another component of what a special needs child will need to acquire—finding and maintaining an appropriate job. The individual's involvement in his or her community and the process of developing leisure interests are lifelong skills for everyone to attain. Problem-solving skills are a vital thinking technique that can be superimposed on all of the other areas.

Why Teach Life Skills?

The teaching of life skills is an ongoing process for children. It can take place in many campuses (at school, at home, in the community) and be taught by many teachers (including professional educators, the bus driver, your neighbor, other children, and community leaders). It is best to have a directed goal with a target in mind to help stay focused on what your child needs to learn. Having a specific goal helps not only the student, but the teacher or parent as well. Life skills can be taught, practiced, and made relevant to your child's situation. Special learners often require specific procedures or prompts to shape these skills that other learners may pick up incidentally.

What Students Will Use This Book?

The lessons in this book are primarily directed toward middle school or younger high school students who have a special need for learning. This special need might be a social disability, learning disability, or moderate mental or physical handicap that requires slowing down the pace of the task, going step-by-step toward a goal, needing extra practice, learning through targeted discussion, and/or simply steering them toward the core skill.

The material can be adapted for a variety of uses. Answers can be oral or written, students can work individually or in groups, and activities can be tailored to fit whatever needs are more pressing.

How Do I Use This Book?

As a teacher or parent, you have many options as far as using the material in this book. A typical lesson contains these elements:

  1. A specific objective for the lesson
  2. Brief comments about the nature or importance of the skill
  3. An introductory activity or two
  4. A directed activity or worksheet
  5. An answer key or suggested open responses
  6. Discussion questions pertaining to the skill
  7. An extension activity or two
  8. Evaluation items

In addition, there are parent activities and suggestions for each of the six sections.

The book is organized into seven main parts:

Part One, Self-Awareness, contains twenty-five lessons on awareness of one's personality (introvert/extrovert, being a leader, being teachable), character (being responsible, loyal, kind, and so on), individual uniqueness (values, ethnicity, disabilities, and so on), and personal life choices (such as smoking, drinking, tattoos, moving out).

Part Two, People Skills, contains twenty-nine lessons on relating to others (such as working with others, being helpful), developing friendship skills (recognizing people who are the same as or different from you, social networking, and so on), being Part of a family (such as understanding another's point of view, respecting authority), and communicating (being a good listener, understanding verbal and nonverbal messages, and so on).

Part Three, Academic and School Skills, is primarily related to educational situations and contains twenty-eight lessons on reading, writing, math, and study skills. Teachers in a school setting may find this section helpful for their students.

Part Four, Practical Living Skills, is a longer section containing forty-two lessons on acquiring information, handling money, travel, clothing, living arrangements, eating and nutrition, shopping, and including exercise and hygiene in your life. Parents of special needs teens may use this section in a home environment.

Part Five, Vocational Skills, contains eighteen lessons on understanding present skills and interests, getting a job (filling out an application, interviewing, and so on), and actual working (skills needed to be a good employee).

Part Six, Community and Leisure Activities, has thirteen lessons that focus on helping the individual become part of a community (history, getting around) and leisure activities (places to enjoy, group activities, trying new activities).

Part Seven, Problem-Solving Skills, has eleven lessons on skills for handling problem situations, making decisions, and using good resource management. The examples in these lessons come from home, school, work, and community settings.

Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs was first published in 1995, updated in 2009, and now revised in 2021. To reflect changes in education and current social needs, many lessons have been added or updated.

There are a total of one hundred and sixty-six lessons in this edition. Most, if not all, of the lessons have minimal to substantial revisions and updates on the material. Several new chapters have been added to reflect current interests and trends. What I found to be noteworthy, however, was the realization of how many of these life skills are still so necessary, even decades later. We as teachers (and parents) still want our children to be kind, thoughtful, participate in meaningful relationships, get a job, move out, and find a satisfying life!

I hope that you find the lessons to be helpful and appropriate for your students or child!

—Darlene Mannix

About the Author

Darlene Mannix has worked as an educator for thirty years and has taught a wide range of children, teens, and adults. Her teaching experiences have included individuals who are learning disabled, emotionally involved, language-disordered, and multiply disabled. She also was lead teacher in an alternative education program for at-risk middle school students and worked at a local juvenile detention center. She received her bachelor of science degree from Taylor University and her master's degree in learning disabilities from Indiana University. A past presenter at numerous educational conferences including the Council for Exceptional Children, she has authored many books, including Writing Skills Activities for Special Children (Jossey-Bass, 2004); Social Skills Activities for Special Children, second edition (Jossey-Bass, 2008); Social Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs, second edition (Jossey-Bass, 2009); and Life Skills Activities for Special Children, second edition (Jossey-Bass, 2009). She has most recently worked as a Title 1 Reading Teacher.

Parent Activities and Suggestions

Part One: Self-Awareness

My Personality

  • Use labels in a positive way as you discuss personality traits. “You certainly are creative to be able to make/do/see/combine… .” “I love how you are such a people person! It's fun to introduce you to my friends!”
  • Ask your child to describe his or her personality. What traits are most outstanding in his or her view?
  • Everyone gets angry or fearful at times. Anger management is often a big part of the school counselor's lessons. Ask for help if this is available in your area.
  • Some children desperately need routine to make it through the day. Talk with your child about any changes that might be occurring that day that would throw off the schedule. Prepare your child. Something new could be a pleasant surprise if he or she is ready for it.
  • Finishing a task can be an ongoing battle. When given a job, the student could talk about what the finished product or event will be. All the effort of completing homework is lost if the student never turns it in.

My Character

  • Emphasize that a child's character is more important than anything else that he or she will ever develop. Being a good person is what really counts.
  • Give your child opportunities to take on responsibility around the house. After giving an assignment or chore, act as though you expect him or her to do it; don't keep nagging.
  • Talk about what values you think are important. Share experiences that have helped shape your values.
  • Praise your child when you catch him or her doing something thoughtful or kind for others.
  • When you introduce your child to others, use the opportunity to add a positive comment about your child.
  • Practice acts of kindness all of the time. Invite your child to be a part of this.

Uniquely Me

  • Share with your child any details that are appropriate about his or her birth. A birthday is a special day to every individual, although it can be fun to see what celebrities also share that birthday. If your child has a diagnosed disability, talk about what that means as far as expectations for his or her future. Even though he may have a disability, he still has the ability and the expectation to go as far as he can to succeed in life. If appropriate, talk about the causes of a disability.
  • Make it a family project to participate in something that is of interest to your particular ethnic background—Irish dancing? French cooking?
  • Use a globe to locate countries of origin. Where did your grandparents come from?

Personal Life Choices

  • You, of course, are a very important role model to your child. If you are trying to quit smoking, for example, share your decision with your child and explain why.
  • Decisions about drinking, especially drinking and driving, can be some of the most crucial decisions your teen makes. Give your child a way out if confronted with a situation in which she needs a ride home. Let your child know that you'd much rather get a call for a ride home than have her get into a car with an impaired driver.
  • Encourage your child to think and talk about future events such as moving out or working part-time. This can be scary—but it can also be exciting as you plan future independence together.

Part Two: People Skills

Relating to Others

  • Point out good service (or poor service) as you interact with others around you. Compliment a server for refilling your drinks. Notice a cashier who is efficient. Let your child observe you modeling positive interaction with others.
  • Get to know your neighbors. Even if it's just a friendly “hello,” encourage your child to get involved in the neighborhood. Perhaps he or she can help with a neighborly errand.
  • Join in a community party, fund-raiser, or volunteer organization. Share a positive focus as a family and as a community.

Friendship Skills

  • Encourage your child to host a party. It can be a simple get-together to play games or watch a movie or an elaborate themed event. Video games are popular, but try pulling out a card game, board game, or building something and see what happens.
  • Find out who your child's friends are. Invite them over and get to know them.

Being Part of a Family

  • Attend or plan a family reunion.
  • Get a family photograph taken. Frame it and display it. On the back, write the names of the people, the date, and where you were.
  • Give your child a sense of family history by going through old family photo albums. Show your child any memorabilia that was important to someone in your family.
  • Spend an evening watching family videos. There will be lots of laughter, embarrassing moments, and good memories.
  • Have family meetings on a regular basis. Make this a time for family members to share their concerns. This may be a good time to review lists of chores, talk about upcoming family projects or vacations, or make resolutions to improve problem situations.
  • Don't hesitate to attend parenting workshops or family groups or use other community resources if your family is going through a divorce or if there are problems with stepparents. This is more common than you may realize. There are lots of support groups for families who have a disabled member.
  • Stay in touch with the school counselor or an administrator who may be the person most likely to work with your child if there are family problems that show up at school.
  • Eat a meal together on a regular basis. Make it a point to do something together as a family. No one can miss, no excuses. This is a priority. Share planning a menu, preparing the meal, and of course, clean up!

Communication Skills

  • Resist the urge to speak for your child in social situations. Instead of telling about your child's accomplishments or activities, encourage him or her to talk (prompting is fine).
  • Watch a movie or TV show together and discuss it afterward.
  • Ask your child's opinions about things that are happening. Don't jump in too quickly to judge or overrule your child's opinion. Listen.
  • Ask your child to give directions for how to do something or how to get somewhere. He or she will learn that directions need to be clear and sequential or it won't make any sense.
  • If your child is moody or unusually quiet, ask if he or she can put the feelings into words. Model how sometimes you feel worried, tense, confused, and so on.
  • Remind your child that moods change. Just because he or she is feeling sad or angry right now, that is not going to be the case forever. That is what a mood is—something that lasts for a while and then will change.

Part Three: Academic and School Skills

Reading Skills

  • Take weekly trips to the library or bookstore to bring reading materials into your home. Second-hand bookstores are a great source for inexpensive books.
  • Read at home. Model how important it is to read for pleasure. Laugh out loud—your child will want to know what's so funny in the book.
  • If your child is having problems with reading, look for a peer tutor who may be interested in helping you out. Depending on the age of your child and the extent of the problems, you may want to contact your child's school or teacher to get some ideas.
  • Organize a book club or ask your school's reading teacher for ideas. Using a popular book can stimulate interest in reading, especially when group members convey enthusiasm and ask other's opinions.
  • Order your child a subscription to a magazine that he or she enjoys.

Writing Skills

  • Keep lists around your house of things that are purchased on a regular basis, such as food items, cleaning supplies, and the like. Ask your child to add what is needed to each list by writing it down.
  • If your family takes a trip or participates in a special event, have your child help record impressions and details about the event. You might want to remember who attended a family reunion, comments about a rock concert, anecdotes from a trip, humorous memories or predictions, and so on.
  • Your child might be interested in starting a blog—an online journal. He or she may not want you to read everything that is on it, but show an interest, and if you're allowed to read it, add positive comments and don't insist on perfect spelling or grammar.

Math Skills

  • Set aside ten to fifteen minutes each evening to focus on one particular math skill, such as reviewing math facts with flash cards, drawing pictures to go with a story problem, or helping set up an educational computer game that addresses a skill.
  • When reviewing math homework, ask your child to tell you the specific directions and steps for an assignment. The procedures for math problems may be a little different now from when you were in school.
  • Use your phone's calculator at the grocery store and have your child keep a running tab or estimate of how much you are spending.
  • Graphs and charts are everywhere—from the news websites to the gas station to your electric bill. As you find them on everyday occasions, point out the purpose of the graph or chart and see if your child can identify the information.
  • Help your child set up and maintain a personal graph or chart for a project, as an ongoing record or just to keep track of how much time is spent on a certain activity (how many minutes spent on chores, how many miles walked, how many inches grown, and so on).

Study Skills

  • Find a calendar that introduces and uses one new vocabulary word a day. Have every member of the family learn the definition and use the word in conversation several times that day.
  • Make sure your child has a designated place in which to study. Include a spot for all of the necessary tools—pencils, extra paper, a dictionary, calendar, stapler, a good desk lamp, bulletin board, and space for a computer/printer (if possible). Preferably, find a location that is relatively peaceful, free from distractions, and comfortable yet not so relaxing that nothing will be accomplished.
  • If television, video games, or cell phones and their accessories are problems in competing for your child's time, find or negotiate a way to make their use contingent on how well your child's grades are kept up, chores are completed, attitude is acceptable, and so on. Do not feel that you “owe” these things to your child if he or she is not keeping up the other end of the bargain.
  • Keep in close contact with your child's teachers and know when to expect report cards and midterm reports.
  • Volunteer, if possible, to help out in your child's school with occasional projects or on a regular basis. Let your child know that school is important to you.
  • If you have a problem or question about something that has happened at school, reserve judgment until you have contacted the school or principal and heard another viewpoint. Model showing respect for authority and understanding another's point of view in front of your child. Many issues are quickly resolved once communication lines between school and home are opened.

Part Four: Practical Living Skills

Information Skills

  • Encourage your child to watch local or regional news with you on TV. Talk about what is going on in your community.
  • Pose a crazy question of the day for your child to research: What's the population of Italy? How tall are you measured in bananas? What is the best way to cut a cake? It's all there on the internet.

Money Skills

  • Encourage your child to make a savings plan to save up for a desired item. Map out how much needs to be saved weekly in order to buy the item within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Help your child come up with a budget for spending and saving. If you pay your child for chores or grades, include that in the overall plan. Talk about what factors can be adjusted.
  • Open up a savings or checking account for your child. Go over the monthly statements so that he or she can see growth, spending habits or trends, and fees that are assessed.
  • Have a special bank designated for a family cause. Put $1.00 into the bank for every time a task is successfully accomplished. Celebrate when you reach $50.


  • Before taking a family trip, map out the plan using maps or an atlas. Calculate the mileage, expected travel time, and best route. Locate interesting side trips that your family might want to take.
  • Make a list of what items are necessary for weekend travel, overnight travel, or plane travel. Keep the list handy for at least a week before you go on a major trip, and add items as they come to mind.
  • Select several community destinations and have your child figure out how public transportation could be used to get there. Obtain a copy of timetables.
  • Find out the best ways to pack a suitcase.


  • Periodically go through closets (spring cleaning?) and have your child choose what clothing is needed and what items can be given away or stored.
  • Give your child opportunities to wash and dry clothing. Realize there might be a few mistakes along the way!

Living Arrangements

  • Have a daily or weekly schedule of who is responsible for which chores in the house.
  • Monitor your family's heat, electric, and phone bills for a period of several months. Analyze what factors account for the bill and talk about how to keep costs down.

Eating and Nutrition

  • Set aside one evening a week for your child to host and prepare a meal. Help in whatever way is appropriate—shopping, planning, organizing, preparing, hosting—but increasingly give your child more independence.
  • Set aside a particular place for coupons or weekly shopping ads so they are easily accessible before shopping.
  • Collect family recipes or favorite meals that have been successfully prepared. Laminate them or use index cards or plastic sleeves to keep them protected.


  • Look for sales of needed items before buying them. Have your child project a reasonable estimate of how much he or she should expect to spend on something. If the item comes in under budget, let your child keep the savings.
  • Have a place to keep receipts so that you can return purchases easily if they don't work out.

Exercise/Health and Hygiene

  • Set a good example of staying healthy by exercising. Include your child if possible in your own activities.
  • Offer to walk your neighbor's dog if you don't have one.
  • Look for opportunities for your child to participate in sports on teams or through lessons or neighborhood activities.
  • Be aware of the changes your child will be going through as far as puberty. Prepare your child for the changes in hygiene and self-esteem that may be experienced.
  • Take your child to the dentist and to the doctor when necessary.
  • If you are concerned about your child's level of stress or possible depression, check in with your school counselor or a teacher whom you trust. Don't ignore warning signs if your child seems unusually unhappy or has developed odd or unexpected new behaviors.

Part Five: Vocational Skills

Present Skills and Interests

  • You are in a unique position to note your child's strengths and weaknesses. Think about what you have noticed about his or her vocational interests over the years. When he was little, what did he want to be when he grew up?
  • Expose your child to job possibilities. Take advantage of friends of yours who might be willing to take your child to work for a day—or a few hours.
  • Does your child know what you do for a living? How do you feel about your job? What you say and your attitude about work can affect how your child will view the world of work.
  • If possible, allow your child to participate in activities that reflect her or his interests. Lessons (music, riding) can be expensive, but look for ways to involve your child in things she likes in natural ways. (Can you trade riding lessons for stall cleaning? Are there teen programs at the YMCA or through scouting?)

Getting a Job

  • Your child may need your help to pull some strings to land that first job. Help him or her by keeping an eye out for entry-level positions with your friends, neighbors, or even your own employer.
  • Encourage your child to have character references ready to go. Think about who would give a glowing reference for a job application. Make sure your child asks permission to use this person as a reference.
  • Sometimes employers will let the applicant take the paperwork home to complete. If your child needs practice in filling them out, grab a few samples and help her prepare to find the information that will be needed (school information, references, personal information, and so on).
  • Your child may need to think creatively to land a job—work for free for a trial period? Show enthusiasm? Keep calling back (without being a pest)?


  • The first job may not be your child's ideal experience—but emphasize that he or she must perform as though it is the greatest job in the world. That kind of attitude will get your child noticed.
  • If your child complains about things about the job, remind him that everything he learns and does can affect what happens later. He can take advantage of the “bad” things to learn how to accept criticism, learn from mistakes, gain new skills, and take pride in sticking it out!
  • Emphasize again and again how important it is to get to work on time, have good attendance, and start the day with a smile.
  • Remind your child that he or she is not the boss (yet).
  • Getting along with coworkers is a vital job skill. Ask the supervisor to provide feedback to you and your child as to how he or she is getting along socially.

Part Six: Community and Leisure Activities

My Community

  • Take a drive or walk around your community to find points of interest. Many communities have plaques or markers to designate something historical.
  • How did your community get its name? Who were the founders? Your county museum, courthouse, or city hall may have interesting history available about your community.

Leisure Activities

  • Allow your child to try different types of leisure activities. Some interests may last only a day or two, but you may find some hobbies or experiences will catch a child's attention and steer him or her in a whole new direction.

Part Seven: Problem-Solving Skills

Handling Problem Situations

  • Most special needs students do not handle change very well. When you know that a major change is coming (such as a move, divorce, or new baby), let your child know well in advance or with appropriate notice (some students will then perseverate about the change relentlessly). Stress positive aspects of the change and allow your child to be a part of it as much as possible.
  • If your child is often the one causing a problem in a social situation, help her take ownership of that behavior. There is some degree of perceived power in being able to change what happens or control others' behavior. Encourage her to use this perceived power to control the most important person: herself. Ask, Are you in control of this? Do you need help?
  • Give your child problem-solving activities to work on, such as Sudoku puzzles, word searches, jigsaw puzzles, and minute mysteries. Talk about techniques for problem-solving—trying another approach, looking at something from another perspective, trial and error, thinking critically. These are skills that can be applied to life situations as well.

Making Decisions

  • Make a pro/con chart when your child has a nonroutine decision to make. Help him consider both sides of the decision—the investment, the process, the consequences—before making a decision.
  • Although it may be hard, sometimes it is better to stand aside and let your child make a poor decision (as long as it doesn't affect safety or too much self-esteem). Ideally, you can both laugh about it later.
  • Sometimes it is helpful to involve a third party for making decisions. This might be someone who is familiar with the situation, someone respected by both sides, or someone who is objective enough to help with making a decision.

Resource Management

  • As situations come up, have your child identify whether something is a need or a want.
  • If your child works for you or gets an allowance, help her learn that this is not an endless resource. When the job is finished, she gets paid. If the job is not done to your satisfaction, no pay.
  • Have your child make his own personal resource list. What people in his life are there for him? What are his talents and skills?
  • Use opportunities to differentiate between fact and opinion. While watching the news at night or reading an article about something going on, you might find opportunities to explain when someone is giving an opinion versus presenting carefully documented facts. When your child wants to argue, ask for facts.

Online Resources for Parents

  • Information for students transitioning to life after high school:
  • Helpful websites for parents of children with special needs:
  • Websites addressing various disabilities:
  • Websites addressing learning disabilities:
  • Information about teaching life skills at home:
  • National website with helpful parent resources:
  • Tips for helping teens with self-advocacy/speaking up for themselves:


Part One

Chapter 1: My Personality

1.1 Optimist or Pessimist?

1.2 I Am Creative

1.3 I Like Routine

1.4 Sometimes I Am Fearful

1.5 I Can Be a Leader

1.6 Am I a People Person?

1.7 I Am a Good Listener ₀ Or Am I?

1.8 Sometimes I Get Angry

1.9 I Finish What I Start

1.10 I Am Teachable

Chapter 2: My Character

2.1 What Is Good Character?

2.2 Honesty

2.3 Kindness

2.4 Loyalty

2.5 Responsibility

Chapter 3: Uniquely Me

3.1 What Are Values?

3.2 Values Important to Me

3.3 My Disabilities

Chapter 4: Personal Life Choices

4.1 Smoking and Vaping: Is It for Me?

4.2 Marijuana and Other Drugs

4.3 Teens and Drinking

4.4 Am I Ready to Move Out?

4.5 Am I Ready to Work Part-Time?