Functional Math Skills in Special Education Classrooms

Functional Math Skills Teach Students to Work and Live Independently

Since time and money are often the two most emphasized components of adult life, those tend to receive a lot of focus but first let’s discuss the foundation for functional math skills.

Functional math is a life skill we teach our students that all parents probably wish remained in their typical child’s curriculum a little longer these days. Our students work with money throughout the school day, using real-life experiences. This vital skill comes into play through Gateway's many different classroom businesses, as well as during various class trips.


The bricks that lay the foundation are one to one correspondence, number recognition, skip counting and operations. One to one correspondence means simply understanding that a number represents a matching or the corresponding number of items. With number recognition, students can write the ten digits, then recognize place value: tens, ones and hundreds. Skip counting refers to counting in increments, such as 5’s and 10’s. This is especially handy for telling time and counting money. Lastly, a basic grasp of addition and subtraction is useful. This is what is meant by operations.


You or I may have come to the realization that time is money. However, with our students, we want them to understand the time and tell time. Understanding means grasping the concept, knowing the difference between seconds, minutes and hours. For students with cognitive or developmental disabilities, this can mean getting “stuck” on preferred activities and missing others, like lunch. Both autistic children and their parents tend to benefit from a visual clock or a picture schedule.

Once students begin to grasp the concept, they are taught how to tell time. First, they are expected to tell time to the hour and half-hour. Then, they can use their skip counting to tell time to the five-minute mark. Significant events of the day can be associated with specific times, such as 6 a.m. for wake-up time and 6 p.m. for dinner time.


What is counting for if it’s not for counting money? That’s how most of us think, anyway. It is definitely one of our most important functional math skills. We begin by teaching our students to recognize pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Next, they learn to count; first by single denomination, then with mixed coins. Eventually, most likely after the transition to the day program, lessons will involve budgets and understanding wages and paying bills.

Along the way, we discover our students’ aptitudes!

If a student shows an aptitude for carpentry or graphic arts, measurement of length becomes an important functional math skill. If he or she enjoys the culinary arts, measurement of volume is useful. Those who transition to Primetime Center, our DDD/Medicaid, approved, day program gain essential knowledge, skills, and understanding that enable them to navigate menu math, follow a calendar, schedule, and use a calculator. Combined with other activities, they can operate confidently, effectively and independently in life and work.

The Gateway School an private special education school in New Jersey

Our Mission at The Gateway 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 732.541.4400, or request a tour of The Gateway School located in Carteret New Jersey, just minutes off of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Chris Hoye, Principal-The Gateway School of Carteret, NJ