Functional Math Skills—A Crucial Part to Independent Living - Harbor School

Functional Math Skills—A Crucial Part to Independent Living

functional math skills

Functional math is the equation for better independence

We use math in our daily lives all the time to do important things like shop for groceries, pay bills, save for a big purchase, measure ingredients to prepare a meal, and get to work on time. Our ability to live as independent adults depends on our understanding of basic math concepts and skills such as counting objects, measuring distance, volume, weight, etc., and telling time. Functional math skills are the math skills we need to teach children in order for them to live independently in the community.

Prerequisite Skills

Before students can learn functional math skills, they must master a few prerequisite skills. Students should first be able to:

  • Count by ones to 100
  • Recognize the numbers 1 to 100
  • Count by fives and tens

The first goal is to count in increments of one. This provides the basic building blocks for all functional math skills. From here, students move on to recognizing numbers that they will encounter in their daily lives up to 100. Building on that, students learn to count by fives and tens which is necessary to be able to count money or read a clock.


Understanding money and being able to earn, save, and spend money is vital to one’s ability to become independent. Learning this skill can start with counting coins or bills. Start with single denominations first. Then if the student can count by fives and tens, move on to nickels and dimes or five and ten dollar bills. Eventually, practice can advance to counting mixed denominations (adding) and making change from larger amounts (subtraction). The end goal is for students to understand the value of money, how much they have and how much they need. Find opportunities to practice using money in real situations, such as buying items in a cafeteria or grocery store.


Students with special needs often follow a prescribed schedule with no understanding of what time it is or how much time has passed. They may get “stuck” on preferred activities and lose track of time. Learning about time can start with a visual clock or timer. Use an analog timer during activities so students can understand how much time has passed during the activity. Find opportunities to practice in real situations, such as giving students five minutes to clean up, or five minutes of free time. Use a picture schedule to help students plan and understand their daily itinerary of activities. Seeing their schedule can give them a better sense of control. Real experience will prepare students to manage time in their lives outside of school.


Being able to measure different items is another skill that can help foster independence. Using a ruler or tape measure to recognize and measure units of length, for example, can help a student who is interested in learning carpentry, sewing, or graphic arts. Being familiar with units of volume such as cups, quarts, teaspoons, and tablespoons is useful for cooking and following recipes. Give students real-world practice by having them measure the right amounts of ingredients for a recipe that you cook together. Knowing they will be eating the final product will motivate them to get the measurements right!

Any independent adult must make choices about how they will spend and save money, manage their time, and prepare meals, but students with special needs often need specific instruction to acquire functional math skills. Functional math skills instruction can help students better understand how to use money, keep track of time, and measure items necessary for their daily lives.

lee vodfsky

Harbor School a private special education school in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Our mission at Harbor School is to help all of our special needs students with learning, social, language, behavioral, and other disabilities. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student reach their full potential.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child's specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.544.9394, or request a tour at Harbor School in Eatontown, NJ. We are located just minutes off of the Garden State Parkway at exit 105 and conveniently located off of Route 35 and Route 36 in Monmouth County, NJ.

Lee Vodofsky
Principal-Harbor School, Eatontown, NJ