George Lucas Educational Foundation
A young woman checks boxes in a storeroom.
Career and Technical Education

Preparing Students With Cognitive Impairments for the Job World

Try simulating the situations these students will encounter at work.

Preparing for life after high school is not a linear endeavor. While secondary schools often focus on Advanced Placement scores and high-stakes testing, a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that at least 30 percent of the student population is not on the college track.

Some students will opt for a technical school. Others, however, need to be prepared to work immediately following their time in high school. Special education students, according to regulations that are part of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, can stay in school until the age of 21. The career preparation process looks vastly different for each of these student populations.

Postsecondary Preparedness for Students With Cognitive Impairments

Students with diminished cognitive ability follow a different course altogether. The realistic goal for this population of students should be career readiness, meaning gainful, hopefully rewarding employment after they finish high school. To this end, it is imperative that schools create a vertical articulation of coursework that addresses the transition to the world of work as soon as these students enter high school. Teachers of students on this track should, from freshman year forward, create a classroom culture that is both rigorous and engaging.

Simulations need to be created to emulate job skills that students will practice in the real world. Take, for instance, inventory. In many job situations, employees are required to do inventory, which may mean tracking what is coming in versus what is going out. Our local athletic store hosts several of our grade 12+ students along with a school-employed paraprofessional whose role is to be a job coach. The students, under the supervision of the job coach, are tasked with opening boxes of clothing, checking off items on purchase orders, and stocking shelves. Another current job for our grade 12+ students is checking expiration dates on foodstuffs in our local health food store.

Simulating these skills on a high school campus can be done via a variety of scenarios. One that I use in the New Jersey high school where I teach is maintaining books for the English Department in our school. Using this learning plan as a guide, students and staff follow this four-pronged approach:

  • First, students are handed this checklist and asked to check off each task as it is completed.
  • Next, the teacher, peer mentor, or paraprofessional supervising the activity will prompt the students using questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. The questions, which are progressively more difficult, can be scaffolded: If this is a student’s first time completing this job, he or she may only be able to answer comprehension questions. With more practice, and confidence, the student may be able to successfully navigate application questions.
  • Once the task is completed, the student can reflect on his or her work, perhaps repeating what job he or she completed that day.
  • The fourth prong is for the teacher to reflect on the student’s performance and what he or she might do differently next time. The goal is to eventually focus on specific skills where students need remediation.

In this activity, many career-ready skills are practiced; a student is rigorously challenged, solving problems as he or she works. The checklist gives the students a sense of independence, ownership, accomplishment, and completion. The teacher is able to personalize and assess skills as the student works. Initially, as with any new job, there may be substantial verbal and nonverbal prompting required as a student learns a new job, but these prompts can be reduced or removed as the student gains confidence and knowledge as he or she practices the skills.

Throughout the process of prompting and assessing, the teacher, peer mentor, or paraprofessional assessing the student must be both positive and patient. The student must feel supported; this means ample wait time must be built into planning for each job task. Additional prompting may be necessary for the first go around, and this may be frustrating for all, but patience and gentle prodding will enable the student to complete the task.

Transitioning to the world of work is not organic, least of all for those students with cognitive impairments. Educators must take the initiative to create simulations that mimic real life job skills as part of the career preparation process.

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Suzanne Venezia Vrancken's picture
Suzanne Venezia Vrancken
High School Special Education Teacher

SMART goals are important - but we must continue to raise the bar and level of expectation. Hard work pays the immeasurable dividend of confidence and pride.

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