Career Awareness Activities for Special Education Students

By Cindy Topdemir

Students in special education classes are often overlooked with respect to career development activities, and yet, I’ve found that these students can benefit from such activities. Depending on the severity of the class’s disabilities, lessons and career awareness activities may need to be modified. The best practices that come to mind when teaching any type of guidance lesson to special education students include hands-on activities, having visual aids, and making the lesson interactive- elements that also improve guidance lessons to all students. The purpose of this article is to provide some ideas for teaching career awareness to special education classes.

A popular way to teach career awareness and life skills to special education students in my county is through C.B.I. (community based involvement) field trips. During these monthly or periodic trips, students will not only learn about different careers available to them but will also be learning about the community and life skills. Here are some possible field trips:

The post office-

Students can tour the post office, learn about jobs, and practice life skills such as mailing a letter or package, buying stamps, etc… Job skills such as punctuality, responsibility, and attention to detail can be addressed to the students by a manager or other postal worker there.

The airport-

Students can tour the airport and learn about career possibilities. For example, my local airport hires people with mental disabilities to load luggage and prepare the meals served on-board. Jobs skills such as teamwork, respect, and accuracy can be addressed by a manager there.

A grocery store-

I have seen numerous people with Down ’s syndrome or other disabilities working at grocery stores bagging groceries, stocking shelves, and working in various departments of grocery stores. Job skills such as customer service, cooperation, and other employability skills can be addressed by a manger there.

The counselor may want to set up ahead of the field trip (with the manager) specific career activities that will take place while the students at various places of business. Two examples include setting up mock interviews and job shadowing. For older special education classes, when you arrive back at school the students can practice filling out applications for the places you’ve visited.

A unique way I’ve heard of these trips being funded (if you don’t have the budget for it) is by special education classes advertising a service (a career activity or a life skill) at school. For example, special education classes have worked on their baking skills and sold cookies to the staff and have run a laundry service for the staff to drop off their clothes to be laundered. Both of these teach possible career skills as well as a life skill and the class/department can profit educationally as well as financially from it.

Another career awareness activity for special education students I’ve seen done is having them create a holiday shop or even a “mall” at any time of the year. At a holiday shop each class would make specific/s crafts to sell and at a mall each class would be in charge of a store/s. Different stores at the mall that I’ve seen done are a nail salon, hair salon, jewelry store (handmade items), art gallery, bakery, snack shop, craft shop, and a card shop. Based on the child’s skills/interests they would choose from several different jobs. Some choices would be assemblers, artists, bakers, craft makers, advertisers, sales clerks, and cashiers. The holiday shop or mall would be set up in a large area so the entire school would be able to shop throughout the day or week. The proceeds can also be used to fund C.B.I. field trips!

A career lesson for your lowest developmental level or primary aged students is a lesson involving career hats. I have seen this done many different ways. Some counselors use handouts with a boy or girl puppet and a handout with several different career hats to choose from. For example, the hats for a painter, construction worker, baseball player, football player, deep sea diver, race car driver, forest ranger, firefighter, farmer, chef, archeologist, a clown, etc… After a discussion describing the various jobs, the child cuts out the puppet, glues it on a paper bag, then chooses a career hat of the job they would like to have when they grow up, and glues that on the flap of the paperbag (right over the boy or girl’s head). The students can then take turns having their puppet talk to the class about their job.

A different version of the same lesson, which involves a little more work the first time you’re preparing to teach the lesson, is collecting hat donations from the community. In the past, I’ve asked parents with various careers (that I find out about through the Great American Teach-In) to donate a hat from their job. Donations can also be received by calling your local police department, fire department, etc… Special education students along with most other primary students love to be able to try on the hats and act out the careers. The lesson can conclude with them making the above mentions puppets or drawing what they want to be when they grow up.

Almost any career lesson can be modified for a special education class. These were a few of my favorites and ones that I feel have a significant impact on special education student’s career awareness.

Cindy M. Topdemir, M.A., has been a Guidance Counselor in Pasco County, Florida for 10 years. She is presently a doctoral student in Counselor Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Cindy has co-authored a book for counselors working with students who have self-esteem issues, entitled Unlocking Your True Self, through Educational Media Corporation. She can be reached at ctopdemi@pasco.k12.fl.us

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