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Never Too Early for Pre-Vocational Skills Training

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: .

     There is no time like the present, I always say. Every day is an opportunity for learning something new. It is one of the things we humans do best. As parents and teachers we are motivated to find ways to teach our sons, daughters, and students the why's and how's of the world. We are eager to hear that first word, to see that first step.

     Most parents and pre-school teachers, however, are not focused on how their four-year-old is going to make a living some day. And teachers of students with severe disabilities, even in elementary and secondary education programs may be reluctant to think about a future that might include some type of independent, "competitive employment".

     I gave a speech several years ago, to a group of people who were involved in vocational training. I reminded them of the importance of work in our society. There is something called a work ethic. It is all about self-reliance and independence. Most adults take it for granted. Our children need to understand this concept, even at a very young age.

     It is unfortunate, in this day and age that the educational system does not take this basic drive more seriously. Most organized learning continues to focus on math and reading concepts, and the basic social skills associated with good classroom behavior. That is all well and good. But even the later often does not take into consideration building work-based relationships. Students are told that they must do "homework" but this is not the same as completing repetitive work-oriented projects. Building work skills should involve group activities, the sharing of information, and a cooperative effort. Perhaps, even more importantly, there should be a payoff, a sense of accomplishment, some acknowledgement that the job was "well done".

     Occupying time in the completion of routine tasks is only the first step. The exploration of jobs and the skills related to them must come soon afterward. Even in mainstream education, graduates often find themselves at a loss as far as knowing how to earn a living. It is unfortunate that many lack the motivation to have already embraced a job-type and susequently have yet to learn even the basic skills related to any occupation. The traditional appretiships have all but vanished from our culture. If the educational system does not know or is unable to teach the skills needed by its own community to maintain its workplaces, ultimately the system will break down.

     You may say that much depends on the intellectual and physical abilities of your child. I say, work gives us all a sense of self-worth. Everyone wants to be valued. And, regardless of age or developmental level it is never too early, (even in pre-school classes) to teach work-oriented skills. There are some basic activities, which can be easily taught to all who might want to work at some point in the future. The following is a simple list for you to consider:

     1. Time Concepts and the understanding of being on time and ready for a work period. Mastery of scheduling can be a significant part of any pre-vocational program. There is much to be done in this area of development.

     2. Preperation for a work period. Going to a designated "work" place, (even a table designated for work-oriented tasks), and getting out and later putting away necessary materials should be reinforced.

     3. Following simple spoken and or written directions. This may include pictorial guides. This element would focus on the understanding of sequential events. What happens first, next, and last. It also includes language development in general. Responding to one-step directions, then two-steps, three steps and so on. It may also include taking notes or being able to relate information previously given, (like a receptionist). Memory games and songs are a good way to build these skills.

     4. Discrimination of objects: by color, shape, and size. Sorting between two different elements, then three, then four...

     5. Learning about increasing productivity - placing materials in sequence to be assembled, timed tasks, improvement of on-task behaviors, etc.

     6. Vocational Awareness - Learning about different types of occupations and the skills basic to those jobs. Visiting work settings and role-playing are great exercises in this area. For the younger students, dress-up play allows the teacher to determine interests and even the understanding a student may have about their "chosen" occupation. Making collages, watching videos, and other simulation exercises are also effective teaching tools. A classroom store, a student postal system, classroom assignments such as feeding fish, taking out trash, cleaning chalkboards, restacking books, and so forth are also good to teach responsibility and work ethics.

     There are a wide variety of tasks that can be available to students on a regular basis.

Assembly: Puzzles, shape boards, beads, handlooms, and of course other hand made craft projects.

Packaging: Putting objects in boxes, stacking, putting items in plastic Baggies and envelopes, etc.

Counting items: Using counting boards- Cardboard marked with small squares on which items are placed, filling up egg cartons, (one item in each impression), the same thing can be done with small bowls or cups. Or place two - three- or four small objects in each cup.

Using small hand tools - stapling, tacking with a hammer, cutting with scissors, hand stamping notes or envelopes, electric pencil sharpeners, hole punchers, etc.

     If there are multiple steps in a task, always break it down. Much research has been done in the area of successfully teaching multiple step activities. If each step is reinforced with praise and other tangible rewards, progress will be made. Consider a token economy with a store day at least once a week. This also reinforces the economic system that drives our country forward.

     Whenever possible, provide first-hand observations of real-life occupations while on community outings. Some basic vocational areas to consider might include: food preparation, janitorial tasks, money handling, (cashiering), working with paper products, (printing, folding, or collating papers, even recycling), simple assembly, carpentry, landscaping and horticulture activities, (indoor and outdoor plants), arts and crafts, laundry and other general housekeeping jobs.

     Parents, let your children help around the house. You will be doing them a favor. Chores are an excellent learning experience, but don't forget to reward the behavior.

     I will leave you with one other thought at this point. Current thinking emphasizes independent living and community access skills for students with disabilities. Any movement towards self-sufficiency also lends itself to success in other life areas including vocational aptitude. Allow even the youngest child to explore, make choices, and try new things. Then celebrate their independence!

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