Life Skills & Long-Term Planning: What Do These Mean for a Disabled Child?

by | Plan & Organize

Lifelong Learning & Long-Term Planning-This is the first in a series on lifelong and long-term planning.

I often hear the term “lifelong learning” in relation to goals parents have for their children. Parents say things like, “I want him to be a lifelong learner” or “I want him to learn to love learning” or “I want him to know how to learn on his own”.

These are noble goals.

One of the broader goals of education should be that children learn to become lifelong learners. They learn that learning doesn’t end just because they aren’t in school or because they’ve closed their textbooks. They learn that learning continues even into old age.

Wikipedia has a great definition for lifelong learning: “the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.”

But, what about a child with significant cognitive delays?

What about the child who needs things done for him because he can’t think about thinking just yet?

What about the child who learns based on what the adults in his life decide he should learn? How can he be self-motivated to learn –  for life?

What do we do then?

Lower our expectations?

Work on other skills instead?

Continue to spoon-feed learning opportunities until he “gets it”?

Or, do we fake it? Jump around all day reciting, “Learning is fun! Look! Learning is fun, fun, fun! Learning is for life and it’s fun!”

I’ll be honest.

As a teacher, I love the term “lifelong learning”. And, I love long-term planning.

As a parent of a child with significant cognitive delays, both of these rip at my heart.

I just want my son to learn.



Spontaneously. Or, with our guidance. Or, while watching TV. Or, while in the company of peers.


I don’t care that he needs to be learning forever.

Most days, I don’t even care that he needs to be learning tomorrow.

I just want him to be happy today and to learn one new little thing he didn’t know this morning. A new ASL sign. A new facial expression. To hold that crayon in his hand instead of tossing it halfway across the room. To not gag when he sees play dough. To not cry when he hears our neighbour’s dog’s high-pitched bark. To hold himself in standing unsupported for one minute longer. To stack the blocks. To know the joy of playing with blocks.

Could he just learn that one skill we’ve been working on for weeks? Today?

In a world that expects long-term plans and tosses around terms like “lifelong learners”, where do we parents of children with severe cognitive delays stand?

What we know about education and children with severe cognitive delays:

We already know that lifelong learning is a higher-order thinking skill and not all children will be able to achieve it.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning was developed by Benjamin Bloom in 1956 as a means to classify the questions that are most often asked in classrooms. His aim was to help teachers focus on the higher-order thinking skills that require students to analyze, evaluate and synthesize (as opposed to answering yes/ no questions or following the teacher’s directions).


Image by Graphic by John M. Kennedy T., Creative Commons

Graphic by John M. Kennedy T., Creative Commons

Bloom outlined 3 main areas/ domains of learning:

  • cognitive (intellectual or mental skills)
  • affective (emotional/ social skills)
  • psychomotor (fine and gross motor skills)

Having a cognitive delay means that a child will have delays/ deficits in:

  • reasoning skills
  • memory
  • academic skills (reading, writing, etc.)
  • communication

Each of these are needed to acquire the skill of lifelong learning, or for a child to be able to reason and communicate about his learning.

A child with cognitive disabilities will need long-term help, and may never attain the skill of being able to learn by himself — for life.

But, does that mean you never plan the future for/with your child?

If making lifelong learning is one of your goals, it means changing your mindset somewhat.

If it means that your child needs additional assistance, so be it. If he requires adapted equipment or materials in order to get there, then they certainly need to be there. If your child needs you or another adult there, learning can still occur, and you can still get your child as close to the higher-order thinking skills as possible – or, as close to his potential at this present moment. For instance, your child may not be able to hypothesize, but he may be able to experiment through play. This may be different a week from today.

Without a doubt, here is what will be lifelong for your child (and mine):

  • your child will be loved by you and his siblings, family and friends
  • your child will feel secure to learn in an environment that is familiar and self-paced
  • your child will enjoy learning so long as you make it as meaningful as possible (as opposed to contrived and irrelevant to his daily functions)

What does lifelong learning mean to you?

In the next post in this series I give you concrete examples of long-term planning for a child with significant delays through the acquisition life skills.


Bloom’s Taxonomy: Critical Thinking Skills for Kids – article with a free link to a printable questions chart to ask children to get them thinking critically
Cognitive Domain – a one-page chart with behavioral descriptions and examples of activities in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning


  1. Candice

    Life Long Learning doesn’t have to be that higher level of learning. Last time I read about it I think I read that only 10% of our society has that capability. What people do is put a limit on Life Long Learning by it’s definition. The fact is everyone is life long learners. Rather its a complex scientific matter or the latest fact on Prince William it’s learning. Every person has a right to learn and can learn no matter the age or cognitive ability. You just need to tap into there brain.

    • Gabriella Volpe

      I love that you mention that learning is learning no matter what, Candice. When I hear the term “lifelong learning” I immediately relate it to metacognition, the ability for a person to think about his thinking. I think of lifelong learning as a person being able to decide what to learn next or to intentionally follow a passion or a particular path in life. It’s that “voluntary”, “self-motivated” piece that I struggle with and what stops me in my tracks when I hear that term tossed around.

      I agree with you that each person has a right to learn no matter what. I would never suggest limiting a person’s ability to learn just because the adult feels the child may never get there. I’m reflecting on what all this looks like for children who cannot choose, for instance, to further inquire about that snail he saw in the garden today, as is the case with our son. I question how much input a parent has to provide. How much to release in that [educational] moment? How much to encourage? How much to step back? That push and pull. How much is self-motivated? How much is parental prodding? Where is that fine line? How to get them over that threshold? And, more importantly, do we need to get them over that threshold at all? Perhaps the learning that day was simply beholding a new insect.

      I love this discussion. All of this has been rolling around in my mind for a while now. Thank you for your reply. Much food for thought.

More Resources

Continue reading my essays, activities, and case studies for supporting the education of disabled/chronically ill and neurodivergent children.