Most evaluation tools and curricula arrange skills according to the way a typical child might acquire them. Essential for Living by Patrick McGreevy, PhD BCBA-D et al takes a different approach. They group skills into categories of “must-have,” “should-have,” “good-to-have,” and “nice-to have.” This instrument also identifies deficits in functional skills that might be the root cause of maladaptive behaviors. In this way, educators, therapists, caretakers, and parents can prioritize skills on an education or service plan according to how necessary the skill is for a happy, fulfilling, and productive life.

The eight essential “must-have” skills are those that a learner needs in order to get his needs met. If the learner attains the eight “must-have” skills identified by the curriculum, he will be less likely to resort to maladaptive behaviors.

The curriculum groups these eight essential skills as follows

  1. Making requests
  2. Waiting
  3. Accepting removals, making transitions, sharing, taking turns
  4. Completing 10 consecutive brief previously acquired tasks
  5. Accepting “no”
  6. Following directions which pertain to health and safety
  7. Completing daily living skills as they relate to health and safety
  8. Tolerating health and safety situations

The Essential for Living curriculum is appropriate for children and adults with moderate to severe disabilities and uses a verbal behavior approach. This approach is based on the book, Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner. Intervention based on verbal behavior motivates a child, adolescent or adult to learn language by connecting words with their purposes.

If a learner can request what he wants, can wait and stop, and can accept removals of positive items and/or situations, he is more likely to behave in such a way that makes community integration possible. The essential eight could open up worlds.

The authors provide an example of a 12-year-old learner with severe developmental disabilities and no method of speaking. This individual is learning to point to a triangle versus a square in her school program. The author makes the argument that focusing on learning the above-referenced “must-have” skills would more likely lead to fulfillment in life than knowing how to point to a triangle.

I found out about the Essential for Living curriculum and the essential eight when I brought my adult son with autism to the behaviorist. I wanted the behaviorist to look at my son’s food stealing behavior. For several years, his adult care program has worked on eliminating this behavior with no success.

The behaviorist suggested that we focus on skills that would make requesting more attractive than stealing. She did a quick assessment on the essential eight, and recommended the following:

  • Reinforce requesting so that he would be more likely to request rather than steal. His verbal approximations are difficult for listeners to understand, and often require further clarification. Therefore, staff might not sufficiently reinforce his requesting. This would make stealing more attractive than requesting. For that reason, he needs to learn 10 signs for highly reinforcing items or activities, and have these items or activities available for his use.
  • Teach and reinforce stopping and waiting. Once we are successful with this, a “stop” command could prevent a food steal from proceeding.

The Essential for Living Professional Practitioner’s Handbook covers curricula for the most severely disabled to those with moderate disabilities. Because the handbook is so extensive, it is a bit complex. However, I believe that it is worthwhile to spend the time to acclimate to the handbook in order to gain access to the ideas presented.

I fully endorse using Essential for Living for moderate to severely developmentally disabled learners. I hope that someday all individuals with a need for such a curriculum will have access to it. I congratulation McGreevy et al. for creating this tool for our most vulnerable and forgotten individuals.

To find out more about Essential for Living, visit

Irene Tanzman has no affiliations with Essential for Living or Patrick McGreevy, PhD BCBA-D, Troy Fry, MA BCBA, or Colleen Cornwall, EdD, BCBA-D

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