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Thursday 5 March 2015

Structured Learning Part 3 - Independent Work Systems

What is an Independent  Work System?

An independent  work system is an organizational system that gives a student with ASD information about what is expected when he/she arrives at a specified classroom location. An independent work system is a systematic and organized presentation of tasks and materials that visually communicates at least four pieces of information to the student: 
  1. The tasks/steps the student is supposed to do.
  2. How many tasks/steps there are to be completed.
  3. How the student knows he/she is finished.
  4. What to do when he/she is finished.
While a picture schedule directs a student WHERE to go, a work system instructs a student on WHAT TO DO once they arrive in the scheduled area. Work systems are also often referred to as mini-schedules, a schedule within a schedule, to-do-lists, or activity schedules.

Why do I use Independent Work Systems with Students with ASD?

The goal of independence is a priority for all children, yet when working with children with ASD, independence is the key to successful community inclusion and future employment. Establishing independence as a curricular goal is vital, as is gaining an understanding of the possible barriers to independence that students with ASD face. Students with autism may face several unique challenges when learning that may be an obstacle to the development of independent skills, including a lack of organizational skills, distractibility, difficulty with sequencing, generalization and independent initiation of activities.page3image17240

How do I Implement an Independent Work System?

An independent work system provides all of the required information without adult prompting and teaches the student to attend to visual cues (rather than verbal directives) when completing a task. An independent work system assists in organizing a student with ASD by providing a systematic work routine— working from left-to-right or top-to-bottom. Students do not have to plan where to begin or how to proceed. Work systems can be used with any type of task or activity (e.g., academic, self- help, leisure), across settings (e.g., independent work area, cafeteria, place of employment), and for individuals at all functioning levels (e.g., systems can range from concrete to abstract).

How I Implement Work Systems in My Classroom

I start my students on independent work systems almost immediately.  It's never too soon to start building independence!  Over the years, I have implemented independent work systems in a variety of ways based on students' needs.  For my very early learners, I use bins that are set out on the table and the students completes the activity in each bin moving from left to right.  With this method, we start with just one task, and add more as the student learns the system.  The student uses a mini-schedule with colour symbols to understand the sequence of activities.  This is an example of what it would look like.  The last symbol on the schedule is a picture of a preferred activity that the students gets to go to next as their reinforcement for completing the tasks.

Photo Credit:  Christine Reeve, www.autismclassroomnews.com
Once the student has mastered this system, I move them onto a slightly more difficult system.  This system, still uses a schedule, but the tasks are kept in a rolling bin beside the student's work table and presented in a top down manner.

The schedule is on the student's table and s/he simply removes the symbol and matches to the correct symbol on the drawer.  They then, open the drawer, take out the task and complete it.  Once they are done the task, they put it back in the drawer and complete the next task.

Once the student learns the concept of independent work and demonstrates proficiency with the system described above, I move them onto a different system.  Due to the varied abilities of the students in room at any given time, I have moved to using this one system for the majority of my students.  Moving to this system has saved us space, reduced the amount of prep time required to set up and clean up the work tasks and helps to keep things organized.  Prior to this system, each student had their own set of activities that were matched to their abilities.  Since the materials weren't labelled, the tasks were often put away in the incorrect place and a result, students were given work that was either too hard or too easy for them.  We needed to change how we organized our independent work tasks.

Our main independent work area is a small space.  It is defined by tall cabinets and has one large table, which allows two students to work at a time.  All of the work tasks are kept in this area, so it is easy to set up and clean up the tasks throughout the day.

The table is divided in half by some painter's tape and each student has an independent work sign, where they match their schedule symbols to, a help hand and "all done" baskets.

All of the work tasks in our independent work are are organized by colour.  We have four levels of activities, with green being the easiest and red being the hardest.  

All of the tasks are labelled with dot stickers to indicate in which bin they belong. This is an example of a put on activity that is in the green level.  For this task, the student put bingo chips on the circles.

Each student is assigned a colour based on their level of ability.  This chart is posted so that staff know which tasks each student should complete.  As students acquire more skills, they move up to the next level of tasks.

When students come the independent work area, they either find the name independently on the chart or are given the card with their name on it.  They then match their name to the one on their bin, take their bin our and complete the tasks inside.  When they are finished a task, they put it in the "all done" basket.

Students complete their independent work between 2 and 3 times a day.  Their bins are set up each morning before they arrive, and cleaned up throughout the day.  A nice feature with this system is that it's fairly portable.  So if a student needs to complete their work in a different area for some reason, we simply grab the bins and move them to another area in the classroom.  We use a variety of tasks for our independent work, including file folder games, lotto matching games, puzzles, counting task cards, spelling tasks cards, fine motor activities, etc.  The activities are in the students' bins are different every day and each time they complete their independent work throughout the day.  This is an example of what would be in a student's independent work bin.

Because the students aren't following a mini-schedule with this system, we keep choice boards, and first/then boards in the area, so that students can choose their reinforcer before they start the work and have the visual reminder of what they get upon completion of the work.

As organized as our independent work area is, I felt that my EAs still needed some reminders.  Especially since we have new students who have limited skills and need to be taught how to use these system.  So I made a poster to remind them how to run this station.  The poster and other visuals needed to create your own independent work system for your students are available in this kit at our classroom TPT store.  Click on the photo to purchase this kit.

Tips for Implementing Work Systems:

  1. Provide only the materials the student will need for the specific task/activity to decrease confusion. 
  2. Use work systems in a variety of settings (e.g., circle time, social groups, playground, home, doctor visits) to increase generalization across locations and adults. 
  3. Teach the work system with minimally invasive prompts so the adult/prompts do not become part of the work routine (e.g., prompt nonverbally, direct students to visual cues, prompt from behind so adult is not part of the student’s visual field, fade prompts as quickly as possible to maximize independence). 
  4. Create smaller, more portable work systems (e.g. in a notebook, file box) for students who travel to different settings throughout the school day. 
  5. Incorporate student’s interests in the visual cues used in the works system (e.g. students can match pictures of SpongeBob on their work system). 
How do you implement independent work systems in your classrooms?  I'd love to hear from you!

Until next time,

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