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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Independent Work Systems: Which One Is Right For Your Classroom?

The desire for, and movement towards independence, is a typical developmental milestone for children. The feeling of accomplishment and competence is meaningful and motivating to children as they begin to complete tasks with minimal adult prompting or guidance. 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.


Work Systems to Increase Independence 

A work system is a strategy that addresses independence as an essential outcome for students with ASD. A work system, an element of structured teaching, is defined by Division TEACCH® as a systematic and organized presentation of tasks and materials that visually communicates at least four pieces of information to the student (Schopler, Mesibov, & Hearsey, 1995): 

1.  The tasks/steps the student is supposed to do. What is the nature of the task? Does it involve sorting by shape, writing an address, making popcorn, or recycling cans?
2.  How many tasks/steps there are to be completed. Visually represent how much work is to be done. If a student is to cut 10 coupons, give only 10 coupons so he/she can visualize completion. Steps may be represented by more abstract cues such as numbers, shapes, poker chips, or pictures of high interest items, such as Thomas the Train cars. 
3.  How the student knows he/she is finished. The student should independently recognize the end of the activity through the structure within the task, use of a finished box, timer, or other visual cue such as a stop sign. 
4.  What to do when he/she is finished. Indicate next scheduled activity. May need to use a highly desired item/activity to increase motivation, though often being “finished” is motivating enough.

A 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. 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). 

Choosing the Right System(s) for your Classroom


Given there are a variety of types and ways to use independent work systems, how do you know which one is right for your students?  

1.  Consider the Learner and the Environment:
  • Is the student able to match colours, shapes and numbers?  
  • Is the student able to read?
  • Is the student able to move from one area of the environment to another with little or no adult support?
2.  Determine whether a portable or stationary work system would be more appropriate:
  • Consider the student's need for predictability and routine 
  • What is the student's schedule? (e.g., moves from class to class, stays in one classroom). 
3.  Evaluate the learner’s concept of “finished”:
  • Can the student place all items into a “finished” box/shelf on his/her right?
  • Can he/she match visual symbols to corresponding task containers? 
  • Canteen student cross off each task from a list as the task is completed?

This information helps teachers determine what type of work system is most appropriate for each student. The format of the work system should allow the student to perform fluently on his/her own, so it is important to recognize that a more complex system is not “better” if the student cannot use it without adult support.


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 letters 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.




Once the student learns the concept of independent work and demonstrates proficiency with the system described above, I move them onto an in/out, left/right bin system.  Students take the tasks out of the bin on the left, complete them and put them in the bin on the right.  When the bin on the left is empty, they are done their work.


All of the work tasks in our independent work are are organized by colour.  We have two levels of activities, with green being the easiest and blue being the hardest.  All of the tasks are labelled with dot stickers to indicate in which bin they belong.  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.





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, 1:1 correspondence task cards, spelling/matching letters task 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.  

I have one student who cannot open ziplock bags and another one who likes to rip bags, so I have been buying these Iris Photo Storage Boxes and making tasks to avoid these problems.  I love this system because it is so easy to keep neat and organized.  Plus, my students have no issues with opening and closing the boxes and they are sturdy so can't be broken easily!  Again, the tasks are colour coded according to level of difficulty.







When my students have acquired more academic skills, we move them on to a work system using binders.  The binders are great for students who are preparing for their transition out of my classroom and are spending more time in a regular classroom setting.  The binders are easily portable and take up a lot less space than the bins.  The activities in the binders depends on the student's skill level, but generally contain matching, sorting, counting, spelling and tracing tasks for my lower level students.  For my higher level students, the binders contain reading, printing, and math tasks, such as addition or time.



I added this last work system this year for my higher level students who need to start developing more age appropriate life skills.  Students who use this system follow a mini schedule and complete the tasks in the bins.  All of the tasks in these bins are chores that they could complete at home.  I make the students' parents aware of these tasks, so they can practice them and have their children generalize these skills to their home.




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.



Tips for Implementing Work Systems


  • Provide only the materials the student will need for the specific task/activity to decrease confusion. 
  • Use work systems in a variety of settings (e.g., circle time, social groups, playground, home, doctor visits) to increase generalization across location and adults. 
  • 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). 
  • Create smaller, more portable work systems (e.g. in a notebook, file box) for students who travel to different settings throughout the school day. 

How do you run your independent work station?  I'd love to hear from you!  Leave me a comment or send me an email!  Thanks for stopping by!  Until next time,

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