Independent Work Systems are an essential part of a self-contained, special education classroom. These systems can help with increasing independence, maintaining mastered skills, refocusing behaviors, and teaching routine sequences of activities. There are many different ways Independent Work Systems can be utilized and presented. Most of my training in the area of Independent Work Systems follows the TEACCH program model. I will share three of my favorite ways to use Independent Work Systems for my students with moderate to severe disabilities.
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What is an Independent Work System?
An Independent Work System is a structured sequence of activities a student completes independently. It provides a clear, visual guide to students of what tasks they are going to complete, in what order, and when they will be finished. Independent Work Systems are a great way to teach and encourage independence throughout a variety of skills and settings.
What types of tasks do you include in an Independent Work System?
A variety of tasks can be included in a Independent Work System. For example, students can work on academic tasks/worksheets, puzzles, fine motor activities, or vocational tasks. Also, the amount of work included can vary. I usually use 3-5 tasks for each work system, but you can use more or less depending on your students. When using the Independent Work System solely as a way to promote independence, use only mastered tasks.
Although I mostly use Independent Work Systems as a step toward independence, these systems can also be useful to teach new sequences such as hygiene routines, dressing, and vocational tasks.
Essential Components of an Independent Work System
An Independent Work System is a set of activities a student can complete as independently as possible. Each work system should clearly answer three questions: What work? How much work? When am I finished? There are different ways set up these work systems to answer these questions for your students. The structure of an Independent Work System can be transferred to other tasks. Therefore, these skills can be generalized to other types of sequences across different activities and environments.
Independent Work Systems always move in a top to bottom and left to right motion. There also needs to be a clear place to put any work that is finished. Visuals can be used such as shapes, numbers, or pictures/icons to show the order of activities and to match to the tasks. Provide as little or as much visual support a student needs based on their abilities, as long as the three questions above are always answered by looking at the work system.
3 Types of Independent Work Systems for Special Education Students
There are many different ways to create Independent Work Systems for your Special Education students. Below I will share the most common ways I utilize these systems.
Task Box System
Task Box Systems are a great way to house tons of activities for different students. Many different types of skills can be addressed. Each box contains a task that is ready to complete. The boxes can be coded with pictures, words, letters, numbers, or icons. I utilize work strips for each student and place 3 tasks on each work strip.
To begin, students find their own work strip and begin with the task on the left. After removing the icon, the student locates the box with the matching icon, completes the task and places it in a “finished” box. The student then continues to complete each task on their work strip, from left to right, until all tasks are complete. For some students, it helps to have a picture of a chosen reinforcer at the end so they know they have earned this when they finish all the tasks.
I make my icons using Symbolstix software from Unique Learning System. You can also use clip art, Boardmaker, or another communication symbol software. I purchased clear, plastic shoe boxes for most of the tasks. For smaller tasks I also like meal prep containers. For my students who can complete worksheets and other paper/pencil tasks, I incorporate magazine holders.
It can be hard to keep track of all the tasks you put into your task box system. I took a picture of each task, along with the icon used on the box so I could quickly determined which tasks to assign to which students.
Individual Drawer System
Some of my students have a hard time transitioning from the task shelves to the table and back again throughout their independent work. For this reason, I utilize an individual drawer system for these students. This can be placed on the left side of their desk. If tasks are larger, you can use a large drawer system and place it to left of their desk. Always make sure the process will go from left to right. Place a “finished” box on the floor next to the student, on their right.
For the drawer system, I either place the student’s work strip on top of the drawers themselves or on their desk. Students begin on the left, remove the first icon, match it to the icon on the drawer, remove the task from the drawer and complete it. Upon completion of each task the student places the completed task into the “finished” box before returning to their work strip.
Since drawer systems only require icons for 3-4 drawers, I use shapes, colors, or numbers as my task labels. Choose a drawer system that will fit tasks in it for the student it will be used for.
Using individual folders is a simple way to set up an independent work system for students who are not in need of as much visual structure. This is best for students who are doing higher level work such as paper and pencil assignments.
Any type of folder will work for this system, although I suggest plastic folders since these are more durable and will last throughout the school year.
To set up an Independent Work System using a folder, make sure to still have the work flow go from left to right. Work is placed in the left side of the folder, which I label “To Do.” When students finish the work, they place it in the right sight of the folder, labeled “finished.” You can place as much or as little work in the folder as each student is able to complete independently.
How to Implement Independent Work Systems
To implement an Independent Work System, the following guidelines should be followed to encourage independence.
Minimal to No Verbal Prompting: Verbal prompts are the hardest to fade. Hence, when teaching a routine we do not want students to rely on verbal prompts, but to learn how to use the structure of the task to know what comes next.
Prompt From Behind: All prompting should be done from behind the student. Use gestures, models, partial physical or hand over hand prompting to help students work their way through the system.
Always move from left to right, and top to bottom: Students should never be back tracking to try to complete the work system. All parts of the system should move from left to right, and top to bottom. The work tasks should be to the left of the student, there should be space in front of the student to complete the task, and the “finished” box should be to the right of the student.
Tasks should be clear and ready to complete: Make sure when a student opens a box or drawer to remove a task, it is ready to complete. I put any loose pieces into a small container. If the task involves a jig, make sure it moves from left to right.
Do not reset tasks in front of the student: Once the student completes each task and places it into the finished box, leave the task there until the entire system has been completed, and the student has transitioned to another activity. We do not want students to see their work being undone. It is best to reset activities at the end of each day.
Change up tasks: Make sure to change out tasks so students don’t get bored with the same things to complete. As students master new skills, make tasks that allow practice and maintenance of these skills and add them to their Independent Work Systems.
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There are times I have been able to adapt this system to help teacher new skills to students. For example, you can set up a drawer system to work on a dressing routine. Put each item of clothing in each drawer, in the order it should be put on. Prompt from behind as your student learns to dress him/herself. I have also used this successfully for teaching hygiene routines. You can put each step of the sequence into the Independent Work System (teeth brushing, face washing, putting on cologne, etc.). This helps break down the process into clear steps. You can then fade the level of prompting until the student is completely independent. There are many sequential skills that can be incorporated into an Independent Work System.
What other ways are there to adapt Independent Work Systems?
There are many other ways to create an Independent Work System based on your student needs. Here are some other ideas you can try:
For students will visual impairments, use small objects instead of icons/pictures to label tasks.
Provide visuals of how to complete each task in the task boxes.
For students who are readers, remove pictures and icons and only use text labels.
Simplify the entire system by putting all tasks to complete in a box to the left of the student and a “finished” box on the right. The student can remove each item, complete it, and place it in the finished box.
Please comment below with any additional ideas and strategies you have found to be effective when using Independent Work Systems.