Independent Work Systems: Individual Success Is a Group Effort

The school year is in full swing and our students are making substantial progress in daily routines and instructional goals. At this halfway mark of the school year, it can be helpful to take stock of our students’ individual needs and personal goals. One strategy we’ve seen successfully employed across grade levels in classrooms around the world is the use of Independent Work Systems (IWS).

Why use independent work systems in the classroom? These systems provide students with the visual and environmental supports they need to complete work independently. They answer student questions like . . .

  • What do I need to do?”
  • “How much work and in what order?”
  • “How do I know when I’m finished?”
  • “What do I do next?”

Independent work is beneficial to students at all learning levels because it offers each child the opportunity to exercise agency and ownership of their work. Teaching independent work skills is an essential component for all students, whether they receive instruction in self-contained programs or in integrated settings. Within the context of independent work, students learn to:

  1. Complete a sequence of tasks, either from left-to-right or top-to-bottom
  2. Organize materials needed to get the job done
  3. Manage a schedule, and
  4. Generalize critical skills taught during Discrete Trial Training (DTT) or other learning arrangements

With this in mind, we designed the Routine Essentials Independent Work suite to provide teachers with practical tools to help implement independent work systems and support their students in reaching success. It can be overwhelming to set up new systems in your classroom when you’re already running low on resources and time. So, in addition to tip sheets and step-by-step guides, you can find tons of photos, illustrations, diagrams, and printable supports to make your own system work for your students’ unique needs.

Here are a few tips to make independent work a successful learning experience for all students:

  1.  Choose tasks that the student already knows how to complete. Use the Student Learning Profile (SLP) to identify mastered skills that can be used to teach the IW routine (e.g. assembling puzzles, matching numbers, completing simple play routines, etc.).
  2.  Identify preferred tasks for students to increase the likelihood of compliance.
  3.  Use reward systems for students who require tangible reinforcement to complete the routine accurately. Make sure to deliver reinforcement for those steps that may be difficult or aversive for the student to complete. For example, your student might have difficulty organizing the materials needed to work, so deliver a token or other reinforcer as the student is taking the materials out of their receptacle.
  4.  Provide effective prompts for students if they commit errors during the routine. It’s never too early to start teaching students to work independently. The lack of independent work skills is a common barrier to successful inclusion in integrated settings. Independent work can teach students the critical skill of following a sequence of steps, while emphasizing incidental skills, such as asking for help.

Facilitate student success by providing your students with necessary visual supports. Create your own tasks customized to your students’ needs, or choose from theme-based independent work tasks designed for students at three learning levels:

  • Task boxes
  • File folder tasks
  • Worksheets
  • Books

Find these and other curriculum materials in the Themes First! section of the STAR Media Center. And, don’t forget—we offer a new theme unit each month with new, original, fun independent work tasks to keep your students busy every day of the month. Check out the revamped STAR Independent Work section: you’ll get access to everything you need to set up a successful independent work program in your classroom. And, more importantly, your students will receive everything they need to successfully complete independent work routines while building and honing the skills they need in school and beyond.