Getting Started with Independent Work Systems
Getting Started with independent work systems

Getting started with independent work systems!

My independent work systems is, by far, one of my favorite tools that I use in my classroom.  It is truly amazing to watch students become so independent. The students are proud of themselves. There are so many self-contained classrooms that just don't have enough support, this center runs on its own and needs very little maintenance.   After teaching your students and your paraprofessionals how to use this center, your classroom should run like a dream.

I know what you're thinking …….. “how much work is this going to be for me?”  I promise, once you get it all set up, it basically runs itself ALL YEAR LONG.  Believe me, I struggled for years with a disorganized closet full of tasks and students who could not function without constant verbal prompts and even paraprofessionals who had know idea what to do.   Once I implemented a well planned out center with a few organizational tips, I have so much more planning time!

So let's get started.  Here is a step by step process on how to get started in your classroom:

Step 1: Choose the right system!

It is so important to choose the right independent work system that works for you and your students.  Think about the amount of space that you have to give up and the amount of time that you can have students dedicate to independent work systems. 

6 types of independent work systems

Step 2: Find the materials and furniture!

You'll want to find a desk or a table large enough to have a working area, but small enough to make sure that it's not distracting for the student.  Some students with Autism who have too large of a space to work on, will often spread out their work, and lay all over the table.  If your table is too large you can put tape down the center to section off the workspace.  You could also use study carrels.

Find a 3-4 tiered shelf to put onto the left side of the work station.  You can add Velcro to the front of each shelf for the matching symbols to go (unless you want to put them directly on the task boxes) Other shelf ideas could be a 3 bin storage unit, but remember we want to teach them how to use a schedule, not necessarily to complete three bins.  A three-bin system limits you to only three tasks too.   Anyway, the shelf doesn't have to be cookie-cutter, however, you want to make the tasks accessible to the student.


using furniture to create a visual boundary

Step 3: Find a location!

Find a quiet area in your room to place this new center.  This center will need to go up against a wall or partition.  When I worked in the elementary classroom, we could place the desk up against our movable walls.  We had quiet dividers that we used to surround the center to provide a very quiet work zone.

Step 4: The Materials

There are some materials that you will need to prepare for the independent work center.  You will need picture symbols and a mini schedule.  I have created a resource for FREE for you with over 350 different symbol options.  You can grab that HERE for free.  You will also find mini schedules and data collection sheets in this freebie.   

You will need to print out the symbols that you want, laminate them, then cut them out.  You can use whatever icons that are the most reinforcing to the student.  Then add Velcro.  You will need two pictures of each symbol.  Also, you will need a mini schedule.  This schedule tells the student which tasks to do in which order.

Step 5: The mini schedule!

Place the mini-schedule on the upper part of the desk.  Make sure that it is accessible for even the smallest of hands.  You can adhere it to the desk with tape.  Or, if you are using individual schedules, you just add Velcro to the back and switch them out as needed.

structured work systems schedule

Step 6: Add Tasks or Activities

This is the most important part of the center.  You need to have some sort of task for the students to complete.  You can use workboxes, task boxes, file folder games, adapted books, or even worksheets inside of a folder.   Whatever you use, there needs to be one task for each symbol.   

I have to be honest, this was my biggest struggle for a long time, finding room to store all of these was a nightmare in my old classroom.  Now I use these awesome task box kits that I made.  I found the container at Michael's and I love all the pretty things, so I made tasks that are made to fit in each box.   With my task boxes, storage is so easy, as they do not take up that much space. 

Step 7: Data collection

With my FREE starter pack, you will receive 2 free datasheets.  Just add the data collection sheets to a clipboard and hang them near the center.  I usually put a piece of colored paper over the sheet with the child's name on it, to protect their privacy.   I have included two versions, one for each child.  Or just one sheet with the whole class.  Or if you prefer, use your own data collection.  But know that it is important to keep track of how well the child is maintaining the skill and also not to give them the same task too many times in a row. In addition, this also allows me to see the level of prompting a student may need.

independent work system data collection sheet

Step 8: Teaching!

Not only is it important that you teach the child how to use this center, but your aides or paraprofessionals need to be taught as well.  I would sit with the adults in the room and explain their job to set up the tasks for each child and how to record on the data collection sheets.  I would often post someone near the station, a  guide for the adults or rules for them to follow should be posted.  You should take a week to provide staff and students with sufficient guidelines on how to correctly use this center.   Students should be taught these skills or practicing them during your 1:1 teaching or small group settings.  Once they are ready, let them use the center!

And that is it!  Once your center or station is all set up, which may take a bit of work, you should not have to think about it all year long.

REMINDERS.  Please note that any task that you put into the work station must be a previously mastered skill.   Tasks must be 100% independent before putting them in this station.  A teacher shouldn't have to read directions or set up materials.  Students should be able to check their schedules, go to this center and complete the mini-schedule on the desk, all without adult intervention.

I typically will practice a few task boxes during direct instruction time throughout the week.  Once the student masters that task box, I move it to the Independent Work Station.  I keep a list of students and the tasks that they have mastered.  My paraprofessionals or I will prep the center using this list.  Some of my students can handle 3 tasks while other students can handle 9 tasks.

Why do I need independent work systems?


Promotes Independence – students learn at a very young age how to do skills independently and will use these skills in real jobs when they exit high school.

Maintenance Skills – students who get extra practice are able to maintain skills longer.

Generalize Skills -students are able to generalize skills and practice them in different ways and in different settings.  This skill helps generalize skills outside of school as well.

Builds Fluency – one of the biggest skill we want to teach is fluency, we don't want students to do something well, we want them to be fast and efficient as well.

Engaging – students are engaged in this center and often ask to complete them on a daily basis!
Sensory Input – These types of tasks provide an unbelievable amount of sensory input and tactile stimulation which keep them engaged.

Promotes High Self-Esteem -When students are able to complete something all by themselves, they have a sense of pride and accomplishment that is undeniable.

Differentiation- this is one center that you can cater to each student's needs.

Prerequisite Skills for Employment- these types of independent skills are so important to help them get ready for the workforce once they exit high school. 

Can you help me get started?

I sure can! Another great way to get started with Independent Work Systems is with some professional development!

I have an on-demand, free training to help you get started with Independent Work Systems today! 

Click here to see it!

Well, that's all for now!!   Catch you next week!
Or you can pin it for later here: 




I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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