8 Ways to Increase the Rigor for Independent Work Systems
8 ways to increase the rigor for independent work systems

Independent Work Systems can be tricky sometimes to try and increase the rigor. Sometimes we as special educators get stuck when thinking about all the ways that we can differentiate work and increase the difficulty levels of all the things.


Even when it comes to independent work systems, we are often inclined to not think outside the box and get complacent on how things are.  

If you are wondering what independent work systems are, you can click here to read all about it. 

I am here to tell you that there is more than one way to increase the rigor of your structured work systems.

structured work systems in special education

Independent Work Systems

1. Move the System

One of the first things that you can do to increase the difficulty is to move the system to a new location in the classroom.  I've had so many teachers tell me that they have never thought to do that because they usually have the system in a specific location in the room.

However, if we want to get our students to generalize the information they are learning, then moving it to a new space can do just that!

2. Add Another Independent Wor Systems Session

Another way to increase the difficulty is just to add another session into the school day.  If you have a student doing a 30-minute session in the morning, try adding another 30-minute session in the afternoon.

If you are only doing 15 minutes sessions, you could even do three different 15-minute sessions in one school day.

3. Change the Type of Schedule Used

Changing the type of schedule from using images, icons, or pictures to a written schedule is a great way to increase the difficulty of independent work systems.

A lot of times, in my own classroom, we will start with images based on their interest then we would move on to a more basic symbol such as shapes or numbers

From there we would go to a written schedule that turns into a “checklist” type.

A to-do list or checklist is the type of list that we are going for because it can be generalized into a work setting.

Increasing the rigor for independent work systems for special education

4. Increase the Number of Tasks

Another easy way to increase the rigor is just by adding more tasks!

 Unfortunately, the three-drawer bin system is very limiting because you cannot increase the number of tasks that you're using.

You are limited to only three tasks if you are doing a three-drawer bin system, however, with most of the other systems, you can increase to as many as the student can handle.

So if a student is using a tiered shelf system and you can fit 12 activities on that shelf AND the student is ready to handle that many activities, by all means, go for it.

But in general, if you start the student with three tasks just add one more to increase the difficulty.

5. Adjust the Difficulty

Another easy way is to just adjust the difficulty of the task that you are using.  Just adjusting the difficulty of the activity, will increase the difficulty of the overall work system.

6. Switch the Type of Independent Work System Being Used

Another way to increase the rigor of the independent work system is just by simply switching out the type of work system that you are using for that child.

If you are beginning independent work systems with the easier version, such as the table tasks systems or the 3 drawer bin system, then just switching it up to the folder system or even a binder system would increase the difficulty. 

However, they will have to learn how to use the new system but that is another great learning opportunity and for the student and shows growth.

7. Change the Incentive

Another way to make the systems more difficult is by changing the incentive or the reinforcer from a tangible item to “informing an adult”.

Let me explain.

This is something that you're going to want to do in the secondary classroom because it gets them ready for job sites and exited high school.

In the real world, you can't always earn an immediate reinforcer every time you do three tasks in a row.

For example, if Johnny is working at the grocery store and stocks all the cans of green beans on the shelf, he doesn't get his paycheck right away, he has to wait for that type of reinforcer!

After he is done stacking the cans he might need to:

  • go do an end cap
  • go upfront and bag some groceries 
  • sweep the floor


And then he may need to go find his boss to find out what's next to do!

So for secondary students, it's a good idea to replace the reinforcer with an icon that says “tell the boss you're finished”

This specific tactic is very challenging for students because it is really hard to fade tangible reinforcers, but is a necessary step to prepare them for the future. 

storing tasks in the special education classroom

8. Store the Tasks in a different Location

The last thing that I will share with you to increase the difficulty of an independent work system is to move the tasks away from them so the student has to get up and bring them back to their seats.

For example, the student may have a desk, their schedule, and a chair waiting for them but nothing else…

…this could even be the student's desk in their classroom but now they have an independent work system schedules they have to follow…

The first schedule icon is a number 3, now they have to go walk over to where the independent work system activities are located in a closet.

That student must now find that matching task, the picture of the number 3 on it, and bring that task back to their workstation!

This is extremely difficult for students with special needs but doesn't mean it shouldn't be worked on.

It takes a lot of executive functioning skills to be able to organize their thoughts, stay on task, have enough mobility and patience to get up to find the tasks bring them back complete it, and go put them back on that shelf.

However, this is really great practice for students in a secondary setting.

Emotions task boxes for independent work systems

Independent Work Systems BONUS

Present the Materials in a Brand New Way

Here is one more just in case you haven't thought about this one yet. Try to present the materials in a brand new way.

For example, if Johnny has been working on deciphering bar graphs using the task boxes for the last 4 weeks, then maybe I should give him worksheets to work on bar graphs or maybe a file folder game to work on that same skill.

Are you looking for these task boxes, they are only available in my Independent Work Systems Course!

So to recap, there are so many different ways that you can increase the difficulty level in independent work systems. You just have to find one that works for the needs of your classroom and your students.

Are you still on the fence about using Independent Work Systems?  Read this blog post on 6 Objections to using IWS.

Make sure to click here or the image below to pin it to Pinterest for later!

8 ways to increase the rigor for independent work systems

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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