5 Reasons Teachers Don’t Use Structured Work Systems (and How To Solve Them).

Did you think you can't make independent work systems work in your special ed or general ed classroom? Think again...here's 5 solutions to the most common concerns.

So many times, I meet teachers or get an email from them saying they don’t know how they can use independent work systems in their classroom.  And if you know me, you know my response is….

Say What?????

Because, really, you can do independent work systems in your classroom.  And you should….here are some reasons why.  

But I get it…there are things that definitely feel like they get in the way of getting them implemented in the classroom.  So today, I’m talking about how to overcome the obstacles I hear about most.

5 Reasons You Think You Can’t Do Independent Work Systems

…and why you really can.  So, these are the top 5 things I think I hear most frequently (sorry I haven’t taken actual data on it) that prevent people from using work systems in their classroom…along with some solutions.  


Actually, many of our special education students who are in general education classes can still really benefit from learning to work independently.  And in this group, I include many dual eligibility students who are gifted and receive special education.  I have seen many of these students who have so much capability but have to have someone with them at all times to actually complete work.

Sometimes these students are struggling with independence because they get stuck on things (like research for a paper).  Sometimes they just have come to rely on someone to remind them to do assignments.  Sometimes there are attentional issues that impact their on-task behavior.  And occasionally they just aren’t motivated to work by the work itself.

Just because a student is in general education doesn’t mean a work system isn’t a good idea.  It probably does mean what that system looks like will be different than the traditional system I talked about here.


The system you set up might look more like the one in the picture.  You can create more advanced work systems that don’t require baskets and all the material that would look out of place in a gen. ed. class.  The one below is a folder system that some of our younger students could do.  You can read more about how it’s structured in this post and there are other examples of ways you can implement all the elements of a system in the classroom.  

The key is just to make sure that you have all the needed elements in the system and answer the 4 essential questions.

Independent work systems can be used in a variety of settings…even general ed. #TEACCH #autism


Unfortunately, we don’t all have the number of staff we need (or sometimes think we need) in our classrooms to do everything we would like to do in an ideal world.  However, not having enough staff is one of the reasons you NEED independent work systems.  They are a beneficial way of keeping your students engaged while doing something meaningful without staff support.  That is, once they understand how it works.

Typically this issue comes up with classrooms in which many of the students really need to learn to work independently…but don’t know how yet.  Obviously in these classrooms, the students are going to need supervision at first to learn to do the systems.  We have to teach them to work independently before we can expect them to do it.  So, how can we solve that problem when these are the students who need systems the most?


There are a couple of solutions to this problem depending on your situation.  

First, set up a situation in which someone is staffing the independent work stations.  I use a centers approach (that you can check out here) and just reduce the number of centers–that leads to higher numbers of students at first in the centers.  But it allows you to staff the independent work center until the students can work on their own.  Then, when they start to work on their own, you can have someone slotted in the zoning plan to staff another new center while keeping an eye on the independent work center.

Alternatively, set up a center that requires less supervision, like table tasks.  Then pull students (the most independent first) and teach them to use the system.  When one becomes independent or needs less supervision, add another.  This gives you some flexibility in monitoring students and keeping them engaged while freeing up a staff member to teach the system.

Don’t have enough staff to support teaching independent work systems? You don’t have enough to NOT teach it…see how. #worksystems

3. My students aren’t independent

I hear this one frequently and of course the answer is that it’s specifically why they need to learn how to be independent.  It’s why independent work systems are so important.  

To address it, you can use some of the same strategies from #2 above.  You will have to teach them to use the system and start with very simple tasks, like put-in tasks from this post.


Another common reason for not doing independent work systems is space.  I know some people think that every student has to have a dedicated system space, but most classrooms don’t have space for that.  You can use a work system for more than one student to rotate through.  Click the picture below to check out a post on using centers to set up systems.

5. My students are too high (or too low) “functioning” for IW

There is no too high or too low for work systems.  Again, not everyone needs the traditional basket system.  A work system is a form of a to-do list that can be used in lots of different situations.  I can have a written or electronic schedule.  It can have an in and out box in a general education classroom–where the students pick up their work in the in-box and put it in the out box when they are finished. 

For students that are just starting out, look for put-in tasks and a one-basket system.  Work on just the basics of completing a simple task and getting a reinforcer.   

This post contains affiliate links for purchases.  I only recommend resources I use myself.  The price is the same to you, but it gives me a small commission to keep finding them for you.

If you are looking for task examples, check out the series of Workbasket Wednesday posts.

You might also want to check out our book on Building Independence (affiliate link).  


Until next time,

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