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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Independent Work Systems: Which One Is Right For Your Classroom?

The desire for, and movement towards independence, is a typical developmental milestone for children. The feeling of accomplishment and competence is meaningful and motivating to children as they begin to complete tasks with minimal adult prompting or guidance. The goal of independence is a priority for all children, yet when working with children with ASD, independence is the key to successful community inclusion and future employment.


Work Systems to Increase Independence 

A work system is a strategy that addresses independence as an essential outcome for students with ASD. A work system, an element of structured teaching, is defined by Division TEACCH® as a systematic and organized presentation of tasks and materials that visually communicates at least four pieces of information to the student (Schopler, Mesibov, & Hearsey, 1995): 

1.  The tasks/steps the student is supposed to do. What is the nature of the task? Does it involve sorting by shape, writing an address, making popcorn, or recycling cans?
2.  How many tasks/steps there are to be completed. Visually represent how much work is to be done. If a student is to cut 10 coupons, give only 10 coupons so he/she can visualize completion. Steps may be represented by more abstract cues such as numbers, shapes, poker chips, or pictures of high interest items, such as Thomas the Train cars. 
3.  How the student knows he/she is finished. The student should independently recognize the end of the activity through the structure within the task, use of a finished box, timer, or other visual cue such as a stop sign. 
4.  What to do when he/she is finished. Indicate next scheduled activity. May need to use a highly desired item/activity to increase motivation, though often being “finished” is motivating enough.

A work system provides all of the required information without adult prompting and teaches the student to attend to visual cues (rather than verbal directives) when completing a task. Work systems can be used with any type of task or activity (e.g., academic, self-help, leisure), across settings (e.g., independent work area, cafeteria, place of employment), and for individuals at all functioning levels (e.g., systems can range from concrete to abstract). 

Choosing the Right System(s) for your Classroom


Given there are a variety of types and ways to use independent work systems, how do you know which one is right for your students?  

1.  Consider the Learner and the Environment:
  • Is the student able to match colours, shapes and numbers?  
  • Is the student able to read?
  • Is the student able to move from one area of the environment to another with little or no adult support?
2.  Determine whether a portable or stationary work system would be more appropriate:
  • Consider the student's need for predictability and routine 
  • What is the student's schedule? (e.g., moves from class to class, stays in one classroom). 
3.  Evaluate the learner’s concept of “finished”:
  • Can the student place all items into a “finished” box/shelf on his/her right?
  • Can he/she match visual symbols to corresponding task containers? 
  • Canteen student cross off each task from a list as the task is completed?

This information helps teachers determine what type of work system is most appropriate for each student. The format of the work system should allow the student to perform fluently on his/her own, so it is important to recognize that a more complex system is not “better” if the student cannot use it without adult support.


How I Implement Work Systems in My Classroom

I start my students on independent work systems almost immediately. It's never too soon to start building independence! Over the years, I have implemented independent work systems in a variety of ways based on students' needs. For my very early learners, I use bins that are set out on the table and the students completes the activity in each bin moving from left to right. With this method, we start with just one task, and add more as the student learns the system. The student uses a mini-schedule with letters to understand the sequence of activities. This is an example of what it would look like. The last symbol on the schedule is a picture of a preferred activity that the students gets to go to next as their reinforcement for completing the tasks.




Once the student learns the concept of independent work and demonstrates proficiency with the system described above, I move them onto an in/out, left/right bin system.  Students take the tasks out of the bin on the left, complete them and put them in the bin on the right.  When the bin on the left is empty, they are done their work.


All of the work tasks in our independent work are are organized by colour.  We have two levels of activities, with green being the easiest and blue being the hardest.  All of the tasks are labelled with dot stickers to indicate in which bin they belong.  Each student is assigned a colour based on their level of ability.  This chart is posted so that staff know which tasks each student should complete.  As students acquire more skills, they move up to the next level of tasks.





A nice feature with this system is that it's fairly portable.  So if a student needs to complete their work in a different area for some reason, we simply grab the bins and move them to another area in the classroom.  We use a variety of tasks for our independent work, including file folder games, lotto matching games, puzzles, 1:1 correspondence task cards, spelling/matching letters task cards, fine motor activities, etc.  The activities are in the students' bins are different every day and each time they complete their independent work throughout the day.  

I have one student who cannot open ziplock bags and another one who likes to rip bags, so I have been buying these Iris Photo Storage Boxes and making tasks to avoid these problems.  I love this system because it is so easy to keep neat and organized.  Plus, my students have no issues with opening and closing the boxes and they are sturdy so can't be broken easily!  Again, the tasks are colour coded according to level of difficulty.







When my students have acquired more academic skills, we move them on to a work system using binders.  The binders are great for students who are preparing for their transition out of my classroom and are spending more time in a regular classroom setting.  The binders are easily portable and take up a lot less space than the bins.  The activities in the binders depends on the student's skill level, but generally contain matching, sorting, counting, spelling and tracing tasks for my lower level students.  For my higher level students, the binders contain reading, printing, and math tasks, such as addition or time.



I added this last work system this year for my higher level students who need to start developing more age appropriate life skills.  Students who use this system follow a mini schedule and complete the tasks in the bins.  All of the tasks in these bins are chores that they could complete at home.  I make the students' parents aware of these tasks, so they can practice them and have their children generalize these skills to their home.




Because the students aren't following a mini-schedule with this system, we keep choice boards, and first/then boards in the area, so that students can choose their reinforcer before they start the work and have the visual reminder of what they get upon completion of the work.



Tips for Implementing Work Systems


  • Provide only the materials the student will need for the specific task/activity to decrease confusion. 
  • Use work systems in a variety of settings (e.g., circle time, social groups, playground, home, doctor visits) to increase generalization across location and adults. 
  • Teach the work system with minimally invasive prompts so the adult/prompts do not become part of the work routine (e.g., prompt nonverbally, direct students to visual cues, prompt from behind so adult is not part of the student’s visual field, fade prompts as quickly as possible to maximize independence). 
  • Create smaller, more portable work systems (e.g. in a notebook, file box) for students who travel to different settings throughout the school day. 

How do you run your independent work station?  I'd love to hear from you!  Leave me a comment or send me an email!  Thanks for stopping by!  Until next time,

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Build Independence in Your Students Across the Day



In our classrooms, there are many opportunities to teach a student to become independent across the day.  Let's look at part of my class schedule and the times during the day a student should be independent and the skills needed:
  • Entry Routine - remove backpack, coat and shoes.  Put on indoor shoes, unpack backpack and put items in their designated location.  Checking their schedules and going the first activity.
  • Morning Seat Work - getting their morning work book, choosing a spot to sit and completing the work in their book.  Putting their book in the "All Done" basket.  Checking their schedule and going to next activity.
  • Morning Meeting - ensure they have their communication device, choosing a spot to sit, getting a fidget toy if needed.  Remaining seated, answering questions, taking their turn when required.  Checking schedule when morning meeting is finished and going to next activity.
  • Independent Work Stations:  getting their work binder or work bins, getting a dry erase marker if needed and putting it away, completing their work, and putting their binder or bins away.  Checking their schedule and going to the next activity.

Now, let's just look at the skills that are required during mealtimes to be independent.
  1. Student must know it's time to eat.
  2. Student must be able to wash his/her hands.
  3. Student has to be able to get his/her lunch bag and bring it to the designated eating area.
  4. Student must be able to open their lunch bag.
  5. Student must be able to open the containers and packages in their lunches.
  6. Student must be able to feed him/herself.
  7. Student must be able to wipe their mouth and hands.
  8. Student must be able to remain seated while eating.
  9. Student must be able to wipe up any spills.
  10. Student must be able to throw away trash, close containers and put them back in their lunch bag.
  11. Student must be able to close their lunch bag.
  12. Student must be able to return their lunch bag to the correct storage place.
  13. Student must be able to know what to do next.
How many of these can your students do independently?  How many are they missing?  Our goal as educators goes beyond teaching information and skills...ultimately we want all our students to be able to participate as independently as possible in all facets of their life. 


Why does the goal of independence elude some students and educational teams?


Here are some common reasons:


Prompt Dependence

Students with ASD can easily become prompt dependent. That is, they are willing and able to do what is asked but have not learned that they can or should do tasks without being asked! Educational teams need to systematically reduce prompting and reward independent completion of steps in a task.


A Focus On Accuracy Over Independence

Teams that value accuracy over independence can inadvertently instil a mindset of incompetence. If someone is always helping the student to do a task faster or better by doing it for them, the student lacks the opportunity and eventually the will to try to do things on his own.


Failure To Fade Reinforcement

Some students come to expect that every action will be followed by a tangible reinforcer or by verbal praise, and will not do a task independently because there is no one to deliver the reinforcement if they work alone.


Lack Of Visual Supports

Students with ASD often have difficulty planning, managing their attention and processing or remembering verbal instructions. And many educational teams provide the adaptation of one to one adult support to help them accomplish particular goals. They fail to realize that visual supports can help the students complete a task without an adult to prompt and remind them.

 What can we do to correct this? 

 

Be alert to the level of prompting you are providing to get students with ASD to do a task.

Be particularly aware of how much verbal prompting you are providing. We want the student to use natural cues to recognize what they are to do next rather than only moving on to the next step when they hear the voice of the adult at their elbow. If you need to prompt, use gestural prompts over verbal prompts when possible (they are easier to fade). Give the student time to respond before prompting (wait 5 – 10 seconds). Visual supports can greatly assist you in fading prompting.

Be sure to praise efforts and attempts over accuracy.

How important is it that the student’s product look identical to his peers? Does he really need to complete all the math problems or would he be better to complete half all on his own? How important is it that his socks are put on right side in? The problem of demanding accuracy over independence can be particularly problematic in the case of the student with ASD who is intellectually capable and may be expected by his parents or teachers to perform at grade level or better. The pressure to keep up academically may cause the team to provide a lot of one to one support to help the student complete the required work at the expense of teaching independence. We must not lose sight of the fact that independence is also an important goal. Today's technology allows many students to compensate for the executive function deficits that may impede their organization of or attention to tasks. Teach them how to use the technology so they can do assignments on their own.


Avoid reinforcement dependency

To avoid the development of reinforcement dependency, teams must systematically fade reinforcement to the level of intermittent reinforcement when teaching a task. For initial learning, the child may need reinforcement for each attempt to complete a step. If the team is using a tangible reinforcer (e.g., a toy or an edible) they should pair verbal praise whenever they provide the toy or food. Then, the toy or edible can be provided for every third or fourth correct response while verbal praise continues. Finally, the toy or edible is only provided once in a while (intermittently) and verbal praise is also faded to a lower level.

Use visual supports... we all use them!

For the student who can’t read, picture symbols are available to help him see the steps necessary to completing a target. For the student who does read... provide written checklists, visual organizers and time lines. Teach him how to create his own visual supports so that he can stay organized and remember what to do.  I have written about the effective use of visual supports here. Visual supports can be used to break down the steps of any task. When the steps are put into pictures on a strip, the person with autism now has those for a handy reference. I’ve used this idea for routines like getting dressed, toileting, hand washing and brushing teeth. There are some great ideas for breaking down routines on the Do2Learn website. Thinking this forward, these tasks strips could be used for doing laundry, dishes and other household chores.


Start small and build on success. 

When teaching a new skill, it is important to break down the skill into smaller steps.  This is called Task Analysis.  You can either write your own or you get them online.   Once you have completed the task analysis, or read it, you can do a baseline on your students' current skills.  Knowing what steps your student can independently will allow you to know where to start teaching.  Often, backwards chaining or forwarding chaining are used to teach students to independently complete tasks like washing hands or operating a computer.  However, this teaching method isn't used for all tasks in which a student should be independent.




Let's look at a common scenario in my classroom.  Most of my students come into my classroom without the ability to open their food packages during mealtimes.  When teaching a student how to open packages when eating, we begin with teaching him/her to ask for help.  Once they have mastered the skill of asking for help, we focus on the skill of opening the package.  Once they request help, we only open the package a tiny bit, so that they have to open it the rest of the way.  Once they have mastered opening a portion, we teach them to open it from the beginning using modelling and physical prompts if necessary.  If a student doesn't have the physical strength to open some packages, then we teach them to use scissors to cut the package open.  We start by handing them the scissors and then teach them to go and get the scissors on their own.  

Some things to think about...

  • At your next team meeting, or on your own, come up with a list of all of the times throughout the day when your student relies on the adults in the room to do something for them.  Or when the adult automatically does something for the student, eg., get the student a pencil to complete a worksheet.  Take frequency data on this to help you and your team realize how many times this is actually happening.
  • Identify times of the day when you want your students to be completely independent, then identify the skills that are necessary to achieve this.
  • Do you have visual reminder strips posted in your classroom?  Do you have enough?  Think beyond personal care skills such as washing hands.  Do you have reminder strips for completing a worksheet?  For turning on a computer and logging in?

How do you teach your students to be independent?  What are your biggest challenges?  I'd love to know!  Thanks for stopping by!








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