Structured Work Systems for Students with Intellectual Disability or Autism Spectrum Disorder
By Sacha Cartagena
Students with cognitive disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder or Intellectual Disability often face challenges related to independent functioning. A research-based strategy that parents and teachers can use to help students develop independent functioning skills while also enhancing skills in other areas is a strategy called structured work systems, also known as independent work stations. Structured work stations are a great way for parents to add structure during the summer months and can enhance a teacher’s classroom routine once school is in session again.
Independent work stations are designed to give students visual information about:
1) What work needs to be done
2) How much work needs to be done
3) When the work is completed
4) What happens next
Independent work stations promote independence, and other benefits include building fluency and maintaining previously mastered skills. The visual supports used in independent work stations help reduce social demands and therefore help students regulate behavior. When done correctly, independent work stations also help with generalizing skills across contexts. Lastly, independent work stations assist with classroom management and free up time for the educator to work with other students who need targeted instruction. For parents, independent work stations can help the child maintain the skills learned in school with little supervision.
Here are some tips on how to get started with independent work stations:
- Determine how structured work systems will fit into your routine. If you’re a classroom teacher, think about a time during the school day that could use a bit more structure. It could be when students return from recess or lunch. You could also set up a structured work system as a center rotation activity during a core subject area. If you’re a parent, think about your child’s routine at home. While the home environment tends to have a lot of downtime, a suggestion is to have work station time occur after an already established activity such as breakfast or lunch. A reward for completing the work could be playtime or screentime.
- Determine the location for the structured work station. The best locations to set a station are quiet with minimal distractions. Some classrooms have small cubicles for students; these work perfectly for structured work stations. Simple privacy folders also work well to minimize distractions. At home, an ideal area might be in a corner of a room away from toys.
- Determine skill level and needs. Structured work systems should reinforce skills already learned. The goal is to promote independence and fluency, not to teach a new skill. If the work system contains tasks that the student has not yet demonstrated competency with, then the student will become frustrated and unmotivated to complete the task. A good idea for teachers is to take activities from a previous unit and deconstruct the activities in a way that students can reuse. For example, file folder games or task bins based on previously taught skills are perfect examples of activities that work for a structured work system. If you’re a parent, collaborate with your child’s teacher on ideas appropriate for structured work systems at home. Or, you consider tasks that promote independent functioning skills for the home, like sorting. An example could be sorting plastic cutlery into a cutlery drawer organizer from the dollar store. Another bin could have old socks for the child to match and fold and place back into the container. Check out this blog for more examples of work stations.
- Organize your system with visual supports. The key difference between structured work systems and file folders or task bins is the use of visual supports. These visual supports enable the student to understand their expectations. Time Timers are perfect for providing students with a visual. Set a large Time Timer, like the Original 12”, above the student’s station so the student can clearly see how much time is left before a break or another activity. To further build independent living skills, choose a small Time Timer like the MOD Sprint Edition so the student can monitor their own on-task behavior. First/then charts are also helpful visual supports that are easily understood. The “first” task could be the work station activity and the “then” task could be a reinforcement, such as playtime or technology time. If a student has more than 1 work station activity, a visual support listing each task would be best.
These tips offer a starting point for implementing structured work systems whether you’re a parent at home or a teacher planning for the next school year. If you’re interested in learning more, check out these videos:
- Video Tutorial for an Independent Work Task System
- How to set up independent work stations
- Special Ed. Classroom Setup - Independent Work Stations and Visual Schedules
Sacha Cartagena is a special education scholar, educator, and researcher. She holds a Master of Education and is earning her Ph.D. in Special Education. Prior to starting her doctoral studies, she taught students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability in Title 1 schools. Currently, Sacha is involved with teacher preparation and educational research at the University of Central Florida. Her areas of research include special education teacher preparation, inclusive practices, and developing social-emotional skills for students with cognitive disabilities. She has published and presented her research at state, national, and international conferences. A passionate advocate and an active member of the Council for Exceptional Children, Sacha Cartagena currently sits on the executive board for the Division of International and Special Education & Services. Her mission is to enhance the education of students with cognitive disabilities by providing their educators with the knowledge, tools, and resources to successfully meet their needs. Follow her on Twitter @SachaCartagena