The Dos and Don’ts of Independent Work

Two weeks ago, I shared with readers some simple ways to keep your classroom running when you’re short staffed. This week we are talking all about independent work! Not only are independent work blocks an easy way to help students work on skills like organization, self-advocacy, independence, and pre-requisite employment skills, but they also free up classroom staff! Independent work provides a time for the classroom teacher to work 1-1 with specific students, small groups, or time to catch up on the heaps of paperwork that comes with our jobs. Here are some Dos and Don’ts to help you set up successful independent centers.

Click on the pictures for links to independent task ideas and supplies!


Do – Create Systems That Encourage Independence

Make sure to provide tasks that your students are comfortable with on their own. Independent work should strengthen previously taught skills and provide time for your students to problem solve on their own. Even more than just the task, how do your students receive their independent work? How do they turn it in? How do they let you know when they have a question without interrupting your small group? By creating a system for how your independent work sessions run, your students will not only get review on academic work, but practice independence, too! Check out Especially Education’s account for awesome task boxes by month – or purchase the year’s bundle!

Do – Prepare the Environment and Classroom Staff

Now that we understand the importance of creating systems – how can you get your environment to do that for you? By using your environment, you can put in place ways to run your independent centers with visual cues around your classroom. Posting mini schedules that explain what your students need to do during independent blocks can be a simple way to increase your student’s independence. If you have classroom staff available – provide answer keys, data sheets, and explain student reinforcement schedules for independent centers, so that your classroom staff are prepared.

Do – Have Choices and Contingencies in Place

Allowing students to choose what independent task they start with is a positive way to increase buy-in from students. It doesn’t remove the tasks that may be less preferred, but it can provide our students ownership in how they want to get everything completed. Lastly, contingencies! What are your students earning for working independently? Are they immediately moving on to more tasks? Especially when you are first starting to implement independent centers, you want to make sure you are reinforcing your students frequently!

Don’t – Change Routines and Expectations Too Fast

If you are just starting to implement independent centers into your classroom, take your time! Just like anything else, we must teach our students how to work during independent centers before we expect them to be successful doing so. Find your students independent work stamina sweet spot and grow from there. As your students work durations increase and they gain confidence in their routines, make sure to reinforce their growth in these adaptive skill areas.

Don’t – Start New Skills

Independent work is not the time to teach new skills! We want our students to build confidence and accuracy – giving them activities that are brand new to them can cause lots of frustration. It’s okay to provide tasks that they may not have mastered yet – but if it is a brand-new concept – best to leave that for when they’re working with staff support. Featured in the image to the left, is a craft box that can be found on Amazon! Students can sort letters, numbers, or similar items – try out a variety of independent sorting tasks! In the second image to the left is a Donut Orders activity by Adulting Made Easy aka SpedAdulting – she has tons of amazing vocational activities that can be done independently!

Don’t – Forget to Reinforce the Small Things

When I was in the classroom teaching, it was easy for me to get focused in on my small group or teacher-tasks and forget to reward my students for their behavior during independent centers. When establishing independent centers for the first time, remember to use continuous reinforcement (AKA FR1). Using behavior momentum helps to establish new routines; then you can begin to teach the specific skills your students need to increase adaptive behaviors during centers. Independent centers can feel like a lot of work up-front, but I promise if you invest in creating systems that encourage independence and start with dense reinforcement schedules – your classroom will be on its way to running smooth centers in no time!

Stephanie Kennedy, M.Ed
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  1. Where are those puzzles from? They are so cool!!


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