I Did It on My Own! The Magic of Work Systems

In order to successfully complete a series of tasks, whether it be a domestic chore, a crafting experience, or an on-the-job project, many of us use a system that visually indicates what work and how much work has to be done, how we will know when the work is finished, and what happens next. For some, this may be in the form of a checklist on a whiteboard or digital device, or through a series of photos or hand drawn icons. Some examples are using recipes, following written directions from a map, or utilizing how-to directions or online videos for household repairs. These tools are types of work systems that help many of us complete tasks and work independently.

Just as they help adults, work systems support children to work efficiently and independently by breaking tasks into small steps that create an “action plan” consisting of a set of tasks, jobs, or a routine that the child is to complete independently during a specific amount of time.  Work systems were developed as a component of structured teaching within the TEACCH program (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children) to help children to be more engaged in tasks and activities by making expectations clear.

Work systems are effective in the school as well as home and are easy to implement.  When designing a work system, consider what routines or tasks require independence.  Examples may include preparing to leave home for school in the morning, completing bell work at the beginning of a class period, or checking a book out of the library.  Work systems should visually represent the answers to these questions:

  1. What work do I have to do?
  2. How much work do I have to do?
  3. How do I know when my work is finished?
  4. What do I do next?

Choosing the right format for the work system is the next step.  Work systems are individually designed, considering a child’s strengths and interests. Information in a work system is presented visually at a level that is understood by the child.  For example, a written list may be appropriate for a child who reads and understands text.  Pictures that represent activities in the work system may be more appropriate for a younger child or a concrete learner.  Work systems can include left-to-right sequencing; matching of colors, shapes, letters, and/or numbers; or a written system:

  • Left-to-right work system: This is a work system in its simplest form, appropriate for a child with beginning level skills.  A left-to-right sequence of activities is set up directly to the left of the child’s work area, and the child is taught to take the items/materials to be completed from the left of his work space, complete the work tasks/activities on the space in front of him, and place the completed materials to his right in a “finished” box, basket, folder, etc.  Visual information to let the child know activity the he will participate in next needs to be included in the work area.
  • Matching work system: With this type of work system, tasks or steps may be visually represented by pictures, symbols, words, icons, or other indicators corresponding to the tasks/activities to be completed.  A matching indicator is attached in left-to-right or top-to-bottom progression.  An additional matching set of indicators are created to attach to the tasks the student is to complete. In this case, the student matches the indicator to the same task and completes the task or activity represented by the indicator.
  • Written work system: A written system includes tasks/activities to be completed in sequential order.
  • Folder work system: For a child at any age level who can complete pencil and paper tasks but has difficulty organizing and keeping track of materials, a folder work system can provide support.  Consider students in general education settings and how this can be a tool to assist them in working independently as well as children who are expected to complete homework assignments self-reliantly at home.

Work systems can be developed and placed in the child’s work area.  Be sure to include a visual cue to let the child know what’s next–what to do at the end of the work time!  This might be something that is motivating to the child, such as a preferred activity, or simply what is next on his schedule.  Examples of work systems can be found on this website on the Resources tab under “Additional Resources”.

Teach the work system with minimally invasive prompts so the adult/prompts do not become part of the work routine (e.g., prompt nonverbally by directing the student to visual cues and fade prompts as quickly as possible to maximize independence).   The goal is that the child will be able to manipulate the system free of adult support, generalizing the completion of the tasks self-sufficiently to other activities and settings.

It is truly magical when children who once had difficulty getting started on activities or assignments, staying on task, and following through without adult intervention demonstrate that they can work independently when provided with an appropriate work system.  We would love to know how using work systems in a home or school setting has been successful for your children or students!!



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