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

Do you know a child who struggles with getting started on tasks or activities, independently following through to completion, and making a smooth transition to what happens next? If so, read on!

Many of us use systems that allow us to successfully complete a series of tasks, whether it be a domestic chore, a crafting experience, or an on-the-job project. For some of us, this may be 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. This could 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 will complete independently during a specific amount of time. Though work systems were originally developed as a component of structured teaching within the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children) program to help children be more engaged in tasks and activities by making expectations clear, they are tools that can help any child who struggles with successfully completing tasks.

Work systems are effective in the school, home, and vocational settings, and are easy to implement by parents or other family members, educators, and other professionals. 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, checking a book out of the library, or completing a series of tasks in the work setting. 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 learners who need intensive support. Work systems can include: left-to-right sequencing; matching of colors, shapes, letters, and/or numbers; or a written system.

Diagram depicting a left-to-right work 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 their workspace, complete the work tasks/activities on the space in front of them, and place the completed materials to their right in a “finished” box, basket, folder, etc. Visual information to let the child know the activity they will participate in next needs to be included in the work area.

Photo of a matching work system.

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 child is to complete. In this case, the child matches the indicator to the same task and completes the task or activity represented by the indicator.

Example of a written work system.

Written work system: A written system includes tasks/activities to be completed in sequential order.

Photo of folder work system

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.

You can view more examples of each of these types of work systems here.

In developing the work system, take into account the child’s attention span on one task as a starting point. This initial work system should include one task only until the child is able to focus their attention to complete a series of tasks. To build the child’s attention span for multiple tasks, add one at a time and assign tasks that the child has already mastered so that they will not require adult help with the tasks.

Work systems can be developed and placed in the child’s work area. This may be the dining room table at home, their desk at school, at a table where other students are working, or an area of the classroom or home set up for the child to work alone, free of distractions. 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 their schedule.

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 child 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.

For children who struggle with managing emotions, work systems can reduce anxiety in those who need to have a clear understanding of how much work must be done and when they will be finished. Work systems can support impulse control by promoting self-monitoring through clear visual feedback regarding how much work needs to be done, how much has been done, and how much remains to be done. Work systems support a child with planning and organizing by providing a predictable way for initiating and completing tasks and offering an external organization system for students who have difficulty organizing materials.

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, school, or vocational setting has been successful for your children or students!!

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