Using Structured Work Systems to Foster Student Independence

I remember when I first started teaching in my classroom, I literally had no clue what I was doing. I remember everyone kept talking about..

I shook off their advice and did things my way for the first few months, thinking my cute little classroom set-up was just the beez-neez with all my desks set up in rows, bright colorful baskets full of materials on every shelf, and large open concept floor plan (channeling my inner Joanna Gaines).
When I finally learned to follow the advice of others who had been in field much longer, I realized that classroom set-up is probably one of the most important things about a classroom.. especially one that serves young students with autism. Throughout that first year, the dynamics of my classroom evolved drastically. By the end of the year, my classroom looked like lots of little cubicles, and my students had become expert independent workers. 
Although there is no right or wrong way to setting up your classroom, if you serve students with autism and other disabilities, you do need to have some sort of structure to each area in your classroom. Here are a few guidelines I try to follow when I set-up my structured work systems.

Our students tend to struggle with staying in an area independently. At the beginning of the year, my TA’s and I end up being human barriers to teach them that they must stay in the area on their schedule to work until they are finished. Set the boundaries of the area using furniture. It’s a lot easier to monitor the small “entrance/exit” to a center than an open space. See below for some examples – the red arrows indicate where the entrance/exit to the area.





I have several different “independent” centers in our classroom. Even though the tasks will vary, I try to keep the actual student area consistent. Below is a visual to guide you and some examples.




Students are not going to walk in your classroom and know exactly what to do at each center. MODEL EVERYTHING over and over and over and over again…. and then some. 
At independent work stations, ONLY assign materials that the student is able to completely INDEPENDENTLY (without any prompting whatsoever). Once a student understands how to follow the left to right work system, he should be able to complete all tasks assigned without any adult assistance. This makes your life a lot easier because you’ll actually have free time to work with other students.
Here are a few pictures from my favorite SPED ladies! 





Special Education Independent Work Stations
Special Education Independent Work Stations


  1. dre on April 12, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    THANK YOU for your honesty. I love how you were resistant to structure at first, but you finally came around and saw the beauty that is STRUCTURE!! LOVE IT!! How long did it take you to come to this realization?
    Thanks for all that you do with our kiddos!

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