The beginning of the year is an important time to set up routines and procedures for your classroom so that instructional activities are smooth and effective throughout the year. One of the trickiest routines to roll out is independent work time. If you want to have any chance of doing small group instruction, independent work time needs to be seamless. While it does take some time for kids to master the art of independent work, it’s not impossible. This guide will help you set the tone for smooth, independent work time in your class.
1. Let The Class Make the Rules
Before the first opportunity for independent work time, have students discuss what they want that time to feel like. Ask them things like,
● “How do you want your classmates to behave while we are working independently?”
● “What do you need other people to do or not do so you can get your work done?”
● “What are some things you can do to help people around you stay focused on their work?”
Make a chart of all their answers and use it for your agreements chart during independent work time. Once the agreements are set, try it out! Afterward, have the class weigh in on how it went. Review each agreement and have students rate themselves and give each other feedback. You might even discuss adding more expectations to the chart.
2. Start Slow and Practice a Lot
Every day for the first six weeks, review the agreements before each independent work block and debrief after. Repeating this routine multiple times a day for the first six weeks of school helps your class practice, get immediate feedback, and adjust. Remember, it’s ok for your class to make mistakes at this time too. When you provide lots of time for your class to practice, kids feel safe to make mistakes without judgement and that helps you create a strong overall class culture. It also helps them get into the habit of reflecting on their own behavior and holding each other accountable to expectations, which will help in all areas of your class for the year.
Start out with just a few minutes of independent time. Once your class is able to work independently for 5–10 minutes, increase the time slowly and continue to debrief after each chunk of time. Some teachers even set a goal and chart their time increases. Once the goal is met, the class earns a reward. It’s a good idea to wait until the class has accomplished this goal before you start pulling small groups. This could take until October, but it’s best to make sure they are able to work independently before you add new routines. It might seem like a long time, but it’s worth the wait. Before you know it, your class will be working independently for 20–30 minutes, and you’ll have a nice chunk of time for small group instruction.
3. Differentiate the Independent Work When Possible
One of the main reasons that kids don’t meet expectations during independent work time is because their tasks aren’t appropriate for them. If the work is too hard, they’ll be up asking you for help or distracting other kids. If the work is too easy, they’ll get busy doing something else that will likely get others off track. This is why differentiated work is super important. Here are some ways to do it without staying at school until after dark.
One of the easiest ways to create differentiation is to allow student choice during work time. Having Must Dos and May Dos during work time can be extremely helpful. Kids have 1–2 tasks that they must do during the work block and then they can choose from a menu of “May Dos” when their work is done. May Dos can be things like journal writing, learning games, puzzles, centers, silent reading, the sky’s the limit! Using technology whenever possible to can be an easy and low maintenance way to create differentiation and will motivate kids to get their Must Do finished! Online programs and apps like Lalilo, Raz-Kidsand Zearn are adaptive to kids needs and are super engaging.
4. Provide Non-Teacher Support
Teachers often struggle when implementing small group instruction and independent work because students are constantly interrupting. Often they are seeking help, needing attention or have a conflict with another student. It’s helpful to think about creating support for students that doesn’t involve you, and help them practice using it. For example, if the Must Do is math practice and kids are constantly asking for help, provide plenty of resources they can use. This could be manipulatives, anchor charts, exemplars etc. When you are in the practice phase of independent work time, try to remember to direct students to these resources, rather than providing the support yourself. This non-teacher support will benefit you and your class in many ways. The kids will be able to build independence and perseverance while getting out of the habit of asking for help as soon as they are faced with a challenge. It will also give you much more accurate data when you look at student work, because you know they did it themselves, rather than getting a ton of support from you.
Another common interruption during independent work time is student conflicts. It’s a good idea to have a conflict resolution routinein your class so that kids are able to solve their conflicts independently. It can also be helpful to have a conflict manager designated to help kids who might have conflicts during this time. That way students aren’t interrupting you during small group instruction.
5. Accountability and Rewards
Making sure students know that they are accountable for work completion, quality work, and behavior is also really important during independent work time. Whatever they work on should become visible to you by the end of the work block. This might mean that they have a special place to turn in their must do, complete a checklist, or have a peer look over their work with them. If you are utilizing any online programs, they usually offer teacher reports providing helpful data so you can see who is getting their work done online.
Rewards at the end of work time can also help motivate kids to stay on task. Whole class fun activities are usually quick, easy, free and super fun. The class can even choose at the beginning of independent work time what they want their reward to be. It could be anything from a class game, dance party, coloring, yoga, whatever your class likes! These little breaks throughout the day also help build community and bring joy and fun into the classroom, which is especially important when everyone is feeling tired and stressed. If kids know they are going to take a break and do something fun at the end, they will be much more motivated to stay focused. This is another way to build in accountability too. Their completed must do can be their ticket to participate in the reward after independent work time.
Facilitating truly independent work time in your class can be tricky, but stick with these tips and remember to be patient. Practice a lot and before you know it, your kids will be working independently and you will be rocking highly effective small group instruction.
What are some of your best tricks for getting kids to stay on task during independent work time? Comment below with your favorite strategies!