How to foster independent work for your students

Happy female elementary age students in school uniforms are sitting at a desk in the school library and reading a book together. A Filipino elementary age girl sits with an African American classmate and reads a book together in the school library.

Figuring out how to foster and manage independent work in the classroom is always a challenge. Educators often forget that students aren’t born knowing how to manage independent work. They also don’t know what a teacher means when they talk about independent work.

Independent work starts by setting clear expectations

Just like we set up expectations for our classroom rules early on during the year, we must also make clear what independent work means. Start by discussing with your students what types of activities they’ll be doing in the class. You might bring up whole class, small group, and individual activities. You might also want to talk to them about any transition periods you have in your classroom.

Have your students discuss with you and their classmates the purpose of each of these activities. By doing this you’ll better help them understand all types of work and activities involved in the classroom.

Set and model expectations to them

Once you’ve explained the different types of activities to your students, it’s time to follow-through. You’ll want to model these modes of independent work throughout the year. Our specialist Angela Isenberg has some tips on how to do that:

1. Individually pick up student homework.

By picking up students’ homework individually, rather than having them turn it into an inbox or folder, we get the chance to offer individual attention to each student. We can give immediate feedback, and hear the reasons students have for why they do not have their homework.

2. Decide if you accept late work or not.

Create a consistent policy for accepting late work or not. How long do you accept late work? Are there consequences for students that turn in work late? The key to this is to be consistent. You don’t want to tell students one day, “I accept late work, so turn it in whenever.” Then at the end of six weeks say, “Well you can’t turn it in anymore.”

The flip-side is you don’t want to say, “I don’t take any late work” and then the day right before the end of the six weeks say, “today we’re going to do all the work that anybody has not turned in.” Both of these just reinforce that you don’t really mean what you say when you’re talking to your students. It’s fine to use either policy, you just have to be consistent about which policy you’re using.

3. Follow the 80:80 rule with independent classroom work.

The 80:80 rule is that 80 percent of your students need to be able to complete 80 percent of work independently before you move to independent work. Otherwise, you’re going to be running around like a chicken with your head cut off.

You need to make sure that, for the 20% of students in a small group that need more attention and potential reteaching, they will be successful while the rest of your students are able to independently move forward.

4. Think through engagement strategies.

Give some thought into how you’re going to handle students that are not engaged or have questions during this independent work time. I recommend having a classroom manager. A classroom manager is responsible for answering questions while the teacher works with a small group. If the classroom manager cannot answer something, then they are the only person that is allowed to interrupt the teacher. This allows the teacher time to focus on the small group without multiple interruptions. It also allows the rest of the class to get support in order to keep working.

Angela has 22 years of experience in education. She has been in her current position for 12 years. Angela has trained and provided coaching support to over 200 campuses for PBIS. She is also a certified Restorative Discipline coordinator. She is a trainer for Interventions, Coaching Classroom Management, CHAMPS, and Why Try.

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