Getting Started with Independent Work Time

Ready to get started? Here are the first steps you can take to build, change, or enhance this instructional practice in your classroom.

Co-create responsibilities.

How to Encourage Student Responsibility

Learn how to encourage children to take responsibility for their learning during Independent Work Time and get some tips and strategies on how to create a collaborative classroom.

Work with children to co-create developmentally appropriate and consistent responsibilities for expected behaviors connected to the Power of Three. Developmentally appropriate responsibilities are tasks and behaviors that match children’s age, abilities, and skill set. Your classroom environment and the structures you put in place provide opportunities for children to foster their own independence and self-reflection.

Model, practice and chart each procedure you teach so that children can successfully carry out their responsibilities. Children will learn the responsibility through the consistent, well-rehearsed repetition of the routine.

Co-create the responsibilities with the children so they have a deeper understanding of the procedure and a deeper commitment to carrying it out. Procedures also support English language learners who may not have the language associated with all of the procedures but will become familiar with the expectations. Use the Power of Three framework – we take care of ourselves, others, and the classroom – to help children understand their responsibilities. Lead children to generate a list of responsibilities. Returning books to their correct places in the classroom library is an example of a responsibility in the “taking care of our classroom” category. On the Power of Three, that responsibility might be listed as, “Put books in the right place.” While the Power of Three can guide children’s responsibilities throughout the day, it is particularly useful when teaching children to work independently.

  • Co-create a Power of Three anchor chart with the children. Use the children’s language in the chart and lots of visual cues. For crucial expectations, consider using children’s home language for English language learners, so they can refer to the anchor chart during work time as well. Gradually build the chart over time. Read the CLI document “Getting Started with Classroom Culture” for more information on the Power of Three.
  • Prominently display the Power of Three where the children can see it.
  • Refer to the Power of Three to support responsible behaviors. For example, the teacher might say, “Returning books to the right place is taking care of our classroom.”
  • Co-create child responsibilities gradually over time. Teach each responsibility within the context of a procedural lesson. Model the expected behavior. Have the children practice the behavior.
  • Review and reinforce expected responsibilities in the classroom culture segment of the lesson.
  • Provide a reflection time for children to identify one another’s success with a new procedure or expectation. Teach children how to talk about successes. Have children give out “I caught you…” cards when they notice a classmate behaving responsibly. This type of clear reinforcement places the expectations on the community of learners, not just you.
  • Reflect upon children’s success in carrying out their responsibilities. Make sure to build in time to celebrate children’s successes. If they are experiencing difficulty, assess the developmental appropriateness of the responsibility and consider ways to revise them or reteach them as necessary.

State responsibilities positively.

Keep your classroom culture positive by focusing on responsibilities rather than “rule following.” Responsibilities focus on what the children should do, not on what they shouldn’t do. When children offer up suggestions for responsibilities such as “don’t hit,” help them turn around their language by identifying what they should do. Avoid negative words such as “no” and “don’t.” Help the children understand that in their efforts to be responsible, they will make mistakes. These mistakes are okay. They are learning opportunities and evidence that the children are trying. By focusing on positively stated responsibilities, you can help your children be more accountable for their own actions and feel a sense of belonging to a classroom community.

  • State responsibilities in positive language, such as “Keep our classroom clean” instead of “Don’t throw paper on the floor.”
  • Use precise, child-friendly language.
  • Highlight and celebrate children engaged in responsible behaviors, rather than pointing out children who are not.

Model expected behaviors and give children multiple opportunities to rehearse and practice.

Instead of simply telling children what to do, show them! We know that children learn from watching and emulating the adults in their lives. When we model for children, they can see exactly what the expected behaviors look like, making it a lot easier for them to perform the behaviors. Modeling and practice significantly reduce remediation needs. Rehearse and practice multiple times and give children immediate feedback. The children can even reflect upon their own behavior. In the safe, risk-free environment of modeling and rehearsing, the children will become proficient in the expected behaviors.

  • Gather children in the large group meeting area.
  • Tell them what you are going to show them and explain how the behavior will make Independent Work Time more productive and enjoyable.
  • Model the expected behavior, thinking aloud while you demonstrate.
  • After that, select children to demonstrate the behavior while you narrate their actions.
  • Then let all of the children try the behavior.
  • Rehearse and practice the behavior as needed.
  • Take the time to observe children in action. Follow up the rehearsals with specific feedback, both confirming appropriate actions and correcting as needed.
  • The first few times the children apply the expected behavior for authentic use (not a rehearsal), have them reflect upon their actions.
  • Modify the procedure if it’s not working for your class.

Teach children procedures around materials, spaces, and collaboration.

Procedures are routines for using and understanding all aspects of the classroom. For Independent Work Time to be useful, children need to be taught all aspects of it, from how to use materials to how to be a good reading partner. Take the time to think through all the procedures associated with each center, considering children’s language needs as well. What additional supports are English language learners going to need in order to follow the procedures? Teach each of these procedures through mini-lessons, using language that is specific, predictable, and consistent, modeling so that the children understand exactly what is expected. When appropriate, have children help create the routines. For example, you might say, “We need to consider how to get help while at a center. We know we have center captains but they are also busy at work. How can we let them know we need help?” Children can offer the language. Explain that the purpose of performing procedures routinely and accurately is to reduce transition time and avoid problems. This will result in more Independent Work Time for them!

  • For each procedure, carefully plan the mini-lessons using the procedural lesson planning template.
  • Rehearse the mini-lesson to ensure that you are using precise and effective language.
  • Call the children to the large group meeting area to teach the lesson.
  • Tell the children why you are teaching the lesson and how it will help them and the class.
  • Teach the lesson. Depending on the procedure, this might include any or all of (a) modeling the procedure, (b) co-creating an anchor chart, (c) role playing the procedure, and (d) practicing the procedure.
  • If an anchor chart was created, post it at the children’s eye level near the area where it is needed, and read the anchor chart together with the children.
  • Practice the procedure as needed.
  • Have the children reflect upon how well they carry out the routine during share time.
  • Reteach the routine as needed.

Organize and label materials so children can access them and use them independently.

Independent workers have to know where to find materials and resources in their classrooms. Facilitate and support your children’s independence by strategically placing and organizing the materials in the areas where the children will use them. Make sure materials are accessible. Store them on low enough surfaces to be within the children’s easy reach. Affix child-friendly, developmentally appropriate labels on materials to create independence and support clean-up. Organize and label materials to allow the children to take an active role in maintaining the classroom environment. This gives the children a sense of ownership in the classroom.

  • Carefully plan the layout of the classroom, allocating space for materials and resources in the areas where they will be needed.
  • Place shelving and surfaces in the areas where materials will be stored. Be sure that the shelving and surfaces are low enough for the children to easily reach them.
  • Obtain sturdy containers for holding the materials. Place the materials in the containers, and store the containers on the allocated shelving and surfaces.
  • Make an appropriate label for each container, as follows:
    • Use a white or light colored background for the label.
    • On the label, write the names of the item(s) stored in the container with a dark colored marker. Involve children in the process as well. Kindergarten and first graders can help suggest the label; children in second and third grade can write the label.
    • Affix a photograph or image of the item(s) stored in the container to the label.
    • Affix the label to the container.
  • Consider having multiple storage areas for popular materials to eliminate long waiting lines for getting materials.
  • In a series of procedural lessons on materials, teach children how to retrieve and store classroom materials.
  • Reflect upon the flow of traffic, accessibility, and use of time when children are retrieving materials. Despite our best efforts to pre-think routines and procedures, we don’t always get it right; modifications to the procedure itself may be necessary.
  • Revise the organization and placement of materials as needed.

Provide opportunities for children to reflect upon their Independent Work Time behaviors.

Independent Work Time has two goals. The first goal is to provide children with opportunities to practice and independently apply the skills and strategies that we have taught them in reading and writing. The second goal is to support and nurture children’s growing independence. Self-regulation is a critical component of independence. It is the process of planning, monitoring, reflecting upon, and assessing one’s own behaviors. We want our children to be aware of and understand how well they are carrying out their responsibilities during Independent Work Time. Teach children how to examine and reflect upon their behaviors. Support and nurture self-regulation and independence by encouraging children to reflect on how well they are using their time and how they might adjust.

  • Create a child-friendly rubric for reflecting upon Independent Work Time behavior. The rubric can be as simple as three pictures (e.g., a sprout, a bud, and a flower).
  • You might consider co-creating a more detailed rubric with descriptors. For example, a smiley face might mean that you got to work right away and worked the whole time.
  • In a procedural lesson, teach children how to reflect upon their behaviors.
  • Post the rubric in the whole group meeting area.
  • Provide copies of the rubric for the children to put in their work folders.
  • Share scenarios of behaviors during Independent Work Time and have the children practice “scoring” the behaviors.
  • After Independent Work Time, give children reflection time to examine their behaviors. They may use a written version of the rubric.
  • Invite one or two children to share their reflections.

Create a joyful climate around working independently.

Independent Work Time calls upon children to be self-directed and self-regulated for as long as 60 minutes on some days. This will happen only if we make Independent Work Time a joyful experience. We must create both engaging literacy tasks and a joyful climate during Independent Work Time. A joyful climate is an environment in which a child can acquire knowledge and skills in ways that foster pleasure and happiness. Brain-based research tells us that the brain releases a chemical called dopamine, associated with good feelings, which stimulates the memory centers and increases focused attention. Joyful doesn’t mean “all fun and games.” Children experience joy when they are engaged in positive peer interactions, engage in meaningful dialogue, work on appropriately challenging tasks, and experience “aha moments.”

  • Enlist the environment’s support in creating a joyful climate. Use bright, cheerful colors. Provide comfortable, child-sized seats.
  • Regularly support maintaining a positive classroom culture. Highlight and celebrate acts of kindness. Remind children to “take care of others.”
  • Give children choices within appropriate parameters. Let them select which story to listen to at the listening center. Let them select which poem to read at the poetry center.
  • Play soft, yet happy music. Some teachers use the music as a noise barometer. Children are instructed to lower their voices if they can’t hear the music.
  • Let children create things. The list is endless: books, comics, posters, models, diagrams, floor plans, newspapers, and brochures, to name a few. Encourage collaboration during “creation time.” Look what we made!
  • Don’t forget share time. It is important to use share time to celebrate children’s accomplishments and productivity during Independent Work Time.
  • The best source of joy in your classroom is great children’s books. Let children reread their favorites, alone or with a buddy. Our kindergarten through third grade children are delighted by their ability to read!
  • Consider ways to create an environment that reflects children’s home cultures as well. Provide books and print throughout the classroom in which children see reflections of their home and community.

Create tasks that give children opportunities to practice and reinforce what has already been taught.

Independent Work Time gives children an opportunity to apply, practice, and reinforce all of the reading and writing strategies taught in mini-lessons, Intentional Read Aloud lessons, and Guided Reading lessons. Since you will be working with individuals and small groups, it is important that the other children have familiar tasks that they are able to do all on their own. Familiar tasks on familiar topics help the children feel confident, which reduces the possibility of frustration. With the other children meaningfully engaged in manageable tasks, you can give your full attention to small groups or individual conferences.

  • Provide center tasks that give children opportunities to practice what they have already been taught.
  • Select books that support the objective from previously taught literacy lessons for the listening center, buddy reading station, big book station, and any other station where children read. For example, if you are teaching story elements, select a book with well-defined characters, setting, problem, and resolution, such as Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak), for the listening center.
  • Let children reread the books that you read aloud to them.
  • After completing a Guided Reading lesson, distribute copies of the book that the children read during the lesson for their book baggies. The children can read the books during “Read to Self” time.
  • In the word study center (Work on Words), engage the children in sorting words, picture sorts, word games, word ladders, and making words featuring phonics elements from previously taught lessons.
  • In the poetry center, engage children in rereading poems that were featured in shared reading lessons.
  • Support ELLs by giving them choices in how to interact with a task. Do they prefer to write their answers? Or talk to a partner? Would they rather read or listen to a book? Support ELLs by making sure tasks include all four language domains (speaking, listening, reading, and writing).

Establish a system for sending children to work in stations or allowing them to select their own stations.

Teach children how to go to and change stations. Make sure that you have a well-thought out system and rehearse and practice with your children. Teach them a signal to indicate when to clean up and change stations. Practice the signal so children can move quickly and efficiently. Consider the skill level and stamina of the children in the class. Build in supports such as auditory or visual signals, anchor charts, procedural charts, and peer support. Create an environment that supports the system with clearly defined boundaries for work areas. When children move quickly and smoothly, they will have more time to take full advantage of the opportunities to practice reading and writing skills. And you will have more time to devote to small group and individual instruction.

  • Create and post a chart indicating each child’s assigned sequence of stations for the day, whether the assignment is made by the children or the teacher. The assignments will vary from day to day, so use a format that can be changed and reused from one day to the next, e.g., a pocket chart or a magnetic chart. Include visuals to support emergent readers and English language learners.
  • Introduce the stations and show children where they are located.
  • Teach an auditory or visual signal to indicate that it is time to change stations. Auditory signals might be chimes, ringing a bell, echo clapping, or shaking a maraca. Visual signals might be flicking the lights or raising your hand.
  • Before applying “the signal” to station rotation, practice it thoroughly. We want children to stop and listen for direction when they hear the chime ring.
  • Model how to move from one station to another. Then let a child model how to move from one station to another.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for the children to rehearse and practice.
  • Until the transition is smooth, have the children point to the next station before going to it.
  • Post procedural charts in the classroom to support the children.
  • Set goals for making the transition timely. Use an online stopwatch projected on the screen to establish a base transition time. Challenge the children to reduce their transition time.


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