Using Work Systems for Children with Special Needs

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All of us carry out some form note-taking and task scheduling, whether it is scribbling down a to-do list in a notebook, or calendaring events on your smartphone. We use these systems for various reasons: it gives us predictability, keeps us on track, and reminds us to get important things done.

Children with special needs can benefit in the same ways. Schedules and work systems give them information on what they need to do now, and later. It tells them how many tasks are lined up before they get to the activity they like. Schedules can also teach abstract skills like flexibility (accepting and accommodating changes) and delayed gratification (completing tasks to get to your favourite activity).

First-Then Schedule

A First-Then schedule with pictures and words

The first-then schedule is great for children who are beginner learners and are highly motivated by a particular activity, such as playtime. The schedule helps them learn life skills like sequencing and following expectations by completing a less preferred, but necessary task.

A First-Then schedule with 2 tasks before a reward

Pictures, photos, words, and even real objects may be placed in each box, to increase your child’s conceptual understanding of the requirements at hand.

Work System

A work system tells a special needs child what and how much is required of him or her at the scheduled place itself. Work systems are heavily used in our classrooms. At first glance, it looks just like a to-do list. However, for children with special needs, breaks and motivators can be inserted into the work system, making it more than just a to-do list. Children complete their tasks in the classroom while enjoying a break or two in between, and a clear end-point is visible from the get-go.

A traditional check-box work system. The student checks off each item after completion.
A visually captivating work system whereby stickers are awarded for each completed task.
A numbered list in which motivators are inserted (in blue) by the student. Completed tasks are erased off.

Benefits of Work Systems for Children with Special Needs

  • Provides structure and predictability
  • Sets clear expectations of the class for the child
  • Reduces anxiety in the child around unpredictability
  • Decreases rigidity around transitioning from one task to another
  • Including motivators and break-times in the schedule helps to increase a child’s willingness to complete the tasks

There is no Right or Wrong way

There is no right and wrong way to work with your child, whether it is using a first-then schedule or a detailed work system. What is crucial is that the system of choice should match your child’s unique learning and developmental needs. That way, you will be able to enjoy the full benefits of a clear and concise work system when working with your special needs child!