Work Systems for Early Learners

I’ve been having a rough year with some of my early language learners in a self-contained classroom. Keeping them engaged for a 30 minute speech session was just not working. Instead they would protest by throwing all the materials, screaming, attacking themselves or others, or running away. Not great therapy conditions. Many data entries were “Screaming. Would not work, “or “Throwing and running away. Would not work.” Good times.

The self-contained teacher in one of my classrooms then showed me the work system that she had recently started using and was having great success with these same students. Although her work groups are only 15 minutes and not 30, I thought this would be a fantastic thing to try. I’ve known about work systems for over a decade. But knowing about them and actually putting one together is another thing. With the right motivation and my manic tendencies, however, I created a 4 box work system and choice book in one day!


Here are the steps for using this system:

1. Set up boxes 1 and 2 with materials for therapy. Place folder in front of the student with the visual schedule (1, 2, choice).

2. Match icon 1 with box 1. Take out the materials from the box. Do the therapy activity. When complete, place the materials back into the box (or into a finished box).

3. Match icon 2 with box 2. Repeat directions from above.

4. When icons 1 and 2 are finished then it is…Choice time!

5. Choose a choice activity from within the folder and place it on the sentence strip.

6. Work on play-based language therapy with the student’s choice materials. (Read about my communication flip book here.)

7. Back to work… Bring out boxes 3 and 4 and set up the visual schedule on the binder cover.

8. Complete boxes 3 and 4 (follow the same directions as for boxes 1 and 2).

9. Choice time again to finish off the session.


I adore how organized this system is keeping me and how much work my students are getting done! When they know the routine, there are so many fewer battles. So far… this work system is working for me!


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  1. Good stuff! I’m going to share this with a teacher to see if she would be interested in adapting it for older students.

  2. I, too, have been introduced to this system in a 2nd-5th grade classroom where I had been marking “non-compliant behaviors” for many of my students when they had the same/similar behaviors. I am just part of the rotation now, so it works quite well on most days. My biggest obstacle is finding communication activities that “fit into the box” so to speak. I have lots of file folder activities, but many of them don’t elicit expressive communication as often as I’d like. Your idea about the choice time/breaks may help increase that! Thanks for your post, very helpful!

  3. Would you please include some examples of the activities you’ve seen that are used with these boxes? Seems like a great idea! Thanks!

    1. Check out my April lesson plans for ideas of what I’ll be putting in my work boxes next month

  4. Ann Barry says:

    I had to go this route with 4K students who were on the autism spectrum and it worked like a charm!! Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Awesome!!!

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