5 Easy Ways to Teach Independent Work Skills in the Classroom

Teaching independence is a big part of a teacher’s role in the primary classroom. Our young students are just beginning to gain increased autonomy with more complex tasks, and schoolwork is a great way to encourage and strengthen further independence. If you’re looking for new ways to support and facilitate independent work skills, you’ll love these 5 simple tips for the classroom!

Teaching independent work skills in the classroom will be simple and effective with these 5 helpful tips and tricks.

What Are Independent Work Skills in the Primary Grades?

So what exactly are we talking about here? Independent work skills will promote smooth transitions in the classroom, make small groups and centers a breeze, and ultimately set students up for success. These skills or habits need to be practiced, talked about, and modeled for students to fully grasp them, but they’re well worth the work! Some of the things I consider to be important independent work skills include:

Various independent work skills to focus on in the primary classroom include taking initiative, following directions, problem solving, and more.
  • taking initiative
  • following directions
  • problem-solving
  • working quietly at times
  • completing an assigned task

Working on fine-tuning these skills throughout the year will encourage growth in analytical thinking and help your students develop self-confidence. Not to mention that these independent work skills will also help your classroom run much more smoothly, too! Ultimately, making time to focus on these skills and choosing activities that intentionally strengthen them will pay off tenfold!

Expectations for Independent Work Skills

Now, let’s chat about expectations. You all know that I spent my years in the classroom teaching first grade. When working with the primary grades this means I couldn’t expect things to go perfectly all the time.

Setting clear and consistent expectations for independent work skills will help with your overall success.

I mean let’s be real… even in the upper grades, is there ever a “perfect day”? Teaching is often messy, and that’s quite all right!

After all, we all know that young students will need help, ask questions, get confused, and are easily distracted. They’re learning and growing and it’s important not to let our assumptions get the best of us with outlandish expectations for our little learners.

Keeping this in mind, it’s also not unrealistic to help facilitate good behaviors, positive action, and independence in an age-appropriate manner. By targeting independent work skills on a daily basis, you’ll be able to help your students grow and mature in ways that will serve them for the long haul. I’d say that’s worth the effort!

Once you’ve got a realistic grasp of your expectations for your group, you might be wondering how to facilitate these skills. My best advice is to use daily practice. The more opportunities you allow for children to practice these skills, the more success you’ll have with independent work time. Ready to hear the specifics? Here are my top 5, tried and true ways to promote independent work skills!

1. Make Rules and Routines Well Known

If you’re a classroom teacher, you already know the value of solid routines, schedules, and a good old classroom rules poster. As simple as it sounds, laying out expectations for your students will help them become better independent workers. Children thrive on boundaries, and it’s important that as teachers, we provide them!

We always go over our classroom rules at the beginning of the year, but sometimes it’s worth revisiting and discussing if you’re struggling with troubling behaviors during independent work time.

For example, if you’re noticing that all of your kiddos are having a hard time following the rule of being quiet during morning work time, maybe it’s time for a group discussion on why this is a rule. In the past, I’ve found that being honest with students and laying it all out produces much better results than, “because I said so”.

If you’re going down this road, be sure to point out times in the schedule when students are encouraged to talk freely, discuss things with classmates, and work together. As with anything in life, it’s all about balance and this is a great opportunity to teach your students about the benefits of quiet, independent work time!

2. Create a Morning Routine that Supports Independent Work Skills

Do you have a morning routine in your classroom? If not, NOW is a great time to make one! No really, this one thing is a great way to ensure your students get to practice using their independent work skills right off the bat every single day! The key to a solid morning work routine is crystal clear expectations and great morning work activities.

In my classroom, we used digital or no-prep worksheets that followed a spiral review of what we were working on. I loved knowing that my students were getting valuable practice with math and ELA standards, while also strengthening those independent work skills too!

When students came in every morning, they knew they were allowed to greet each other as they put their backpacks away, made their lunch choice, grabbed their morning work page, and got settled. Then they focused on their morning work.

The worksheets follow a familiar format so my kiddos had no problem with this at all. They knew just what to do and could get to work on their own. This freed me up to take care of the morning administrative duties without multiple interruptions. Once I had taken attendance and submitted the lunch count, we’d go over the morning work together. It was a consistent daily routine that my kids could learn, complete, and expect. I loved this daily ritual in the classroom! If you’re looking to calm the morning chaos, this is a must!

3. Use Visual Directions to Foster Independence

Next, let’s get practical about teaching students to work independently and complete assignments when they aren’t yet reading. As a first-grade teacher, this was a very real thing!

This is how my love for visual directions came to be. Imagine being able to set up your centers with visual direction cards and supplies and knowing your students would be able to seamlessly complete the activity without your presence. Sounds like a dream right?

What about explaining a multi-step assignment or project without the need to repeat the directions again and again? This can be your classroom reality!

This is what’s possible with visual directions! Visual directions are picture cards that you display that show the step-by-step actions students need to take to complete an activity.

When students learn to use picture cards, they can easily understand what needs to be done, and in what order. This is SUCH a lifesaver when you’re facilitating small groups or moving around the room during an activity. Instead of repeating, again and again, the directions, steps or supplies students need, you display them.

As I was explaining an activity, I would talk through what students would be doing and display the steps on the board. I would have the students repeat them or answer questions about them. Then I would ask if there were any questions about what they were to do. After that, I would let them go and then refer them to the visual directions if they had a question. By prompting them to look there first, before relying on me, students were building independent work skills. Did I ever have to repeat a direction? Of course. But did visual direction cards dramatically cut down on how often? Absolutely!

Once I saw how well these cards worked with classroom activities and projects, I began using them with centers too. I would create a page of visual directions for each center activity. After teaching the activity in small groups or to the whole class, we would review the visual direction sheet. Students knew that they could refer back to the sheet if they had any questions about the activity.

When using visual directions, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve provided your students with the tools they need to practice independence in completing their tasks while you work with your small group.

4. Throw in Fun Games that Require Full Focus

Next, I’ve got an unlikely suggestion to help facilitate independent work skills…games! I know, you’re probably wondering how on earth working as a group could promote independence, but hear me out. Games require directions, and winning the game means you must follow them. I LOVE using games as a way to have students practice listening closely and following directions carefully.

The MVP of following directions games is Simon Says. I mean what better way to see if your students are really listening? Make this game a little trickier by saying things like “Simon Says, all boys wearing blue stand on one foot”. You can also add in academic-based commands like “Simon Says, write the letter that the word apple starts with”. This game is great for getting the attention of your group after lunch or recess.

Aside from Simon Says, learning games are endless! BINGO is a great chance to see how well your students are listening, while board games will require more intense focus and participation. Sprinkling a nice dose of learning games throughout your week is a great way to work on following directions in a fun way!

5. Offer Opportunities to Practice Independence During Centers

Last, but definitely not least – let’s talk about center time! Center time is such an important part of learning in the primary classroom. We all know that young children need opportunities for hands-on learning, but it also presents a great chance to practice independent work skills.

The best thing I have found to help students work independently during centers is consistency. No, that doesn’t mean students are doing the same thing over and over again. Well – kinda.

By keeping the activity consistent, but changing the skill, theme, or topic, students can work independently because they know just what to do. Then, I take the time to teach any new activities before moving them to the center rotation.

Additionally, using fun, thematic center activities will ensure you have full engagement. Using fun and engaging activities means that your students will likely be more focused, willing to problem solve, and take the initiative to figure things out on their own.

By combining these two things – you have a recipe for engaging center activities that students can complete on their own. I’m a big fan of seasonal centers like these:

Using seasonal center resources allows you to practice many of the same skills over and over with consistent activities while keeping them feeling fresh and new for your students. Students LOVE activities based around a holiday, so be sure to use this to your advantage. It’s much easier to promote independent work skills when students are having fun with them!

Grab a Freebie to Get Started with Teaching Independent Work Skills

Want to get started with intentionally teaching independent work skills in your room? My best advice is to start with morning work and a daily morning routine. This one thing will make the biggest impact when it comes to teaching students to take initiative independently on a daily basis.

Make sure to check out this free download of my daily morning work to test out in your room. You’ll see it includes both print and digital options so you can see which option works best for your kiddos! Have fun working on these skills with your students. It requires some intentionality at the beginning, but teaching independent work skills is something you’ll never regret doing!

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