Engaging Elementary Students in Independent Work Time
Independent work doesn’t have to be isolating. Center student voice, empower choice, and deepen engagement with these three strategies.
While working with students in small groups, I often struggled with keeping the rest of my class on task during independent work time. “How can I ensure that students are engaged and focused?” I wondered.
Of course, learning activities play an important role in engagement; however, I realized that the format of independent work time is often just as essential. Through ongoing reflection on my instructional practice, I discovered that providing different structures for work time keeps students invested and disrupts the monotony that can occur from utilizing only one approach for the entire school year.
I now integrate a combination of rotation stations, “Must Do/May Do” activities, and choice boards to enliven independent work. I change the format if I notice that students are off task, need more structure, or crave more choice and self-paced learning. Doing so allows me to be responsive to students’ needs while keeping group work lively.
Perhaps the most commonly used structure for independent work time, station rotations involve specific areas or activities that students cycle through within an allotted time frame.
Typically, one of these rotations includes guided instruction with the teacher. While the different centers vary, it is important to provide students with activities that are developmentally appropriate, that students can complete without teacher support, and that reinforce grade-level concepts.
To best support student engagement, I recommend sharing a visual representation of the different rotations in a way that is easy to understand. To transition between stations, simply use a signal (e.g., verbal response, doorbell, chime) to cue students to clean up and prepare for the next station.
Station rotations provide a structured approach with clear expectations, allow for short spurts (10–20 minutes) of engagement in a given task, and structure opportunities for student collaboration.
This approach also helps educators stay on pace to meet with a certain number of groups within a given time frame. For example, students may cycle through four 15-minute rotations—which could include guided teacher instruction, reviewing skills through technology, collaborative tasks/games with partners, and reinforcing concepts through differentiated assignments—all while the teacher meets with four different small groups of students.
Must Do/May Do
The Must Do/May Do approach outlines required tasks for a given time frame, the Must Dos, and then offers students May Dos—optional, student-selected tasks like partner work or digital games that reinforce curricular concepts.
This model provides a middle-ground structure: Students are held accountable for completing their Must Dos, but the assignments are self-paced, and students earn the privilege of transitioning into their May Dos once all of their required tasks are done.
The Must Do/May Do approach offers flexibility through self-pacing, incentivizing through student preference, and opportunities for teachers to utilize flexible groupings when meeting with students.
Plus, student voice and choice are built into this approach, enhancing a sense of agency. Students determine the order of their required tasks and choose from the range of optional activities, which promotes time management, prioritization, and focus—critical skills that are transferable across subjects.
In this approach, students are given a list of choices or a checklist showcasing what they should accomplish within a given time frame, without specifying the order in which tasks should be completed.
Students have the autonomy to decide how they spend their time, and the approach structures learning around students’ needs, interests, and preferences, while still holding students accountable. Teachers may offer the same activity options as in rotation stations or Must Do/May Do, but there is no required sequencing or hierarchy of tasks.
Instead, students are positioned to take ownership and responsibility as they make choices to complete their checklist by a given deadline. Depending on the structure, teachers might ask students to engage in all choice board activities or to select a few options that will best facilitate their learning.
Similar to Must Do/May Do, choice boards make flexible groups possible. They are the most student-led of the three approaches, which means they may be most effective later in the school year, once students and teachers have fostered a strong classroom community with clear expectations.
Recommendations for Independent Work Structures
As an elementary teacher, you are likely familiar with at least one of these independent work structures, but it is helpful to have reminders about approaches available to you as you get a sense, throughout the year, of what is and isn’t working for you and your students.
You may find that switching to one of these models reengages your learners. Or perhaps a hybrid model, in which you incorporate different work structures throughout the week or combine models (e.g., provide choices within station rotations) will help balance structure with student agency.
Regardless of the method(s) you use with your students, it is important to set clear goals for engagement and behavior, practice the approach with your students, and guide students in reflective feedback and discussion. Continue to try out new structures until you identify what best works for your class, but also recognize that your approach may change.