Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sue Patrick's Workbox System: A TOS Crew Review

Workboxes are a hot topic right now at homeschool conventions, on homeschool related blogs, and in internet chat groups for homeschoolers. I spent some time reading some blog posts about the workboxing craze and I know a few families who use them and love them.

But what are workboxes, exactly, and what is a workbox system?

Sue Patrick's Workbox System, A User's Guide, available by download for $19, is a very thorough description of the framework, the "why bother", "what for" and "how to" guide to setting up a system of workboxes to get a child through his or her school and chore time, complete with downloads for all of the visual pictures Patrick uses and some teacher planning and record-keeping pages.
As a TOS Crew member, Sue Patrick gave me, at no charge, the 122 page e-book, Sue Patrick's Workbox System, A User's Guide, so that I may review it here for you. I was given no further compensation, and I purchased my own materials for my workbox project.

If you purchase the book and plan to use the workbox system, you'll need paper for printing, a laminating machine, velcro, and something to hold your workboxes plus the boxes themselves. And you'll need your own curriculum, products or resources to fill the boxes.

Click on the picture at the left to take you to some sample pages in the User Guide.

BACKGROUND: When I looked at blogs and descriptions of workboxing, they looked very familiar to me. It is similar (if not exact) to a system that is being used in classrooms for autistic children all over the country (maybe all over the world). Giving you a peek at how my mind makes associations, I immediately thought, "TEACCH" and "North Carolina". And my next association was, "Ick."

When my daughter was four years old, she was in a contained classroom for pre-schoolers with an autism diagnosis, and each child (except mine) had one rolling plastic container with three big drawers. They were given four activities, one in each drawer and one on top of the rolling box. Each child had, on their visual schedule, a time to do their "work", which meant "independent work". My child could complete twice the work in the same amount of time and she had TWO plastic rolling boxes and completed EIGHT independent activities in the time the other children completed FOUR. The students had a schedule strip, they had to tackle the activities in the order laid out on that schedule strip, and that way, they always knew what was coming next. They didn't have to gather clues and cues from their environment to sense a transition coming because all of the informaton was summarized on those strips. In school, the students had "help" cards and "break" cards. There were picture cards for the teachers to use to remind them to quieten down if they were too loud because (I now understand) the children were unable to perspective take and reference and understand cues from others around them that they were too loud. The "work" space looked like an office cubicle with a long table instead of a desk.

It always looked to me like the public school classroom was trying to prepare the children to work on an assembly line or in a sheltered workshop.

To learn that Sue Patrick is the mom of a child diagnosed with autism and is from North Carolina (home of TEACCH) came as no surprise to me. Part of Sue's story is here.

So, the big question in my mind was, just how are Sue Patrick's workboxes different from the system I saw in the public school classroom for autistic children that I ultimately rejected in order to homeschool?

From my perspective, Sue Patrick is bringing home the system that my daughter used at school. I have no desire to duplicate an autism classroom at home. In my opinion, a lot of what Sue Patrick does in her workbox system was originally developed for a child who is not expected to EVER develop much else beyond the ability to follow a schedule. If the child cannot share attention with a teacher and interact, professionals remove the teacher interaction part and put all of the "work" in a system that is very visual into the classroom. It's a big 'ol compensation for the student's lack of joint attention.

Our goals for my homeschooler at this time are more focused on INTERDEPENDENCE than the INDEPENDENCE that workboxes are designed to grow in children. Independence will be a bigger focus later.

HOWEVER, reviewing Sue Patrick's Workbox System, A User's Guide forced me to take a really hard look at what I rejected and also look deeply at myself and my daughter and ask myself, "Have I created some learned helplessness in my child(ren)?" and "Are there things my daughter should be doing independently right now? And if so, what?" And Patrick forced me to look at the "what" very closely, too, paying attention to details like lesson length and time.

And, if, developmentally, she's processing and learning like a typical pre-schooler, can I use workbox ideas aimed at a developmental preK/K student?

And once I define the "what", Sue Patrick gives me the "how to" begin to set up a system for doing just that, and Sue Patrick provides the information, down to the teensiest detail. Seriously -- the teensiest detail.

The table of contents is available in the download of free sample pages:

1. The Benefits of Homeschooling
2. How We Teach and Train
3. What is the Workbox System?
4. Who is this System for?
5. How a Day Works
6. Curriculum and Materials
7. Breaking Down Curriculum for Success
8. Life Skill Foundations
9. Discipline and the Workbox System
10. Problem Solving and Specializing Your Child’s Education
11. Family Dynamics and Homeschooling
12. Tips, Tricks and Problem Solving

Because my child is developmentally at a preK/K level, I chose not to purchase the exact items that Mrs. Patrick recommends in her system. I chose a smaller system of boxes, similar to the one my daughter used at school when she was four. I spent some time reading what Sue Patrick has to say about preschoolers in Chapter 11. I also spent more time on the section in the same chapter about homeschooling children with special needs, including helpful actual examples of how she modified assignments for children of clients.

The e-book is very thorough and is written from Sue Patrick's own experience. I would not use the rigid system exactly as she created -- in my opinion, and for our situation, Sue Patrick takes too much of the relationship aspect out of the homeschool for a child with a developmental delay in areas of communication. I want my daughter referencing ME and not a schedule strip.

Today, I am still experimenting with my version of a workbox system. Most of our boxes involve working together. We have an RDI(r) Program Certified Consultant who guides us in our remediation intervention, and she and I continue to discuss what, exactly, my daughter should be working on independently, in terms of academics. I see the need for my daughter to begin to do some work on her own, and I have been experimenting with different ideas for some independent boxes. Sue Patrick's section on pre-schoolers is helpful for me in this respect. Additionally, "Book Look" is borrowed from our old public school days -- my princess understands that term. I can load one box with several books that she is able to read independently and she can choose which ones to look at. We've experimented with a few options, including some activities from unit studies and some copywork and simple math worksheets. We're adding and subtracting with manipulatives -- they're great in a box. Coloring pages paired with tiny pieces of crayon provide fine motor work. File folder games are good. I'm thinking about the right way to include working with coins in a workbox. I need to purchase a small physical set up for my daughter's bedroom and get some get-yourself-ready-in-the-morning boxes happening at my house.

My first impression of "Ick" was wrong. When I thought that there was nothing about Sue Patrick's Workbox System for us, I was "throwing out the baby with the bathwater". I was going to reject an entire system without looking at it closely enough. Reviewing the e-book made me sit down and look hard at what we are doing and why, and it made me realize one of the reasons that I disliked the school version so much is that the public school was not focused at all on the relationship development aspect. The workbox system has a built-in "same but different, different but same" philosophy that RDIers look for. It forced me to begin to identify some areas where my daughter is ready for more independence and to begin to scaffold the process of handing her more responsiblity for herself. When we are ready to begin to scaffold higher levels of independence, particularly in academics, we may use more of Patrick's techniques and strategies.

If you have a child on the autism spectrum and you like the method they use at school and are interested in duplicating it at home -- Sue's book is for you. You won't even have to buy expensive Boardmaker software, because she includes picture strips and cards in downloads that you may access after you register your book.

Me? I'm a proud tweaker, tweaking Sue's ideas to fit our specific, individual situation. I'm glad I read the user's guide because it forced me to clarify some aspects about what we do at home and it has encouraged me to think outside my own box. ;)

Stay tuned to the blog, because, from time to time, I'll write about the discoveries I make as we continue the trial and error approach to growing independent work with the workbox system within a developmentally appropriate framework.

There's an interview w/ Sue Patrick on facebook HERE. For reviews by my Crewmates of Sue Patrick's Workbox System, A User's Guide, go HERE.


Michelle Smith said...


I really appreciate your review. You bring much valuable personal experience and perspective to this book and method. You've given me a little more food for thought. :)

Sheri said...

Proud Tweaker-you did good. You really touched on the variables that must be considered, especially when you have a child with special needs-no two situations are exact-therefore, no two solutions will be the same. Excellent.
Looking forward to more postings.
Hey, did you try it with your other children? If so, how did it go?

FM Sheri

Penny said...

Sheri, my other children have not yet made the leap to homeschooling, so I haven't tried workboxes with them.

I could see using a modified version (without all the picture strips) for one of them.

The other one won't need a system, I predict.

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