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Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Sue Patrick’s Workbox System


More than 10 years ago, Sue Patrick’s son was diagnosed with autism and in her quest for answers on how to help him to learn and to succeed, she came up with the Workbox System, which is loosely based on the system used by Division TEACCH ( Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children, Division of the UNC Department of Psychiatry). Over the years, she has worked to perfect the system for her situation and after sharing it with countless families believes it can work for any child with or without learning difficulties.

The system, as outlined in the Sue Patrick’s Workbox System User’s Guide, has two parts:

  1. the physical system itself
  2. the educational philosophy behind the system

The physical system consists of a wire rack and 6-15 clear plastic shoe boxes, one set per child. Each box has a number on it and is loaded with an assignment. The boxes are completed in sequence. Additional pieces include scheduling strips, numbers with velcro backs for attaching to the boxes, cards, little signs, and grids for planning what to put in the boxes. The extras are available as downloads from Ms. Patrick’s website after you register your book purchase, or you can make your own, or you can buy them already made for you.

The night before, you will fill the boxes with individual activities for your child to do during the school day. Each box will have everything she needs to complete that activity (pencil, crayons, paper, dry erase marker, flashcards, whatever is needed so there is no hunting for supplies). The activity might be a worksheet, to read a chapter from a book, to jog in place, anything. Most of the activities should be independent, but any requiring your help will have a “Mom Time” card on the box.

Using the Workbox System, your child begins the school day by putting a card in a library pocket to “clock in,” just like many adults begin their days on the job (she’ll also clock out at the end of the day). Then she goes to her scheduling strip to see what’s next. The scheduling strip will show her whether she starts with the first box or does a center (some ideas for centers are included, and you can purchase center “kits” from the website). The idea is to follow instructions by completing the assignments in the order given. The child is not allowed to rearrange the boxes or change the scheduling strip. As each box is completed, it is removed from the shelf and stacked next to your child’s desk.

There’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the jist of the physical system. You can see a video here.

The educational philosophy behind it basically is this: Children are motivated to do their work independently when they able to anticipate what will come next, can see the progress they are making, and know that the difficult task they may be doing right now will only last a short time. The big goal here is quiet independence (odd that that seems to be a goal for public schools as well---Ms. Patrick even includes little signs in the downloadables for the children to hold up if they have a question or need to use the bathroom). Children should be able to complete their work without Mom hovering nearby. Independent success will breed confidence and assignments will get done more quickly without distractions. Some pleasant side-effects: sneaking in some of those cool resources you happen to have but never seem to find the time to use, and maybe getting some laundry done while the children are otherwise occupied.

The system has a lot of potential and blogs have sprung up across cyber-space touting the positives. After reading the User Guide, I decided to give it a go, but made several modifications due to space and economic considerations, as well as differences between my educational philosophy and Ms. Patrick’s. While I want my children to grow to be responsible, independent adults, that’s not my only goal or even my number one goal at this early stage in their lives, and I’m not at all certain that following the Workbox System the way it is written would accomplish that goal. While my children would be finishing their assignments independently, and (hopefully) following directions, what do workboxes teach, for instance, about time-management? How could a teen, for example, figure out how to manage her time if mom fills her workboxes and tells her how and when to do everything? Now, said teen could fill her own boxes, but the system is rather rigid in the suggested implementation.

But I digress a bit. Since we were in a transitional period when I received the book with another move planned, setting up a couple dozen boxes wasn’t really an option and seemed problematic for our general approach to education. As a homeschooling family, we do a lot of together things, including read-alouds, catechism, Bible studies, history lessons, walks, etc. The workbox System is designed so that each child has their own set of boxes and “never the twain shall meet” (that’s Kipling, you know). It seems a lonely life. The equation of together stuff to independent stuff will change as the children get older, but, for now, the together stuff is more the norm. It didn’t make sense for me to try to work the together stuff around the independent stuff. If David, Mary and Peter each had several work boxes and I wanted to have us all work together on something, I would have to either put it in the first box for everybody or else time the boxes in such a way that we would all be ready for it at the same time. Either way, I’d be putting the same thing in 3 different boxes (even if it’s just a note). Sounds like a headache to me (and extra work). So it made more sense to work the independent stuff around the together stuff somehow.

And it seems silly to have everybody working alongside each other on different things without the give and take of real interaction via workboxes, anyway. I’m not talking about socializing, but actively contributing to each other. Real learning doesn’t just happen between teacher and student or by having the student “do” stuff (whether it be reading or doing an activity or even just thinking), but also through interaction with other people and their ideas

So, in spite of Ms. Patrick’s warnings that her way is the best way (yep, she does say that in her book, though not it those words) I dived in with some major tweaking. Instead of a few dozen boxes, we have 3 clear plastic, tote-able file boxes with hanging folders, one for me, and one each for David and Mary. (I may use separate shoe boxes for Peter in the future, I just haven’t decided for sure, yet.) The folders are numbered. The together stuff and anything that I do with a particular child goes into my box. The kids’ independent stuff goes into their boxes. When I’m ready to do some together activities, I pull them from my box. I do put everything I need for the activity into the box (so I don’t waste time hunting around). If it doesn’t fit, I put it in a designated place and a note in that folder. When I am busy with one child the other knows to go to his or her box and do the next activity there, that way they can take turns in their Mommy time. So far this system is working pretty well for us. It keeps me organized, keeps the children from being at a loose end (David will often disappear if I don’t give him something immediately, ahem), and we get more done with fewer interruptions.

Since the boxes are portable, they moved with us very well and would be easy to take on a trip if we were so inclined. My children still have the anticipation of the next thing (they just peek in the folders to see what’s next). They still have a visual of when their work will be done. They are working independently on the independent stuff. We do not use any of the “extras,” like the schedule strips or little signs. It works for us, but it still feels more rigid than what I’m really comfortable with. I can’t see using this everyday, but I think that it can be part of a successful routine.

It should be noted that while the main purpose of the User’s Guide is to outline the nuts and bolts of the system, a good percentage of the book is used to expound upon the author’s views concerning education and homeschooling. There’s some good information to be gleaned from this book, but Ms. Patrick has some strong opinions (don’t we all), and tone tends to be a bit preachy. I personally was not offended by her musings, but would hate to see anyone take them personally. You can read a sample of the book here to get an idea of the overall tone.

Sue Patrick’s Workbox System User’s Guide is available directly from her website:

  • e-book $19
  • paperback $19.95

Also available for various prices:

  • center kits
  • preprinted and laminated “extras” like scheduling strips, numbers, signs, etc.
  • consulting by Ms. Patrick herself

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of the e-book Sue Patrick’s Workbox System User’s Guide and access to the free downloads in exchange for writing a honest review. I received no other compensation. This review is my own opinion on this product and reflects the experience of me and my family. For other reviews of this product by other homeschoolers, please click the banner below:


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