Fostering Students' Independence in the Classroom

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be exploring ways that you, the teacher, can foster students' independence in your special education classroom. We'll look at practical solutions that will guide your students to becoming independent thinkers.

What Is Independence in the Classroom?

Ms. Ramsey is a first-year special education teacher. She's excited to start her high school math class, but by the end of her first week, she's exhausted. Her routine includes passing back student work from the day before, going over the homework at the board, and then giving direct instruction. When it's time to pass out textbooks, Ms. Ramsey is rushing around while her students wait patiently. She wants to make sure that students have everything they need to be successful. If a student has a question, she immediately runs over to offer assistance. Although her intentions are good, Ms. Ramsey is inadvertently taking on all the heavy lifting in the classroom.

Ms. Ramsey needs to focus on fostering her students' independence. Independence in the classroom means that students take control of their learning and become active participants. This can be challenging for both students and teachers. Fortunately, there are some strategies teachers can use to promote independence. Let's look at an example.

Workshop Model

Promoting student independence doesn't mean that Ms. Ramsey should just ask her students to take over their learning without her guidance. This might create classroom chaos, especially for special education students who need more scaffolding. A better way to foster student independence is to routinely use the workshop model of gradual release from teacher instruction in three steps.

Step 1: Direct Instruction

In the first step of the workshop model, the teacher takes the lead, giving direct instruction or a clear demonstration of what students need to do. Here, the heavy lifting is still on the teacher. In Ms. Ramsey's case, she might give brief notes on quadratic functions. This step should be a small portion of class time, from 10 to 15 minutes depending on the topic. This gives her students some information to start with.

Step 2: Teacher and Student Practice

Now, students have seen the teacher perform the task and have the information. It's time for the teacher and students to practice performing the task together. Ms. Ramsey might use a practice problem and ask students to walk her through it. She should be doing less in this step and having students volunteer to help solve the problem.

Step 3: Independent Student Practice

In the last step, students are released on their own to practice the skill. This is the pinnacle of student independence in this model. Students are working without the teacher, but have the resources from the workshop model such as their notes, practice problems, and help from their peers.

If students ask for help, Ms. Ramsey should be careful to ask guiding questions and point them in the direction of their resources. It's important that she step back and let students engage in a productive struggle to foster their independence. For students with special needs, it can be tempting to give them the information and offer extra help. But, it's important for all students to learn to manage the productive struggle of learning on their own.


Creating an independent classroom is challenging. Teachers need to give up some control, and students have less structure for their work. The following are some ways to help the workshop model and other strategies run smoothly.

Increase Student Talk

Classrooms filled with independent learners have more student talk and less teacher talk. Although those first moments in the workshop model may be important for providing information, try to foster student conversation. Ask open-ended questions, and when possible, defer students to answer each other's questions instead of stepping in right away.

Create Productive Struggle

The best thinkers have failed more times than they have succeeded. As teachers, we sometimes find ourselves wanting to help students get the answer right away, which can lead to over-scaffolding, especially for special education students who may be used to more assistance. Instead, try allowing students to wrestle with their thoughts and build the academic muscles needed to solve real-world problems.

Empower Students

For students to feel comfortable taking control of their learning, they must feel safe in the classroom. It's important to empower your students to have self-confidence and to keep moving in the face of mistakes and challenges. Try giving ample positive feedback and regularly celebrating student success. The more students feel like they can take risks, the more independent they'll be.

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