Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: Sue Patrick's Workbox System

For the last six months or so, I've been hearing rumblings in the homeschool community about workboxes. I had a general idea of what it was all about and thought about implementing something similar in my own home, but really didn't give it a whole lot of thought.

Then, a couple of months ago, Sue Patrick's Workbox System User's Guide ebook arrived in my inbox. One of the things I love about being on the Crew and reviewing products is it forces me to try things that I would never get around to on my own, whether I didn't think it would be a fit or just didn't have the time or gumption. After reading the ebook, I moved my mind from thinking about implementing a workbox system to actually doing it.

What is a Workbox System?

The 122-page Workbox System User's Guide gives the reader background information on Sue Patrick, her educational philosophy, and details of exactly how the system looks in her home. In addition to detailing the actual system, Sue discusses areas such as what a typical day would look like, includes ideas for centers, and targeting problem solving. You can read a sample of the book here, which includes the a complete Table of Contents, Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2.

For those of you unfamiliar with workboxes, this is not a curriculum, but a system. It is a way to organize your current school material and schedule. The ultimate goal of the system is for your children to become more independent, work more productively, and enjoy school work more with added variety. To learn a bit more about the system, please watch the video on Sue Patrick's site here.

Essentially, the workbox system is a visual schedule of assignments that need to be done. Work is broken down into 12 segments that readers and non-readers alike can follow. There are other layers to this system, such as "centers", "work with mom" cards, "help" cards, and "quiet" cards that are detailed in the book.

How did this look in our home?

Sue Patrick is very adamant that new users first attempt the system exactly how she has laid it out. She sincerely believes that she has tweaked the system to the point of maximum effectiveness. She may be right...for her home. However, I've been tweaking programs to fit my home during all eight years of homeschooling and will not stop tweaking now! For starters, the physical structure of the system was not to my liking - so I tweaked. The labeling of boxes didn't work with my new physical structure - so I tweaked. Some of the cards she suggests to use seemed a bit, well, oppressive - so I tweaked. Work centers...not for us and tweaked right out. Soon enough I came up with a Sue Patrick inspired system that works great for our household. Below is a picture of what it looks like.

I don't use clear boxes or a wire rack. I did like the idea of students being able to see upcoming work, so I selected these wire file holders instead. They fit perfectly in the cubby space in our school room. Previously the cubbies held a variety of school books that may or may not have been in current use. I moved those to the shelving unit on the left to accommodate the 12 file folders. Under each file folder, you'll see a white label. Those labels are the box number, four per cubby. When each "workbox" is completed, my son turns it around to the enclosed side, as you can see with the first two boxes in the picture, and marks the completed boxes on the schedule hanging from the magnetic strip on the wall.

This is not exactly how Sue Patrick has detailed her system, but this is what works for us. I have to say, I am very happy with the results and it has solved a couple of problem areas in our homeschool. First of all, my son tends to be easily distracted and the visual boxes seem to keep him more focused. He can see his work getting completed and we have less lost time in between tasks because he knows exactly what he needs to do next. The system as I have it allows me to move subjects around if needed. For example, if he's having a rough morning, I may rearrange his boxes to allow less-demanding work at first. On days that the boxes don't get finished (yes, that happens), I simply move the unfinished boxes to the first spots for the next day.

This system has also helped me as a teacher and parent. I think I need the visual schedule just as much as my son. We are both on the same page, I don't have to dig around for materials since that is part of the process when setting up the boxes, and our day goes forward with less bumps.

I didn't intend to use this system with my 12-year-old since she is already extremely independent. I normally just give her a written schedule and she follows it. However, after seeing her brother fly through his subjects with the workboxes ("He already has three boxes done!"), I thought it might be worth a try with her. Instead of 12 boxes, I used 6 boxes since her subjects are a bit more demanding. One of the best things I did was add a time card to each box so she could keep track of how long it took her to complete the work. Not only did it help me in scheduling the right amount of work, but it kept her accountable and signaled to me if she was struggling with some of the material.

Probably the thing my kids like the most about the system is I've tried to inject a bit more fun. With 12 boxes to fill, it might require a bit more creativity to fill them all. My son was pleased to find a geography card game, that I've had for years but have never pulled out, in one of his boxes. It has become a requested midday game and I'm thrilled my kids (and I!) are finally learning some geography.

Pros and Cons


I've already shared some of the pros of the system as implemented in my home. In general, I feel our homeschool runs more efficiently and we are getting much more done in less time. My kids know what is expected of them and what is yet to be completed at a glance. Sometimes it is the simple things that make a huge difference. For example, my son has some daily tasks that require him to log onto the computer. In the past, he'd report to me when he finished his previous assignment and then wait for me to log him to the needed computer program and give instructions. We did it this way because he usually couldn't remember the login information and each day the tasks were a bit different. However, if I was currently in the middle of something, my student would wander off and become occupied with something non-productive. When I implemented the workboxes, it prompted me to write a card out with detailed instructions on how to log in and how to navigate the program. That card stays in the box and is accessible each day. There have been numerous other efficient changes I've made since adding workboxes to our home.


Like Sue Patrick, I only have two children. For very large families, I don't see how Sue Patrick's exact system would physically work. Many homes simply don't have the space. It certainly can be tweaked to work for large families. It will also take some modification if your family does a lot of group learning, rather than children working independently. Some of the Crew members came up with creative ideas in these cases. I recommend you look through the many reviews to see solutions that were designed for individual families.

Worth mentioning to those thinking about getting the book is that Sue Patrick's system as detailed is very rigid. The educational philosophies presented in the book are done so in a way that may seem abrasive to some. We all have different ideas of how our homeschools should look and Sue Patrick is no different. It is important to keep in mind that she designed this system based on Division TEACCH, Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children, A Division of the UNC Department of Psychiatry. This is because Sue Patrick's son was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 2. While her system takes a rather rigid school-at-home approach, it is what has worked for her family. This doesn't mean the system can't work for children of all abilities and homeschools of all types. That has been proven otherwise. However, her system as detailed was designed and yes, tweaked, for a very specific child. In some homes it will work as is, in others it will need to be tweaked for your specific child(ren).

In the book, Sue Patrick makes comments that may simply rub other homeschoolers wrong. Comments like, "I find that there is way too much talking going on in homeschools," might cause the eyeballs of more relaxed homeschoolers to bleed. The suggestion that some homeschool moms don't take homeschooling seriously likely won't sit well with some. To get an idea of some of Sue's thoughts on the system and homeschooling, you might want to read the recent interview on the lovetoknow website.

To be fair, we don't all run perfect homeschools and what might be perfect to one, certainly won't be perfect to others. Sue Patrick does have some great ideas that can be gleaned. She is certainly passionate about the system and its effectiveness in her own home and the homes of others. My suggestion is to take what might come off as a 60-grit presentation and use it to take away the rough spots and smooth out a system of your own creation that fits in with your own philosophy and home.

What does purchase of the book give you?

At this point, you may be wondering what the point of the book is, since this seems like a rather simple system on the front or may not be an exact fit for your home. In the book, Sue shares her very detailed system, her reasoning behind it, extra ideas and download access to schedule strips, numbers, help cards, her typing program and various complimentary ideas. And while I didn't use all of her ideas, I found it helpful to understand why she set up her system as she did. Essentially, it was beneficial to see the original form of what it was that I was tweaking. It also gave me an immediate starting point with not only all the whys behind the system, but basic tools to get started. As always, each individual is different in what they find useful and why. For me, the book gave me a beginning point and I was easily able to discard what didn't apply to me. It was a worthwhile way to kick start me to begin a very effective system of my own that I had previously only thought about. All I needed to do was find the physical space and boxes...and tweak.

Sue Patrick's Workbox System User's Guide e-book is available for $19. You may also purchase a printed book for $19.95 as well as various starter kits and supplies. Browse the catalog for a listing of all available products. To learn more about Sue Patrick's Workbox System, including FAQ, history, testimonials, and pictures from those using the system, visit her website.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

No comments: