Studies show that one effective way to improve the quality of services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities is to make sure they have meaningful work and activity choices. For those individuals who want to work, having a job they enjoy and are good at improves their quality of life in numerous ways. Not only are they happier and more integrated into their communities, they are also more financially secure.
Unfortunately, some people who want to work are deemed “not ready” for employment—not because they can’t do the job, but because their support staff doesn’t know how to teach them to do the job.
What Is Systematic Instruction?
Many of the everyday tasks we may think of as “simple” actually require multiple steps. Picking up a few things at the grocery store can involve making a list, finding the items in the store, assessing different brands based on price and quality, and making a choice. Checking out is a multi-step process all by itself!
But there are many other elements to a trip to the grocery store that can cause challenges—interactions with store employees or other customers, the lights and noises, or complications created by where products are located in the store or on the shelf.
Effective systematic instruction for supported employment takes all of these factors into account. While task analysis (i.e., breaking a task down into smaller steps) is part of systematic instruction, it is just the beginning. This teaching process involves a commitment to getting to know the person being instructed, understanding how they learn and identifying obstacles that might prevent them from being successful on the job.
To support someone working in a grocery store, for example, it would be important to understand their social skills (how might they react to a question from a customer?), sensory sensitivities (do fluorescent lights or strong smells bother them?) and understanding of concepts central to performing any part of the job (when bagging groceries, can they identify breakable and smushable items?). These are just a few of the dozens of things that would need to be considered for effective systematic instruction.
Using Systematic Instruction Effectively
For direct support professionals serving as job coaches or providing employment supports, it’s essential to put thought and planning into what and how to teach the person being supported—the worker.
Instruction should occur in the natural environment where the skill or task will be used. In fact, being able to navigate the environment and social expectations in the workplace may be even more important to the worker’s success than their skills doing the actual job.
Also, conducting the training at the work site gives the DSP and the worker an opportunity to identify natural supports—such as a helpful manager or co-worker—and reduce the potential of the worker becoming dependent on the DSP. The DSP and the worker should plan frequent learning sessions in order to give the worker plenty of experience so they can master the necessary skills.
Just like the worker needs experience and training to be successful on the job, so does the DSP need training to learn how to implement systematic instruction. They will need to know, among other things, the various teaching methods they may need to use to support the worker’s education, development and independence. Support professionals skilled in systematic instruction have shown that people with disabilities can take on much more complex and varied tasks when they are properly instructed.
Failure to plan or implement proper systematic instruction can result in overdependence on staff support, lack of acceptance by people in the community, inability to learn the task at all, and loss of opportunities to advance in life or gain more independence.