Review: Sue Patrick’s Workbox System

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Having heard all about the workbox craze, I was anxious to try it myself.  I received the e-Book, Sue Patrick’s Workbox System right about the time we went on vacation. Since we were headed out on vacation, I wasn’t able to implement the system right away, but we have enjoyed using it the last few weeks.

If you’ve been living under the proverbial rock and don’t know anything about the workbox system, it’s an organizational system that was developed in the autism community and has been tweaked by author Sue Patrick for use in homeschools with kids off all ages and abilities, including those with ADHD and autism-spectrum disorders.

It is important to note that Ms. Patrick is rather adamant that you first try the system exactly as she has designed it before making any adjustments so that you can get the full effect and see how the system works for your family.  That being said, those who know me know that I rarely use anything exactly as it’s “supposed” to be used in our homeschool.

While I can fully appreciate how the system was designed to work and why Ms. Patrick strongly encourages families to use it that way, there are three reasons why I knew I had to adapt it for our family:

1.  We don’t have a separate school room and my husband is not about having three wire shoe racks filled with a total of 36 plastic shoe boxes in our dining room, nor is there room to do so.

2.  The system, as written, seemed very rigid to this rather relaxed, eclectic homeschool mom.  I’m not about pointing to a “be quiet” sign on a Popsicle stick when my kids are talking.  We tend to take the home part of homeschool pretty seriously, which can include relevant rabbit trails or telling somebody to save that thought for a more appropriate time, as the situation warrants.  And, I don’t mind my kids asking for help when they need it, so the three “ask for help” cards coupled with the “use ’em and they’re gone” philosophy did not fit with my parenting style.

3.  We do history, science, art and music together — everybody — and I typically do grammar on the white board with Josh and Megan, so setting up the entire system for the handful of subjects that the kids do independently  seemed a bit much.

As I was considering the best way to set up our modified system, I began to feel a bit like I was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.  However, after using it for the last few weeks, I’m liking it pretty well.  It does encourage independence and the kids like the portability.  Are you dying to know what we’ve done?

Milk crates and hanging file folders, baby!

I found milk crates — the kind designed for home offices, with a lip to hold hanging file folders — for $3.50 each at Big Lots.  I got a set of colored hanging file folders — because, let’s face it, bright and cheery is a better way to greet a school day than green and drab — and Velcro dots.  I printed off the number strips and we were good to go.


Instead of cutting the schedule strips into strips, I taped the whole grid on the front of the kids milk crates workboxes.  I then put the numbers on the file folders.  As they finish the work inside each folder, they move the number from that folder to the schedule grid.  They are not to move the number until the work in that folder is finished, not when they start on it…because, um, yeah, we have a couple of kids who get halfway through something then ‘forget’ to finish it.


One of my favorite things about the workbox system is the fact that Josh and Megan’s music folders and recorders fit in one of the file folders — no more nagging about doing music homework!


Almost immediately, Josh asked me if he had to do the work in his box in numerical order.  Honestly, I’ve always been an “I don’t care when, where, or in what order you get your work done as long as it gets done” kind of homeschool mom because I think that teaches independence and time management, so, of course, I told him no.  However, I did tell him to put the numbers in the right order on the “completed work” grid so that he could easily see if he’d missed something.

Oh, and for the record that “when it gets done” comment is mostly for my oldest who sometimes likes to do the next day’s schoolwork at night before she goes to bed.  I guess, technically, I do care when it gets done as I have two who would put off their work indefinitely, if I’d let them.

The kids are to put their completed work back in their boxes and stack them up (I love that the milk crates are stackable!) in the dining room when they’re done, so that I can check their schoolwork.  A surprising benefit I’ve found is that this method makes checking school seem easier.  I’m still checking the same amount, but since I’m now checking each child’s full day’s work together, it seems easier.  I guess that’s because I used to check all the easy stuff first and leave the more time-consuming work until the end, whereas now, it’s spread out.  Yes, I know that’s all psychological, but I can deal with that.

So, while our modified workbox system hasn’t totally streamlined our day, it has made certain aspects of it easier, such as:

  1. The kids like the portability of being able to take their entire box of work to their preferred study spots.
  2. It is encouraging greater independence in my younger two since one of the things I put in their boxes, Daily Grams, is something we had been doing together.  Josh still likes to have my help, but Megan likes to take her box and at least attempt the Daily Grams on her own.
  3. As previously mentioned, no nagging about music homework and easier schoolwork checking time for me.

So, overall, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to read through Sue Patrick’s Workbox System and implement the ideas that work best for our family.  In addition to explaining the workbox system, Ms. Patrick’s book offers many practical and idea-sparking suggestions for ways to present schoolwork in a more kid-friendly way, such as making games from posters, creating file folder games, and setting up fun learning centers.

Sue Patrick’s Workbox System is available as an e-Book download for $19 or a print book for $19.95.  Ms. Patrick also offers, on her website, a consulting service and supplies for setting up your workbox system and/or learning centers.

I received this product free for the purpose of reviewing it.  I received no other compensation for this review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my personal, honest opinions.  Actual results may vary.
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Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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  1. I've been using the workbox system for my boys (3rd and 5th grade) for the past 9 weeks. We love it! Of course, I don't use it EXACTLY as she lays it out in her book. The system has helped my boys tremendously with staying organized with their work and working through ALL of it. I have found some unexpected benefits to me as well:
    1. The system encourages me to stay on top of grading! My boys EXPECT yesterday's work to be graded and in their workbox with their new work so it holds me accountable.
    2. The system helps me to have more review in my boys' days and to add indepedent projects that they can do that relate to our unit study.
    3. The system has helped the boys to be more independent although they are free to ask for help whenever they need to ask.
    4. The system helps me to be more organized.

    My oldest child (7th) doesn't use workboxes as she follows her assignment list very well.

    Thank you for the post!

  2. We use a loose version of it also, but only use 6 boxes in a stacking drawer set up. It works great for us. We are like you and do certain subjects together, so that is why we use 6. Plus, my boys are young 🙂

  3. Great review Kris! I always love seeing how families modify it for their use. At some point, I'd like to modify it for classroom use, as I think it could be beneficial, but it will be a while before I can try it out.

    I understand why the system is so rigid though. When working with autistic kids and kids with more severe cases of ADHD, that "Be quiet" sign will be a must, as will a certain number of "help" cards. I've found with my experience, mostly with ADHD kids, they tend to like to make excuses for not being able to do stuff on their own, so this forces them to think about it and figure it out, instead of crawling to you acting helpless. It also teaches them management skills, which is something they often so need. But, like you said, your family doesn't need it, so you could make that modification.

  4. I dig the milk crates. Often my 10 yo will grab work from several boxes and head to the couch. I like that the crates take up less room and are portable and stackable. Great idea. *Ü*

  5. Kris,

    I like this system too…I did think Sue was a bit much when it came to certain attitudes of how to "do" they system, but our version of the system works well too…I did not do the number strips or other cards…I am a little bit unstructured when it comes to that, so I attached the numbers to each box…and they stay there…
    I think the beauty of this system is the the children "SEE" all of their work…then they see it GOING AWAY…I have tried a couple of variations…file box, numbered folders…but use the system mostly how it was designed for my oldest. He is able to get through more work than ever before.
    Another beauty for me is some of what you described for checking work….You HAVE to look through it because they need to be refilled…and that is a great way to guard against building it up and then having to reteach two major math sections….aaaauuuugggghhhh!
    One last thing I love is that EVERYTHING GOES IN THE BOX…well, I don't put pencils in, but everything you need…so there is no last minute remembering…oh, I need a map…ok…we'll do that in a little bit…and then you get off track, and then you forget…sometimes for 2 weeks…it is all in the box, so there is no DOWN TIME waiting for the things you need…
    THanks for the review!

  6. We use the workbox system also, with some tweaking. I only have one child so it was easy to have 12 boxes but I do not use any of the cards or number strips. It has helped me stay organized, and has encouraged me to switch things up on a daily basis to add in all those items we buy but don't quite get to. My daughter likes seeing what is coming up next and when she will be finished. We accomplish between 7 – 12 boxes each day depending on what else we have planned.

  7. I also don't use the system exactly as written, but many of the things that I have changed are the same things that you have changed. I do have the kids work through things in order, however. Because they do several of the things together, I set things up to make that easier.

    My kids really love the Workbox system! We have been doing it for about 8 weeks now, and they still like it and so do I. I figure that's a great sign! 😉

  8. Kris, thank you for your great review! We've actually been using milk crates for ea. of my kids the last couple of years, in order to keep all of their current every-day stuff together, easily accessible and portable, though I haven't put hanging files in it. I believe THAT alone would help to organize what so quickly becomes a stacked, jumbled mess (I'd even thought to, but haven't gotten around to it yet with so much moving, etc. going on). Thank you for the input, this may be exactly what I'm looking for, since I too don't want to be fixing what isn't broken, nor do I desire to drastically change what HAS been good in our own homeschool, but rather just refine it. This may very well be a workable answer to my prayers of late, as I do need to incoorperate more prepared scheduling/independent directives into our day for my two middle schoolers, since our 2yo seems to throw off my groove more days than not, and it seems that EVERY subject that they're not independent with, or don't have prior written directions/plans suffers for it.

  9. I wasn't under a rock but I was in the hospital 10 times last year – so workboxes are fairly new to me.

    We satrted using workboxes and love them. I don't do quiet sticks either but appreciate auststic children may need them.

    As a typical homeschooler we do adapted the syatem to meet our unit study needs. I have some photos posted –clcik onn my name to view.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. We use the workboxes in a looser, a bit more unstructured way as well. I really like the concept, but was hard pressed to find 12 things that we can do every day. Then I sort of felt a slave to the order. We ended up changing things up quite a bit, but still keeping the boxes. My oldest son has Sensory Processing Disorder (unlike others who say that the rigidity may be more necessary) and I actually found the boxes to rigid for him, maybe it's because he is still young (age 5, 1st grade) and can't read for himself. I feel that I am open to changing things as we go along though, so we will see how it all progresses. 🙂

  11. I also adapted the system for us, and I am finding it very helpful! I'm too flexible a homeschooler for all that rigidity too!

  12. I have been intrigued by the workbox system since I first heard of it. However, like you, I did not want to have boxes for three kids set up.
    I love how you've adapted it for your needs because I am also one of those homeschool moms who never quite do things exactly as I am instructed. 🙂 (And things work out just fine anyway!)

  13. Love your adaptation. Those hanging files in a milk crate seem more practical/realistic for families with less space and less need for the level of structure autistic (and other) kids need.

    I've been looking for just this kind of thing! Piling their work in blue dish tubs just doesn't have quite the same panache :0)


  14. "an organizational system that was developed in the autism community and has been tweaked by author Sue Patrick"

    Thank you for this statement! I got tired of hearing how this is "her" system and no one better deviate from "her" system.

    Looks like a tweaker calling the kettle black, huh? She's the original tweaker!

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