Engagement is essential for math centers because you can run small groups effectively when students are engaged. Engagement means students will give their attention to the work because they are motivated and interested in it. I will give you 7 tips for student engagement in math centers, but first, let’s talk about motivation.
The key to motivation is interest; to unlock interest, you must determine what your students care about, what they enjoy, and what the right skill level is for a student.
Based on numerous studies about human behavior, your students care about connecting with other students and enjoy being around one another. They may communicate differently than us, but there’s a lot of life they have to learn to get to our level of maturity (hopefully).
Let’s touch base on that last part about the skill level. If an assignment is too challenging, your students will feel defeated and frustrated. On the contrary, students can become disengaged and bored if they do something too easy.
To find interesting activities, start by looking for activities at a skill level that reinforces the skills you teach in class.
This could mean using supporting standards or reviewing content previously taught, but avoid using the content your students have not yet mastered learning.
Another tip is to use interest inventories to learn about their unique interests and talents. This could pertain to a particular learning style, comfort level, or a student’s likes or dislikes.
Using these interest inventories, you’ll also learn how your students are intrinsically motivated. Another pro is that this will help you determine the best way to approach students when critiquing and encouraging them.
Now, let’s dive into 7 tips for student engagement in math centers
Tip #1: Establish Routines and Procedures
Spend some time envisioning your math centers. What threats could interrupt your math centers, making them time wasters? Those threats are what you should consider creating a procedure for.
Establish routines to avoid interruptions and make transitions quickly. Use nonverbal queues for your students and teach them how to go to a center, what to do during centers, how to ask for help, clean up, etc. Model those expectations.
Once you’ve decided on your rules, routines, and procedures, write them on an anchor chart and share them with the class.
This brings us to our next tip…
Tip #2: Model Expectations
Spend some time modeling expectations for each center over the week. You’ll want to demonstrate good examples and non-examples. The key to these exercises is to go slow.
Model each math center as a whole group and discuss the behaviors together. We typically take an entire week learning each center together.
It seems like a lot of time upfront, but this is time invested! I promise you’ll reap the benefits once you successfully launch math centers.
Explain to students why the expectations are essential, and be transparent and have fair consequences when procedures are kept and broken.
Tip #3: Build Stamina
Again, the key to building math centers is to go slow. You’ll want to give your students time to practice. Start by allowing your students to practice for the same number of minutes as the class’ average age. For example, if most students are seven, start with an opportunity of seven minutes.
If your students meet the allotted time criteria, add one minute and keep building each day until you reach your target goal.
If your students do not meet the allotted time criteria, discuss what happened, and try again tomorrow.
There will undoubtedly be mistakes, so be observant and fairly critique your students. Avoid calling out errors from repeat offenders. Instead, confer with them your expectations 1:1, and if necessary, set personal goals with them.
Tip #4: Reinforce Positive Behavior
Reinforce positive behavior with verbal praise. Did you know that plants thrive when their owners talk positively to them? Imagine how verbal praise affects your students.
Tell your students why you’re proud of their behavior during a center. The key is to avoid overgeneralized statements like “Great work” and “Good job.” Instead, be specific.
Tip #5: Reinforce positive behavior by saying things like,
“That transition was incredible because it was quiet, quick, and everyone went to their spot.”
“I appreciate the way that ______ cleaned up her materials. She checked on both sides and behind her to ensure she collected everything. Thank you for your effort.”
“I can tell that _____ already had a choice in mind because he wasted no time making his choice. Thank you for protecting our time.”
This is arguably the most important of the 7 tips for student engagement in math centers
Using this type of language reinforces positive behavior, and the classroom culture becomes one of encouragement instead of scrutiny.
Students will thrive in their centers when you encourage them like this.
Tip #6: Strategically Group Students
This may be unpopular, but I do not keep my students in stagnant groups. Instead, I give my students a quick formative assessment before we begin our centers. This formative assessment is something I can check off with a glance and takes no more than five minutes.
Students bring me their post-its with an answer to the day’s problem. If they answer correctly, they quickly go to their center (they make this choice first thing in the morning before the tardy bell).
If they do not answer it correctly, they go to the carpet for reteaching.
Once my students are on the carpet, I reteach the skill or concept and work through problems together.
I find most often that my students who are struggling with the concept are the ones who tend to waste time or cause distractions for others in centers because they want to avoid failing in front of their peers. Occasionally, I will have students who do not work well together.
In this case, I remind students of the consequences and let them decide for themselves. Most often, it works! And when it doesn’t, I enforce the consequences.
Tip #7: Offer Choices with Consistent Center Activities
Offer activities like math games, workbooks, videos/technology, and math literacy.
We use these self-checking math games during our math centers so students can practice independently. I give students a choice of any game below grade level, and I only offer new topics once I’ve taught the entire unit.
Opt for a supplemental curriculum that follows the same routine as my math games. This will prevent you from wasting your most precious resource – time. That’s why we use these math games. I have these games available for grades K-5. Click here to learn more.
You don’t want to spend time reteaching new games or helping students log into a new app.
One thing I like to do is give my students a choice board. On the choice board, I include things like a QR code for reteaching videos, QR codes for games online, writing prompts, workbook problems, and more.
This Editable Choice Board Menu helps my students stay on track, and it helps me provide a variety of learning opportunities using supporting standards. It works!
BONUS Tip: Hold Students Accountable
Hold students accountable after math centers with time to reflect. One way to do that is by journaling at the end of the day. I offer time for reflection during Ketchup-Mustard-Pickles time.
We almost always end our math centers with metacognitive questions. I ask them questions like:
Hold students accountable with metacognitive questions like:
What are you proud of?
Is there a problem you solved that you’d like to share with the class?
Show me on your thumb-o-meter how confident you are with this lesson.
Is there something you struggled with during that center?
What can you do tomorrow that’ll help you get more focused?
Elementary students are honest! They will be honest with these questions, and when you reflect daily like this, they will work to share something positive.
It’s a simple strategy to form your next small group, improve motivation, and hold students accountable.
There you have your 7 Tips for Student Engagement in Math Centers.
Remember, independent math centers are not for teaching students new content; that should be your focus in the small group. The goal is to give them opportunities to master previous content (again supporting standards and previous content).