Math centers can really change your math instruction for the better. I wanted to share some tips and strategies for getting started with math centers in your classroom. In this post, I want to share some things you should consider and questions you should answer before you get started. Hopefully, you will find some useful information if you are new to math centers, struggling with math centers, or just looking for more tips to improve your math centers.

# Grouping

Before you get started, you will need to determine how you will group your students. Here are some questions or suggestions to keep in mind:

- I try to keep my groups at no more than six students, with four being the ideal, but not always realistic. I do try to keep my groups with more struggling students smaller.
- Will you group your students by similar levels or a mixture of levels? If you group by similar levels, your teacher time can be more intensive and beneficial. Also, grouping by levels allows you to differentiate centers easier. On the other side, having a mixture of students at different levels allows the students to help and learn from each other. I would recommend grouping closer together in levels if you do decide to mix levels. You don’t want your highest learner with your learner that struggles the most (unless your high learner is an excellent tutor). You want the levels to be closer together so the students can learn from and teach one another.
- Will your groups stay consistent, or will they change? I actually use two types of math grouping in my classroom, one for math centers and one for whole group instruction lessons. My math groups during math centers don’t typically change, while my math groups during whole groups days change on a daily basis. Click HERE to read a blog post were I differentiate between the two types of math groups I use in my classroom.

# Scheduling and Frequency

For scheduling, you need to consider how you will schedule the groups and how frequently you will use math centers. Here are some questions to guide you:

- How long will each group be? Mine are typically 20 minutes long and I do 3-4 rotations a day.
- Will your students self-select their centers or will you schedule specific centers?
- How many days will you do math centers? I only do math centers 2-3 times a day. On the other days I do whole group instruction (with small groups during independent practice). This way I am still teaching new content. I use math centers for the students to practice learned skills and to be retaught or enriched during the teacher center.

# Materials

This is an important one. You need to choose your materials and types of centers carefully to maximize learning and minimize behavior problems.

- Do your students struggle with computation fluency? Make sure you have at least one computation center. My students really typically struggle a lot with computation, so I actually prefer to have two – one that is independent and one that is with partners.
- What levels are your students with word problems and math tasks? Do they need simple one step word problems or are they ready for more challenging multi-step word problems? In the beginning, I stick to one-step word problems to build their math responses and quality of work with word problems.
- Do you want your students playing games or more independent-type activities?
- Are your students capable of quickly learning directions for new games and activities or do you want to maximize your time by keeping the center activities simple?

When choosing materials for specific math skills, consider the students’ current understanding of the skill. Higher level math centers are eventually your goal. However, you don’t want to have your students completing higher level math centers on skills they are still learning. For example, if you have just started measurement conversions, you don’t want your students completing two-step problems involving measurement conversions. An exception to this would be if they are working with partners or if you are specifically challenging them with the task. If you are specifically challenging them with the task, make sure you take the time to go over the task as a class after centers. I also recommend it be a single task. The worst thing is to have your students spend 20-30 minutes completing 8-10 tasks incorrectly.

Click here to read more about what my math centers look like.

# Management

Management is key when you are getting started with math centers. You will need to spend some time planning out your procedures. Here are some questions to guide you:

- What materials will the students take to each center?
- How and when will the students rotate centers?
- What will the students do if they struggle or need assistance?

To read more tips on managing math centers, click here.

# Launching Math Centers

I hope you found some of these tips useful. **Do you use math centers in your classroom? What would be your most useful tip you would offer others?**

Betsy Bucy says

Loved this post. I’ve read a lot of posts about math centers and they typically offer activiities to do during centers. But, the questions you’ve posed are the questions that need to be addressed to make math centers effective. Thank you!!

Jennifer Findley says

Thank you for your comment! I was really trying to think of a way to offer support for teachers just starting out with math centers other than my providing links to resources. I am glad that the post is helpful!

Jackie Catania says

I love this post! I am an instructional Math coach and am in the process of helping a new 5th grade teacher set up the workshop in his class. Where do you find the activities to use in your centers?

Jennifer Findley says

Hi Jackie, I create my own resources. You can see the resources I use here: https://teachingtoinspire.com/2013/11/guided-math-in-upper-grades.html

Thanks!

Detrich says

Thank you Jennifer for this blog on math centers. It gives a general sense of what teachers should be thinking and inquiring about BEFORE starting. Planning alleviates those unexpected “surprises”.

Jennifer Findley says

You are so right, Detrich. Planning is so important. Math centers have to be well thought out before starting them with the students. Thanks for stopping by!

Tara (The Math Maniac) says

Great tips for getting started:)

Patsy Crookshanks says

I think this is great !!!!!

Terri says

These are great tips! I have never tried Math Centers but I am revamping my lesson plans next year to help the students get more. I LOVE everything I have shared! I would love to see what your Math Center Area looks like and how you organize your activities. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

Jennifer Findley says

Hi Terri, you can read all about how I organize my math center materials on this post: https://teachingtoinspire.com/2014/07/smooth-sailing-back-to-school-tips-and.html

As far as my math center area, it is all around the room. The partner or collaborative center is always on a carpet in the front of the room. Another center is on the desktop computers. The other two centers are simply at student desks. And then my teacher center is at a horseshoe table with me.

Let me know if you have other questions. Thanks!

Jessica Morris says

I’m just curious to know how you pull your students during “teacher time” especially if you don’t have them grouped by ability. For instance if you meet with your low students first but they are all working in different groups how do you meet with them without interfering with what they are working on?? Maybe I misread somewhere how you do it, but just wanted to have a better understanding for myself. It’s the one area I struggle with when it comes to grouping.

Jennifer Findley says

Hi Jessica, I actually do group mine by ability. You can read more about it in this section under Grouping. As I mention in the grouping section of this post, grouping by levels and mixed grouping both have advantages. However, I prefer to keep my levels closer together so I can provide more intensive teacher time support. Also, my table is part of the rotation so I don’t pull any students from their groups. You can read more about my rotations here:

https://teachingtoinspire.com/2013/11/guided-math-in-upper-grades.html

Thanks!

Paula says

You are the greatest! Thank you so much for your generosity and sharing your talents. Feel like a new teacher, coming down to elementary and I love learning about your best practices!

Amy Bellomy says

I am a fourth grade teacher. Our county has given us a basil reading text along with an math series that our pacing guides are aligned with. I am curious how many subjects do you teach each day? Do you have any post on how to incorporate Math Centers, Reading Centers, And Writing Centers all at the same time while also using the basil text ? I read about your math centers and I just can’t wrap my brain around how to do what is required by my county and have centers in more than one subject.

Thanks!

Amy Bellomy says

Yes I am aware it should say basal reading series rather than basil. Please forgive .

Jennifer Findley says

No judgment here! I am more than guilty of making my fair share of typos. 😀

Jennifer Findley says

Hi Amy, I have always been self contained. You can see my schedule here: https://teachingtoinspire.com/2015/01/take-peak-at-my-5th-grade-self.html

I don’t do math centers every day, I only do them about two times a week. I also do not do writing centers. You can read how I teach writing here: https://teachingtoinspire.com/2017/02/how-to-teach-writing-5th-grade.html

And I also have never taught with a basal text, so I am sorry but I can’t offer any tips on that.

If you are having difficulty doing more than one subject, pick the subject that you think would benefit from them the most. Incorporate centers in that subject for the rest of the school year. Then, depending on your success with that and how you like it, pick up another subject the next year or continue perfecting your routine with the original subject.

Does this make sense? Let me know if you have any other questions!

Michelle Woodard says

This is my 5th year teaching 5th grade. Each year as the state test approaches I feel like I am scrambling to fit all of my standards in. Do you have a curriculum map that you use that might help me see how you pace your lessons so they are all taught before May. I am not sure how I would teach all of my lessons and have time for centers too but I would really like to.

Jennifer Findley says

Hi Michelle, I do have one! You can find it here: https://teachingtoinspire.com/2015/10/5th-grade-math-pacing-guide-free.html

Denise says

I currently do centers now, but my teacher table is where I teach the lesson for the day. My students have enjoyed this method, but I struggle with how to help my students who need some reteaching. I would like to give your idea of trying whole class 3 days a week with centers on 2 days, but I struggle to get through all the curriculum now, I don’t know how I would get through it if I only did new instruction 3 days a week. I would love to hear how that works for you.