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How to Set Up Math Centers in Your Classroom

By: Amy Haskell 03/12/2024
Learn how to organize math centers in your classroom to support student growth.
Students stack hands while gathered around a table filled with math cards and notebooks.

As a mathematics teacher, you probably have a diverse set of students with a variety of needs in your class. It can be challenging to support them all with whole class instruction. If this sounds familiar, consider implementing centers where students work on different learning goals in a variety of groups, often during one class period.

Centers Are Efficient, Effective, and Engaging

Establishing a clear and consistent routine for centers up front will set you up for success throughout the year. Here are six tips for getting started with centers and keeping them going throughout your school year. 

Tip #1: Set Clear Expectations for Center Work

Making sure your students understand expectations for center work will promote a more productive learning experience for everyone. As you establish expectations, you may want to consider:

  • What does collaborative work versus independent work look and sound like in centers? 
  • What are the expectations for students when working with physical materials? 
  • How will students transition to and from centers? (See tip #2.)
  • How will you and your students know if they are successful in centers? (See tip #5.)

Early Elementary Idea: Be silly. Model examples of good centers’ engagement and discuss behaviors you would not want to see.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: Collaboratively set norms for center work with your class on an anchor chart and post it so students can see it. Afterward, invite them to talk about what went well and set goals for continued improvement. 

Tip #2: Make Transitions Simple

Establish a routine for transitioning to and from centers and giving cues like signals, songs, and chants that let students know it’s time to set them up for independent work.

Early Elementary Idea: Practice moving to centers and cleaning up from centers. Emphasize what you notice students doing that meets expectations.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: Utilize incentives to reward your class for timely, quiet, and efficient transitions. For example, award points that can be used toward class celebrations.

Tip #3: Teach Students How to Get Support When You’re Working with a Small Group

One of the benefits of centers is that you can work strategically with small groups or individual students on their learning goals. For students who are not in your center, set the expectation for what they should do if they have a question or need help.

Early Elementary Idea: Teach students hand signals to replace common questions, such as “may I go to the bathroom?” so that you can non-verbally communicate with students you aren’t working with.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: If students feel stuck, teach them the “three before me” rule where they need to ask three peers for help before coming to you.

Tip #4: Centers Can Last Multiple Days—Not Every Student Needs to Visit Each One

You can have center work last for multiple days so that students only complete one or two centers each class period. Don’t have time for multi-day centers? Strategically assign students to specific centers to address their unique learning needs.

Early Elementary Idea: Post a visual like a slide or anchor chart that shows what centers students will visit in their rotation so they are clear about which activities they will engage with that day.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: To promote increased ownership over students’ learning, preview the goal of each center, and allow students to select which center they feel they need.

Tip #5: Use Formative Assessments to Hold Students Accountable

Formative assessments let your students know their work in centers is important to their learning and let you monitor their progress.

Early Elementary Idea: Get quick insight into student understanding by having students complete a brief Exit Ticket after centers.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: Have students self-reflect on their learning and productivity in centers.

Tip #6: Make Manipulatives Prominent and Encourage Their Use

Make sure applicable manipulatives are displayed throughout center work and ensure students know they can access and use them at any time.

Early Elementary Idea: For high-use manipulatives, consider making students an activity kit that they can bring with them to center work.

Upper Elementary and Middle School Idea: For more complex mathematical topics, consider allowing students to use digital manipulatives on devices during center work.

These tips provide both guidance and choice for getting started with centers. But when it comes to implementing centers in your classroom, remember that you know your students best! Use centers in a way that is effective for you, your students, and your classroom.

Want to hear more from Amy? Tune into the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast. Find out more about incorporating centers.