Becoming a Math-Minded Teacher


Quality is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Many early childhood educators experience what has been termed “math anxiety’.   Some of us grew up in a time when it was ok for girls not to like math. We were just not supposed to be good at math or science. Thus, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. For others, math instruction was so poor that we either lost interest or just gave up. The abstract way math concepts were presented did not seem relevant to our lives. Early childhood educators may also lack professional development training on how to incorporate early math in their programs. Because of these reasons, we may not feel confident in our ability to facilitate math learning. Instead, we focus on areas where we feel more comfortable and competent, such as early literacy. After all, we are creatures of habit. Nevertheless, habits can be changed especially if we know that a good foundation in math benefits children and contributes to their future academic success. We can help build children’s awareness of early math skills by engaging them in hands-on math experiences throughout the day in play activities, routines, outdoor play and group times.

The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (third edition) recognizes the importance of providing children with many and varied math experiences throughout the day and addresses this in Item 24 – Math in Daily Events. If teachers unintentionally avoid math because of bad math experiences or lack of knowledge, it becomes even more important that they start to become intentional about ways they can provide math experiences throughout the day. One way for teachers to start is to reflect on how they use math in their everyday lives and what this might look like for the children they serve.  Here are just a few ideas………………………

How I use math everyday: Teachers have to stick to a schedule and frequently look at the clock so they know when it will be time to transition to a new activity, such as in five minutes they know it will be time to clean-up.

Opportunities for math learning: Although young children cannot tell time, it does give them a sense of the passage of time when teachers give them a five-minute warning before clean-up time. They know they have to start finishing what they are doing because they do not have much longer to play.

Children love doing countdown activities. When teachers have children freeze and countdown to five using their fingers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, clean-up! , it offers children a great way to practice counting. Fingers are readily available and are a great visual and tactile aid as children practice counting.

Using a picture schedule and referring to it frequently throughout the day helps children gain an understanding of ordinal numbers and the sequence of events. As they talk about what comes first, next, children are developing logical concepts which helps them develop reasoning skills. If used frequently they will learn to understand the pattern that occurs. For example, we always have snack after outdoor play.

How I use math:  Teachers count children as they take attendance each day.

 Opportunities for math learning :  When children put their names in a pocket chart when they arrive for the day, they are also taking part in attendance. This helps them get to know the names of their friends, but is also a valuable way for them to count and compare quantities. Many opportunities for math learning occur as children compare the number of girls vs boys present, learn about more or less as they compare those present vs those absent, count on to find out how many children would be in class if everyone was present. Counting, comparing quantities and counting on all provide children with a good foundation for addition.

How I use math: Many teachers use measurement as they follow a sequence in completing the steps in a recipe.

Opportunities for math learning:  Including children in these types of activities helps them to follow steps in a picture recipe. They learn to identify written numbers for steps 1, 2 etc. They will learn about measuring and measurement words as they measure two cups of flower and one cup of salt, for example.

How I use math: Teachers often make center signs to indicate the number of children who can play in a center (ex, number 4 with four stick figures or Velcro dots for names) as a management tool during center time.

 Opportunities for math learning for children: Helping children learn to use the center sign not only helps them develop decision-making skills, but also offers them the opportunity to learn important number concepts, such as counting, determining how many in all, how many more, and identifying written numbers.

How I use math:  Teachers read a variety of books, including books with math concepts, to children throughout the day in small groups, with individual children and in large groups.

Opportunities for math learning: Reading and discussing math-related books is certainly one way to help children identify and practice math skills, but math language can be introduced and discussed in almost any book.

For more information:
Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (third edition)



Kris Corrigan is an Environment Rating Scale Assessor with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She has been in her current position for three years. She enjoys meeting and working with providers who are committed to providing quality environments for the children in their care. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family including her four cats.

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