Habits of Mind

posted by Stephanie Forsman

Setting up a nurturing mathematical environment & community is an essential beginning to any school year.  When  getting to know my students, I like to dig deeper and find out what kind of learners they are, where their strengths lie, and what areas they intend to work on during the upcoming year.

Teaching 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th grade for the past 20 years, I have seen so many students arrive on the first day of school declaring themselves “Bad at Math.”  When I push them to expand upon that statement, I typically receive, “I just don’t like it” or “I like reading instead” They have already, at the age of 7 or 8 years old, started to shut down in math. For years, I took the approach of cheerleading them through their difficulties, offering extra support, and diversifying the curriculum with “fun” activities such as puzzles, activities that involved food, and various games instead of focusing on giving these children the emotional tools they needed to work through difficult problems.  A couple of years ago, my school hired a math consultant and she introduced us to Habits of Mind and it changed not only my approach to math and all other aspects of my grade curriculum and teaching.

Habits of MindHabits of Mind are essentially 16 characteristics of what students do when they come across a problem where the answer isn’t immediately obvious. So much of our math curriculums have been about focusing on getting the correct answer. Habits of Mind has us also looking at what the children do when they don’t know the answer. “We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it. We want students to learn how to develop a critical stance with their work: inquiring, editing, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person’s perspective. The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information but also knowing how to act on it.” Arthur L. Costa, Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (An amazing book! I highly recommend it!)


I put these Habits of Mind up on the wall of my classroom and keep them there all year long as a reference. I break them up into 3 categories: the actual Habit of Mind, the short and memorable definition, and what it looks like in the classroom. For example, my favorite Habit of Mind is “Flexibility” The short and sweet definition of “Flexibility” is:  Look at it another way.  The way it looks in the classroom is to change your perspectives, think of other ways to solve the problem, listen to other classmates’ options and strategies.


This is a wonderful Habit of Mind for a student who consistently uses the same strategy to solve a problem despite the results. Last year, I had a student who was very determined to always use the subtraction algorithm despite the fact that he wasn’t always correct and that he wasn’t relying on his number sense to solve problems like 100 – 25.  He resisted adapting strategies such as an open-number line or extended notation. After many frustrating and tear inducing experiences with the algorithm, his classmates encouraged him try out the other learned strategies. Coming from his peers and not mandated from his teacher was a key element in his willingness to try another approach. After playing with several strategies during our subtraction unit, he declared that he was much more successful counting up on an open-number line than he had been using the algorithm which then led to a very rich discussion about what strategy to use when and how important it is to have an arsenal of strategies at our disposal. Developing critical thinkers and empowering the children with the tools they need to become successful problem solvers has helped turn those “I don’t like math” children into successful mathematicians. From that moment on, this student’s Habit of Mind was that he needed to work  “flexibility” and when he became stubborn or adamant during a difficult math session, we, our classroom community, only needed to remind him of being flexible and he was able to switch gears and do just that.


One of the beauties of Habits of Mind is that everyone has something they need to work on. That same year, I had what we call a “high-flyer” She was mathematically savvy, great with rote memorization and up until 3rd grade, had gotten away with relying on her mental math abilities to solve problems correctly. She didn’t like to show her work and while the majority of the time, she solved the problem correctly, she wasn’t able to recognize where she went astray if she happened to solve the problem incorrectly. As the problems started to become multi-step and it all became too much to hold in her head, she began to stumble. “Striving for Accuracy and Precision” became her Habit of Mind to work on.  Check it again!  Show your work!  A desire for exactness, using your Math Journal to show your work and be neat & organized in your mathematical thinking is what it looks like in the classroom.


You can easily find Habits of Mind on the Internet along with so many wonderful and creative ways in which teachers implement them.  We were so dedicated to our Habits of Mind last year that our end-of-the year, written by the students play was based on solving a very tough math problem and using our Habits of Mind to do so. We had children act out each Habit of Mind. There was also a great and almighty HOM (acronym for Habits of Mind) who kept the children focused while solving the problem and a teacher who presented the problem and threw additional obstacles in their way such as time constraints, taking away manipulatives, and adding extensions to the problem along the way. It was adorable!



Cooking with Preschoolers

posted by Alison Balis Hirsch

Cooking with kids offers a wonderful array of learning opportunities for young children. It provides practice in language arts (vocabulary and “reading” a recipe), science (chemistry and exploring the senses), and developing social skills (cooperation and turn-taking). The kitchen also provides a range of math practice such as counting, measuring, and understanding order.

IMG_5879In my son’s pre-k class, the teachers and children cooked together almost weekly; the recipes coincided with their Letter Of The Week. So for B week they made banana bread and for O week they made omelets. The recipes were simple enough for the teachers and children (ages 4 to 5-years-old) to manage, each having a minimum number of ingredients. My son LOVED the rice pudding so much that I asked his teacher for the recipe. When I saw how simple it was, I suggested we collect ALL of her recipes and create a cookbook to share with other parents, whom I imagined were equally excited to cook with their kids at home. After all, these were recipes already vetted by our experienced and talented teacher.


As a teacher in the classroom, we sought out parent/caregiver volunteers to assist with cooking projects. Having the child’s special grown-up allowed those participants to engage in the school life of their child, providing them with an opportunity to better know the other children and teachers and also observe their own child in the context of the classroom. It also allowed us to maintain good adult/child ratios while working with small groups of children (typically 4 – 5), in the kitchen. The children who cooked or prepared snack (sometimes it was simply designing bagel faces with cut fruit, vegetables and sprouts) usually delighted in their food and seemed proud to share their creations with their classmates. The learning continued through the service portion of the meal, since the child chefs, with the help of the grown-ups, needed to figure out how to divide what they made into equal portions for their friends. Something like bagel faces required counting and one-to-one correspondence; baking a quiche required cutting it into enough equal-sized pieces to serve everyone.

For recipes that were made frequently, we made recipe booklets that were much more readable for children. Play dough was something we made with children on a weekly basis and for that we created cards, bound by binder rings that had visual instructions and described quantities with pictures.january photos 070

Cooking presents children with plenty of opportunities to learn and is also a great way to teach principles of good nutrition and encourage an adventurous palate: in my experience kids are much more likely to try foods they’ve grown or prepared themselves.


Classroom Jobs: The Snack Helper

posted by Alison Hirsch Balis

There are many reasons to provide “jobs” for children in the preschool setting. A job shows the importance of the child’s contribution to the group and his/her affect on the social fabric that is the class community; it provides practice in children’s developing social skills, such as speaking in front of the group to give a weather report or choosing a song to sing together with the whole class; it allows each child to have a turn in a “leadership” role by being in charge of a task; and then a particular job can present a pre-academic lesson in manner which is meaningful to the children in the group.

Setting the table for snack is one example of using math in a relevant way while practicing one-to-one correspondence, a foundational math skill needed in counting. In his/her role, the Snack Helper assists the teacher to prepare the tables for group snack. This responsibility ensures that each table has the appropriate number of snacks and also that each place where a child will sit has a snack… because it doesn’t really help to have all 18 snacks placed on one table when the 18 kids sit at 4 separate tables.

My school was a 5-day program and our class had the same 18 children each day, minus any absences. Because we occasionally had fewer than 18 children, and also because there may not have been a child to match every chair at each table (we had two tables that sat 6 kids and two tables that sat 4 kids, for a total of 20 seats), we designed four individual number cards showing the numeral, the number word and the number quantity (for practice subitizing) of either 4, 5 or 6 (four, five or six) – the possible number of kids at a table depending on attendance that day. Just as a reminder, the definition of subitize is to perceive the number of (a group of items) at a glance and without counting. It’s more or less the math equivalent of sight words.


The teachers placed the laminated number cards on each of the four tables, indicating to the Snack Helpers (there were two) how many snacks to set out. The Snack Helpers needed to “read” the cards and set the corresponding number of snack bowls and drinking cups for their classmates. It was not at all uncommon to see the two children working together to correctly set out snack for their friends. So in addition, we were supporting and encouraging collaboration and vocabulary while providing a great benefit to the teachers – help setting the table!

As an aside, we began the school year pouring milk or water FOR the kids, but after a couple of months, we provided small pitchers so that once seated, the children could practice this skill on their own. A pitcher like this one (almost 17 ounces /.5 liter) works really well for children since the lid helps minimize over-pouring.

water jug

Order in the Classroom

by Alison Balis Hirsch




  1. the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method
  2. an authoritative command, direction or instruction


  1. to put into a methodical, systematic arrangement
  2. to bring about order

One of the first learning experiences I recall as a student teacher in a Boston Public School pre-k was on the subject of classroom design and organization. Our room was especially small and we shared it with 16 three and four-year olds. “Order” was not only a math concept we wanted to explore with the children, but also a necessity in terms of keeping the materials organized for both children and teachers working together in that space on a daily basis.

The head teacher had begun the school year by sorting, according to habitat, all of the plastic animals used for imaginative play: oceans, jungle, forest, etc. Taped to the open bin in which they were stored (on shelves at the child’s height) was a photo of a few of those animals together with the written word of its habitat. Categorizing helped the children identify where both to find the items s/he was seeking and also return the items at clean-up. This is a system I have used not only in my classrooms, but also to an extent in my home. Using uniform, clear boxes with lids (so they can be stacked if needed) for the storage of ALL playthings and classroom supplies is ideal. This way, everyone can see what is inside. On the container you can adhere the laminated photograph. Alternatively, I’ve used wide packing tape over the entire width and length of the photo, which works beautifully.

BlocksThe blocks area was another place in need of an organization system so the many various shapes (½ unit, unit, double unit, quad unit, pillar, ½ circle, ¼ circle, pillar, roman arch, triangle, arch, circle curve, crossing, y-switch, elliptical curve) could be quickly found and put away with relative ease. We cut out from colored contact paper a template of each shape and adhered them on the area of the shelves where children would stack the matching blocks.

Having a system in place for children’s personal belongings also helps everyone keep track of items. Individual and personalized hooks and/or cubbies where children hang their backpacks and jackets on a daily basis is preferred so that children can come to expect where to find their items from home. We alphabetized the names along the row of hooks, and below each name was a different color swatch. The color swatch (used from hardware store paint swatches) helped children who were not yet identifying their names, or first letter of their name, to recognize their hook.

Sorting classroom items by attribute (markers/pencils/crayons; red/orange/yellow; cars/trains/trucks) is an early math concept which is relevant to a child’s world. Identifying and naming shapes increases match vocabulary. To take it a little further, managing to identify attributes of objects, and then placing them where they belong, empowers kids to help maintain and respect their environment, keeps items organized for the community and is visually calming.


The Importance of Daily Routines

Following a daily routine at school provides stability for children, allowing them to feel more secure in the classroom setting. The schedule should not be rigid; in fact, the ideal schedule is flexible and adapts to both the needs and interests of the kids, allowing for spontaneity within the structure of the school day. A regular and predictable routine helps children understand what’s coming next, what they’ll be expected to do during each part of their day and encourages autonomy, independence and confidence. Mostly, it helps children feel relaxed and free to explore the room, activities and relationships. I have also found that this structure works well for all types of teachers. It provides a framework for necessary curricular planning and allows for creative responses to “what-if” scenarios.

Generally speaking, the daily schedule should have large chunks of time dedicated to broad activities. It is far more important to have an hour scheduled for “free play” and the next hour scheduled for “outdoor time” than to include a ten-minute chunk for “transition” or “bathroom break.” The broad categories ensure fluidity and allow the teachers to meet the needs of the group flexibly on each day.

Mathematically, sticking to a daily routine allows children experience sequencing first-hand and will help when it comes time for more sophisticated math operations such as adding and subtracting two digit numbers and understanding the order of operations, the rules that define which procedures to perform first in a math equation (surely we all remember: PEDMA or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally/parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). The order of routine in the classroom becomes meaningful to children when they realize, for example, that they can’t sit down to eat snack at the table unless they’ve first cleaned the table of playthings (“cleanup time”). This is also true when they are working on getting dressed to go outside. First the children put on their coats and then they put on their mittens. The natural consequence of putting on mittens before coats is that for most, it simply isn’t possible to zip the zipper or close the buttons with mittens on. Encouraging “order of operations” within the classroom structures and activities by allowing the children to see, feel, and experience the natural outcomes of the sequencing hammers the concepts home in real and meaningful ways.

When creating a schedule, don’t forget to allow ample time for transitions which can be stressful to both children and adults); be sure to incorporate a realistic time for clean up, hand-washing, and dressing (for going outdoors), in addition to snack set-up and preparing to go home. Transitions are learning opportunities in their own right! However, best practice asks that we minimize transitions as much as possible to lessen the anxiety associated with them and to increase the time children spend at play.

I have seen a preschool class transition from free play to cleanup time, only to sit at the rug and wait for the whole group to transition to the washroom for hand washing. Once arriving at the washroom, all of the children had to sit against the wall and wait to have their turn washing their hands. Once they were done, they lined up and waited for all of the children to finish. They then went back to the classroom and sat at the tables while they waited for the snack to arrive. Each part of this scenario is another transition and there are far too many. How would you reduce the above-described transitions down to 2?

I have found that teachers who voice the daily routines as a part of their practice encourage this type of thinking in the children. It is OK and actually recommended that you say things like, “First we have snack and then we go outside.” Or, “After you wake up, your dad is coming to get you.” Even though you might think you say these things every day – all day long – young children do not have enough experience in their short lives to know for sure how the schedule works. They need reassurance about their upcoming activities and the way their day will unfold. You can provide that by giving voice to the daily routines in your classroom.

posted by Alison Balis Hirsch