Building a Supportive Math Community: Fostering Collaboration and Empathy

Let’s face it, math can be difficult and discouraging for some students. The misconception of a ‘math gene’ can further impede their confidence. In reality, all students are capable of mathematical success. Math is a skill that can be developed with practice and the right approach. With a supportive math community that fosters collaboration and empathy, we can help all students develop a love of learning and build a strong foundation in math.

So how do you build a community like this within your classroom? Through careful planning, you can create a safe and inclusive environment, foster collaboration through a variety of activities, and promote empathy in your students. 


Build a Supportive Math Community with Safety and Inclusion


  • Make sure that every member of your math classroom community feels valued and respected. Watch carefully for signs of disrespectful behavior or language, bullying, or students being excluded. 
  • Encourage all students to participate, actively listen, ask questions, encourage one another, and give and receive constructive feedback. 
  • Display posters with visuals and statements that encourage respect, community, and a feeling of personal value. 
  • Consider whether your own methods are promoting a safe and inclusive environment. When a student answers incorrectly, instead of simply saying “no” or moving on, encourage them to explain their thinking with prompts like “how do you know?” or “how did you solve that?” These “prove it” questions should be used for all student responses, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong. This approach not only fosters a growth mindset but also allows students to identify areas where they might be stuck and learn from each other’s approaches. 
    • Remember, your non-verbal cues are important too! Show encouragement and support through body language to create a safe space for exploration and learning from mistakes. 




Foster Collaboration to Enhance Community


Collaboration can help students learn from one another, build problem-solving skills, and develop a sense of community. It can also promote good social skills, oral language development, and help students make connections between concrete and abstract concepts through peer discussion. A recent study has shown how collaboration can benefit students’ mental health and positively impact their overall well-being. In turn, this benefits their learning as well. Collaborative learning activities are educational exercises or tasks that encourage students to work together in groups or pairs to achieve a common goal or complete a task. These activities require students to communicate effectively, share ideas, and contribute their individual skills and knowledge to the group. Collaborative learning activities can help improve critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills, as well as promote teamwork and cooperation among students. 


During each lesson, students first need good knowledge of mathematics and appropriate collaborative skills. Then students can begin to participate in collaborative learning activities. Be mindful of which students are grouped together. Some students will take charge and do all the work; some will willingly let others do the work so they do not have to put forth effort; and others will allow a peer to do the work because they do not understand how to do it on their own. It is important to emphasize that everyone is expected to participate and monitor the groups to ensure they are collaborating well together as a team, observing both their discussion and behaviors. 


According to a recent article, renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock believes that teaching children teamwork early on can help them cultivate empathy, respect, and strong communication skills. This not only promotes a feeling of inclusion and belonging but also decreases bullying and exclusion. The famous obstetrician Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona also suggests that learning teamwork in childhood can better equip children to handle difficulties and setbacks, as they will have a group of peers to provide support.




Here are some teamwork strategies to use while building a supportive math community: 


  • Arrange the classroom for small-group interactions. It is especially helpful if students can sit close to or face each other to communicate better and stay more engaged. 
  • Model teamwork: Demonstrate teamwork and cooperation yourself as a teacher. Show students how to work together, problem-solve, and support each other in math activities.
  • Assign specific roles to students (i.e., materials person, spokesperson, writer, and timekeeper). This will help ensure that each member contributes to the group’s success.
  • Provide a limited supply of materials. This necessitates the sharing of materials.
  • Have students self-assess their own participation through a brief questionnaire. 
  • Give a group grade for the task, basing it on a combination of completion, correct answers, and collaborative skills. 
  • Encourage collaborative skills such as: 
    • Active listening
    • Sharing
    • Taking turns
    • Asking questions
    • Compromising 
    • Contributing ideas
  • Encourage open communication and active listening among group members. This will help ensure that all ideas are heard and considered during the problem-solving process.
  • Prompt students to explain their reasoning and justify their solutions to their group members. This will help deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts and strengthen their problem-solving skills.
  • Encourage students to work together to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable parts. This will help promote collaboration and teamwork within the group.
  • Provide scaffolding and support as needed to help students navigate challenging math problems. This may include providing visual aids and manipulatives or asking guiding questions to help students stay on track.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and seek clarification from their group members when they are uncertain about a particular concept or strategy. This will help foster a supportive and collaborative learning environment.
  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their group work experience and discuss what worked well and what could be improved for future collaborative math activities. This will help students develop metacognitive skills and become more effective problem-solvers.
  • Praise and acknowledge the contributions of each group member, regardless of their level of mathematical proficiency. Focus on how well they collaborated and supported their peers. This will help build a positive and inclusive learning environment where all students feel valued and supported.


Try these collaborative activity ideas: 


  • Peer teaching: Encourage students to take turns teaching and explaining concepts to their peers. This can help build teamwork and support each other’s learning.
  • Problem-solving challenges: Present students with real-life math problems that require teamwork to solve. Encourage students to work together to brainstorm solutions and come up with a plan of action.
  • Cooperative learning games: Incorporate fun and interactive math games that require teamwork to win. This can make math more engaging and help students learn to work together towards a common goal.



Promote Empathy for a Supportive Math Community

Webster’s Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” An action implies a choice, and that choice is to put yourself in someone else’s place for a moment.

  • Encourage students to be empathetic towards their peers and support one another in their math learning journey. 
  • Teach students to celebrate each other’s successes and offer help and encouragement during difficult times.
  • Model empathy: Children learn best through example, so show empathy in your own actions and reactions.
  • Teach perspective-taking: Encourage children to consider other people’s feelings and experiences by asking questions like, “How do you think they feel?” or “What do you think they might be thinking?”
  • Use storytelling: Read books or share stories that showcase characters who show empathy and demonstrate the positive impact it can have.
  • Practice active listening: Teach children to really listen to others and respond with understanding and compassion.
  • Encourage kindness: Incorporate acts of kindness into the classroom and praise children when they show empathy towards others.
  • Teach conflict resolution skills: Help children learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully and understand the importance of seeing things from another person’s perspective.
  • Have open discussions: Encourage conversations about empathy, feelings, and the importance of understanding and respecting others.

Keep in mind that changing mindsets and learned behaviors can take time. Be patient with your students. Try various methods to find what works best for this particular class of students. Seek advice from other teachers and resources. Remember that the collaborative and empathetic skills you are helping to build in your students are life skills that will benefit them long after they leave your classroom! 

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