top of page
  • Writer's pictureCarrie S. Cutler

Healthy Routines for Small-Group Mathematics Instruction in Preschool and Elementary

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

Many of us are grappling with how to continue using small group instruction in mathematics amidst health and safety concerns related to transmission of COVID-19. I hope you are not discounting small-group instruction but instead looking for ways to make it work for you and your students. When you sit across from just a few students, you can see them do math, ask rich questions, get to know them better, identify their strengths and support their areas of growth. Your students want to be close to you, and while we can't be as close as we once were, we can still work in small groups if we plan healthy routines.

In this blog post, I offer a few simple tips that might be helpful for starting a conversation about health and safety routines. These tips are not meant to be all-inclusive or take the place of guidelines from your school, district, education agency, the CDC, the WHO, or Dr. Seuss--the best doctor ever! But I hope they will help you see ways to keep mathematics learning hands-on and engaging in a small-group setting.

1. Cleanliness Routines for the Small-Group Meeting Area

a. Children and teachers should wash hands for at least 20 seconds or sanitize hands prior to visiting the small group instruction area.

b. Teachers should wear a mask, if required by the school. Consider a mask that has a clear mouth area to assist students in reading lips, learning correct letter sound articulation, and seeing your lovely smile. (Note: If you cannot wear a clear mask, consider making a button with a photograph of you smiling and pinning that to your shirt. While you may be smiling with your eyes, kids aren't great at recognizing this. They need to see your happy face!)

c. Keep tissues, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and soap/water easily accessible to students. They shouldn't have to ask for these items!

d. The teacher should wash/sanitize hands between groups and wipe down the table and chairs with sanitizing wipes, especially under the lip of the chair back where hands grab the chair before sitting down.

2. Clean and Sanitize Small Group Meeting Table

a. Mix ¾ cup Clorox bleach in 1 gallon of water. Apply to surface with a sponge or by lightly spraying. Wait 5 minutes. Rinse and air dry.

b. While the bleach is working its scientific magic and the table is drying, the teacher may use this time to walk around the classroom and monitor how students are doing in math centers.

3. Seating Arrangement

a. Limit the number of children in the small group instruction area.

b. Seat children as far apart as possible.

c. Offer flexible seating and standing options. We don't necessarily have to sit to learn, right? And that's one less thing you have to clean.

d. Vary the students you work with in small groups. Do not always work with the same groupings of children (avoid ability groups in math). The small group setting should be used for more than re-teaching. This is a great opportunity to extend a previous lesson, conduct performance-based assessments, give students a forum to report on extended math projects, differentiate instruction, and monitor mathematical mindsets. Try to work with each child at least once every two weeks.

4. Managing Shared Materials

a. Keep clean manipulatives separate from used manipulatives in baskets labeled DIRTY and CLEAN.

b. When students finish using manipulatives, place them in a DIRTY basket so they (the manipulatives, not the kids😉 ) can be sanitized.

c. Wash and sanitize plastic manipulatives using a bleach solution after each use. Clorox website recommends: Wipe manipulatives with a wet sponge and set them aside for washing. Mix 1/3 cup of Clorox® Disinfecting Bleach with CLOROMAX® with 1 gallon of water. Soak manipulatives in the solution for 6 minutes for sanitizing. Rinse thoroughly. Let air dry.

5. Create Personal Manipulative Kits

a. Some manipulatives can be printed out to create kits for individual students. Some examples include dice, number (flash) cards, ten frames, fraction bars, and dominoes. (Here are a few printable ten frames that I love! And here are ideas for more manipulative-rich tasks for elementary and early childhood.

b. Other manipulatives are inexpensive to purchase and can be added to the students’ personal kids. These might include 2-color counters, linking cubes, geobands, and tangrams.

c. Supplement students’ individual kits with classroom manipulatives that are sanitized after each use.

6. Be flexible.

a. If the routines you establish initially aren't working out, change them up!

b. Reassess to ensure your practices are aligned with recommendations from your school and district.

c. Consider ways students can be responsible for some of the health and safety routines. This may be an opportunity for them to learn self-help skills.

Don't give up on small groups in math!

They are a fantastic way to:

  • Individualize and differentiate instruction

  • Support developmentally appropriate practices like hands-on learning

  • Monitor students' progress and mathematical mindsets

  • Get to know students’ strengths and weaknesses

  • Improve class morale

  • Facilitate mathematical discourse and vocabulary development

  • Have fun in math

Let me know what you think of these ideas and add your own suggestions in the comment section. I'd love to hear how you are summoning all of your problem solving powers to maintain best practices in mathematics despite difficult situations.

If you like these ideas, hit subscribe. And find many more tips in my book Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind without Losing Yours.

Stay safe and healthy and don't give up on small groups. Kids need your best teaching efforts now more than ever. You got this!

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page