Creating a Sense of Belonging in Math Routines

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Meet Ty Johnson, a coach with Partners in School in Pennsylvania, whose primary focus is supporting teachers and leaders across five schools.


Opening Routines as a Strategy

One of the goals of our coaching program is to support equity and culturally responsive practices for students who have historically been excluded.  We identified “Opening Routines” as a practice that promotes critical thinking and makes math content accessible to all students. 

Opening Math Routines is an opportunity to provide access to the day’s content and encourage students to talk by creating a Sense of Belonging. The goal is to boost engagement and create an environment where students can take risks.

In order to support my coaching work around this practice, I created a workspace on Opening Routines using the Learner Variability Navigator (LVN). This workspace highlights research-based strategies that can support the facilitation of opening routines and also allows me to identify factors that are important to consider when addressing learner variability within this practice. One factor that has really influenced my coaching work is Sense of Belonging. This factor gave me a new lens as a coach to consider how this might show up for different students in different classrooms.  

Teacher and Student Move Workspace list

In the Classroom

One teacher I worked with is in their first-year of teaching at a K-8 Title I public school with 200 neighborhood students. The student population is predominantly African American with 25 percent receiving special education services.

After observing this teacher’s class, I noticed not all students were engaged in discussion during opening routines. Specifically there were six students with learning disabilities and most of the English Language Learners who were not participating in the opening math routines discussion and activity. I immediately considered the Sense of Belonging factor.

I wondered how comfortable and welcomed these students felt and what we might be able to do to make them feel like they had the access and supports to participate.

I also considered Stereotype Threat.  As 8th graders, these students are very aware of how their peers perceive them and are often afraid of making mistakes in front of a large group. 

With this in mind, I chose to support the teacher to focus on a strategy like think-pair-share.  I felt this strategy would allow the students time to process what is being asked in a lower stakes environment with just one peer versus the whole class. The teacher was already implementing surface level “turn and talks”, but by helping her understand the importance of belonging, providing “think time” for students and carefully partnering students with a peer, she was able to implement the strategy more effectively.

I considered a few other factors when planning instruction for these students. Working memory was something noted in many of the students’ IEP goals and can also be a challenge for multilingual students who are trans-languaging and learning new vocabulary.  Another strategy we implemented to support the conversation was ensuring there were visuals or “anchor charts” with key vocabulary, formulas and concepts. I also worked with the teacher to prompt the students to use these charts during their think-pair-share.  

During a subsequent observation, I could see students referencing the anchor chart as they began to engage more during the think-pair-share or subsequent whole group discussion. We also shared that the purpose of the think-pair-share was to give everyone time to think and share their ideas before presenting their ideas with the whole class. 

Being transparent about “the why” behind this was helpful not only with the teacher, but also her students.



What We Learned

Fostering a sense of belonging in classrooms has deepened my understanding of what it means to put students at the center of this work.  I have shared my learning with colleagues through this one pager on belonging.

I also find that being able to see the connections between factors and strategies on the Learner Variability Navigator has helped me articulate “the why” behind what strategies I suggest. This, in turn, builds more buy-in with the teachers and leaders that I coach and also their students. 


Opening Routines are short, quick opportunities that support productive mathematical thinking and encourage student discourse. These routines develop number sense, give all students opportunities to think creatively, build a community of mathematical thinkers, activate prior knowledge of skills and content, and provide access to all students.
A free online tool that translates the science of learner variability into factors and strategies to improve educational product design and classroom practice.
In our society, there are many stereotypes that exist about the academic abilities of learners based on characteristics such as their race, gender, disability, and socioeconomic status. Stereotype Threat suggests that people may underperform in many academic areas, including math, when faced with this prospect of being judged.
Students deepen their math understanding as they use and hear others use specific math language in informal ways. When learners think about a problem or worked example then discuss their thoughts with a partner before sharing with the larger group, everyone participates and practices their skills
Visual representations help students understand what a number represents as well as recognize relationships between numbers. Using visuals, such as pictures, diagrams, and charts, allows for additional Speed of Processing time and enhances students' understanding of mathematical concepts such as fractions, ratios, and geometric shapes.
The Sense of Belonging series focuses on learner variability research and culturally responsive teaching practices. This resources provides a one page overview with examples for the process, resources, and next steps, involved in implementing this strategy.

About The Author


Ty Johnson

My background as a special educator and administrator has helped me develop a deep understanding for students with learning disabilities. Previously I have taught students with learning disabilities in ELA and math in 3-12. I have also been an autistic support teacher for third-grade boys and an Assistant Principal of specialized services at a junior high school. These experiences have helped me in my current role as a network coach for Partners In School Innovation. In this role, I support teachers and leaders across five schools. 


Partners in School Innovation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to transform teaching and learning in the lowest-performing American public schools so that every student, regardless of background, thrives. They support educators to work in networks within and across schools that accelerate adult learning and build mutually supportive and resilient communities of practice.

School Background

School Background Description