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!



Stephanie Forsman

Stephanie Forsman—who wrote many of the math lessons on our Math at Home website—has been teaching in the New York City independent school system for more than 15 years. She is currently a fourth-grade teacher at The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, where she previously taught at the second- and third-grade levels. She has served as a facilitator for Mathematics in the City, a research and professional development center with a mission to "transform classrooms into communities of mathematicians, where children explore interesting problems and, like mathematicians, engage in crafting solutions, justifications and proofs." She has presented workshops on Math Puzzles & Logic Games, Technology and Math and Napier’s Bones at national conferences and served as the math subcommittee chair for the accreditation group conducting the New York State Association of Independent Schools’ 10-year school accreditation reviews in 2013. Stephanie earned her B.A. in art history and fine art at Trinity College in Washington, DC, and her M.Ed. in elementary education and museum education at Bank Street College in New York City. She also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa.

Read more posts by Stephanie Forsman

2 Replies to “Habits of Mind”

  1. This is a great way to encourage and support children of all ages in their problem-solving! I can even use some of this to when one of my preschoolers wants to give up on a pint-sized problem like fitting blocks back into the container or finishing a puzzle, or getting on a sweater.

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