Positive Motivation and Building Relationships- Social Emotional Learning in the Mathematics Classroom: Part Two

After posting the last blog post: Emotions, Stress, and Coping- Social Emotional Learning in the Mathematics Classroom: Part One, I received a lot of positive and supportive feedback around the need for this sort of lens in today’s classrooms to support today’s learners, and our leaders of tomorrow. A lot of the comments revolved around the importance of these six categories being present, modeled, and assessed in every subject, and not solely just in mathematics. One hopes that eventually these concepts of focusing upon emotions, feelings, and triggers to why students want to learn, how they learn, and their feelings around learning will, yes, end up in more curriculum documents. Until those days arrive, I think those who have read, commented, and reached out to me on the last post, see the value in making this true in their own subject strands and learning environments.

So for a quick recap. This post will unpack the next two categories that have been set out in the new SEL (Social Emotional Learning) has been adapted into the new (2020) Ontario Math Curriculum for 1-8.

The entire six skill categories within the SEL Mathematics strand are:

  • Identify and Manage Emotions
  • Recognize sources of stress and cope with challenges
  • Maintain positive motivation and perseverance
  • Build Relationships and communicate effectively
  • Develop Self-Awareness and Sense of Identity
  • Think critically and creativity

Last post, I went into great introductory detail of the new strand as a whole, and focused on Identifying and Managing Emotions, and Recognizing sources of stress and how to cope with challenges.

Now on to; Maintaining positive motivation and perseverance and Building relationships and communicating effectively.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education

Mark Twain

…teaching strategies designed to increase student motivation also improve learning outcomes, especially in mathematics.

Bobis et al., 2021

Maintain positive motivation and perseverance

Within Dr. Irvine’s article on the new strands of SEL in Mathematics, he breaks up the philosophy behind positive motivation and perseverance into four main theories (as per Bobis et al. 2021); expectancy-value, grit, mindset, and goal theory. Without going into too much detail, here is a brief overview of the four theories.

Expectancy Value:

Students will put in more effort and keep working with sustained effort under two conditions: beliefs that the students hold about their probability of success, and the value that the students place on the task itself.(Eccles, 2005)

You may be thinking of a student who has been disengaged or uninterested in a task? Perhaps this student already has a belief that they can’t, or they will fail. The lack or absence of self-confidence can seriously alter the why and the how students learn. If I’ve failed before, why would I keep putting in effort to fail again. Consequently, knowing when their learning (the purpose) will hold value to them in their own life. This year, I brought in more thorough financial literacy units than in years’ past with my middle school students. Huge difference in the enthusiasm and interest in their reactions. Already I notice students that may not have been as attentive before, more focused and on task, asking more questions, and keeping math conversations going.These are skills that they see so often and interact with so frequently in their everyday lives. Students don’t see the importance of y=mx+b often, and algebra is often taught in such an isolated manner that if you bring in a concept they can relate to, it becomes more valuable to them to take an interest. So important when planning and making connections to subject curriculum and matter to make that very important bridge to real life-situations.


Mathematics is the study of errors and problem solving. Students naturally want to do well, and when “correct answers” come with many previous mistakes to achieve success; students just want it done and gone. When this happens, teachers begin to teach more of an algorithmic approach for many reasons. The class isn’t getting it fast enough. I have to move on to the next strand. They will go over it again next year. However that only fosters the problem of establishing grit. Providing too much scaffolding. Too many “follow these steps exactly”. This takes out the essence of finding perfection within the imperfection. This focus should be on the high value skill shelf of all teachers, all subjects, and all grades. Not just only does it establish and build coping skills when failures arise, and perseverance to keep trying, but it also promotes a more natural, healthy, and organic self-image of the students’ abilities, their self-assessment of themselves, and desire to take further risks to reach a goal.


Over the past few decades, Carol Dweck has made it one of her life’s goals to research, share out, and build healthy and growth mindsets in students, educators, and professionals alike. She speaks to the variances between a fixed mindset (no point in learning or putting in an effort if one believes he/she can’t or won’t succeed) to a growth mindset, (one who is not limited by their own assumptions, beliefs and intelligence, therefore making efforts and engagement in learning, (Dweck 1999).) Children often begin their learning at an early age with a growth mindset. Think learning to walk, stumbling along the way, making many mistakes but actively trying to get or achieve something intrinsically to them; taking that first step, eating with a utensil for the first time, and even reciting and learning rote numbers and the alphabet. So where does this stop along the way? That’s the bigger question, to which teachers, their mindsets, their modelling is highly valuable to keep students valuing their own mistakes to achieve a bigger goal. Problem solving is a skill that has no subject base, other than life itself. What to do when I don’t know what to do. We expect students in mathematics to be “problem solvers” and/but how? Putting in place opportunities for them to see, acknowledge, and feel pride in their efforts to accomplish a task should and must be modeled through action, so that students are learning through trying, and not learning through memorization or rote following. Math is all about making mistakes.

Goal Theory:

This is one that I’m learning and hearing more about myself, when researching the SEL components. The differences between mastery goals and performance goals. Basically, students wanting to learn information to become better at it compared to getting better at something to be better perceived and how they relate to their peers. Lots of times, students become quiet, shy, and draw back on vocalizing their mistakes, risk taking, and trials in mathematics for the sole reason of being afraid of not getting the “right answer.” But, couldn’t we reframe this language to “getting to the correct answer.” The way and method one achieves the answer IS the learning itself. Promoting an open, comfortable, and safe place for students to express mistake alone and alongside their peers should be highlighted in a positive and supportive atmosphere. We will always have students that have goal driven desires on both sides of this fence, and with teacher support, both sides can find and see value in how you get to a correct answer, is more important than the right answer itself.

So, I’m a teacher, what can I do to help? Great question! One way suggested by Dr. Irvine, is to adapt the MUSIC acronym. This helps teachers design lessons with the students’ view point in mind. eMpowerment (M) students are in control of their learning. Useful (U) Find ways to make connections to real work scenarios to have more engaged lessons. Successful (S) having students at various levels experience success at their levels to have them keep coming back for more. Interesting (I) Create lessons and connections that are of interest to the student body in which you have, Each year students’ in classes will change and so will their interests. And finally, Caring (C) Be open, available, and there for all your students needs. Reach out, look for, and check in on body language, verbal messages (I can’t) and even avoidance of particular work/areas. A teachers’ vulnerability in their teaching, can open up many hidden closed doors. Be open to your own mistakes, model them, and the students watch how you handle them.

Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care

Theodore Roosevelt

Build relationships and communicate effectively

The last section of this post is around building healthy relationships, and become better communicators. Something we want all students and adults to do. When it comes to mathematics, at one time, there was a math realm where math was mostly done independently. That left for little communication, collaboration, and invitation of feedback to come through peer interactions. It’s lovely to know that we don’t live in that world anymore, and more and more teachers are seeing the value in creating a community with math talk, gallery walks, and group activities that promote and support all kinds of mathematical thinking. Students can’t do this on their own, so teacher modeling and guidance is required. Providing students with roles within a group, fostering various methods, steps, and thinking brains, to become “critical friends” is important. Critical: being open to not just go along with another member of the group, question what’s been done, or the solution, and Friends: being kind, thoughtful, meaningful, and polite about delivery. Acceptance in learning mathematics in group dynamics can be highly valuable, to both the students motivation, desire, and emotions that relate around the relationships they have with their classmates, how they feel about their own math abilities, and how to express concerns and questions effectively.

To help support this in the classroom, there are many supportive ideas and suggestions I myself have used over the years. They include; 3-Part Lessons, Bansho activities, Think-Pair-Share, Gallery Walks, Math Escape Rooms, and using Thinking Classrooms (a concept by Peter Liljedahl that fosters standing vertical work in small groups/partners.) These conversations lead to the deeper dives of mathematics; justification, evaluation of the work, analysis, and creating own similar problems. I am always looking for new and creative ways to get kids comfortable to talk math together, so any other ideas-please send them my way!

As mentioned, this is the second post in a three part series. My next and final post in this series will focus upon the final two skill categories within the new Social Emotional Learning strand in the 2020 Ontario Math Curriculum: Developing a self-awareness of sense of identity, as well as Thinking critically and creatively. I will then also provide some feedback and open-ended bigger questions to anyone out there, about assessment, tracking, and using this strand to better students, teachers’ best practices, and positive math growth for all.

Learning isn’t something we impart on students. It’s something they do themselves.

Brandon Smith


Bobis, J., Anderson, J., Martin, A., & Way, J. (2011). A Model for mathematics instruction to enhance student motivation and engagement. In DJ Brahier & W.R. Speer (Eds.), Motivation and disposition: Pathways to learning mathematics. NCTM 73rd yearbook (pp. 31-42). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Dweck, C.S. (1999) Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.

Eccles, J.S. (2005) Subjective task value and the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. In A.J. Elliot & C.S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 105-121.) Guilford Press.

Irvine, J. (2020)The New Social Emotional Learning Strand in Elementary Mathematics: Part 1., Ontario Mathematics Gazette, December 2020 Ontario Association for Mathematics Education

Irvine, J. (2020)The New Social Emotional Learning Strand in Elementary Mathematics: Part 2., Ontario Mathematics Gazette, December 2021 Ontario Association for Mathematics Education

Liljedahl, P. (2018) Building thinking classrooms. I A. Kajander, J. Holm, & E.J. Chernoff (Eds.)


  1. Another amazing post, Chelsea! The Mark Twain quote gave me a nice chuckle! It’s a great reminder that I hope my students never reflect back on my classes in that way!
    I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jo Boaler’s Limitless Mind. I ended up buying a hard copy too because there were so many amazing suggestions similar to what you’ve talked about here in how we can help students maintain a positive mindset and learn how to communicate about math together! I want all of our students to leave our classes saying, “I love math!” or “I hated math until…”
    I’d love to work with you on looking at the grade 5 curriculum and seeing natural ways they overlap and thinking of creative ways to deliver the content so that each unit produces those same emotions as your Financial Literacy one. I had the exact same experience this year when we taught that unit in grade 5! The students need to see how all math can be useful, achievable, and fun!
    Thanks so much for sharing…can’t wait for part 3!


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