Respecting Adolescent Development in Math Instruction

When designing a learning environment and academic activities for adolescents, we as teachers have to be sensitive to the developmental needs  of our students.

Students  are all experiencing different levels of maturity. Adolescents are especially divergent in their maturity levels, so sensitivity to this is required to ensure that their learning needs are being met.

There is a gigantic body of academic research on developmental psychology, but for simplicity’sake I will touch upon the Ontario Youth Development Committee’s Stepping Stones document.

According to the document, there are four domains of personal development that change over time: social, emotional, cognitive and physical.

For adolescent learners who are aged 13 to 19, their needs in the classroom uniquely reflect the four domains.

In order to tailor instruction to these domains, a classroom and course must be designed appropriately. According to pages 44-51 of the document, here are some ways a senior math teacher can use the domains to design a developmentally appropriate classroom:


  • Allow students to choose their own groups or to work individually on projects
  • Ensure that all viewpoints in the group are respected but still allow for respectful dissent


  • Create a non-judgemental learning space where mistakes are not ridiculed, but embraced
  • Minimize unnecessary stress by communicating expectations clearly, tactfully and frequently
  • Be mindful of stress factors in life (relationships, family, self esteem, etc) that affect cognitive functions


  • Introduce open and self-directed inquiry
  • Facilitate problem-based, relevant and challenging tasks that involve individual and group work (i.e. engineering plans and execution, sales analysis, financial planning, creating budgets etc.)
  • Ask students for opinions and feedback on their learning
  • Ask students to design their own rubrics and quiz questions


  • Ensure that students are allowed to have movement breaks when possible
  • Allow students to have standing workstations (if feasible)
  • Allow students to use vertical space (whiteboards, blackboards) to encourage standing
  • Take mathematics instruction outside of the classroom
  • Promote safe movement throughout the learning environment

Please feel free to comment on any strategies you may use!