Math Scaffolds: You’re Doing it Wrong

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3 Tips for Scaffolding Skills Effectively In Your Math Classroom

According to, the word scaffold means, “a temporary or movable platform for workers to stand or sit on when working at a height above the floor or ground”. As teachers, we use math scaffolds every day to bridge the gaps in understanding for our students. 

Have you ever thought about how you scaffold for student success? Do you ever remove the scaffolds? I know when I started teaching, scaffolds were a year-round thing. I never took them away and gave my students a chance to excel independently. When you take away scaffolds for students, you’re giving them a chance to learn on their own. 

In this post, I am not talking about students with accommodations that require scaffolds, checklists, and 1:1 support. I am talking about the students who need a little nudge when learning something new to allow them to practice good habits. Eventually, those students should have the scaffold removed so that they can practice the habit or skill on their own. 

Here are 3 tips for how you should be using math scaffolds in your classroom.

#1: Give students a chance to explore the math before giving them the math scaffolds. 

Do not give the scaffold before seeing what the student can do. Sorry for the caps, but even I am guilty of this. Productive struggle is a good thing. Give students a problem, see where they go with it. As you see students struggle, gradually give them what they need to be successful.

I’m not saying to withhold the scaffold and watch the student flounder, but there needs to be a struggle where the student is trying to solve the problem independently. In my opinion, if you always give a scaffold to a student before they have a chance to think independently, then you’re not giving them the chance to ever think independently. 

This ties into the mathematical growth mindset that Jo Boahler talks about in her book, “Mathematical Mindsets.” Our goal as educators is for students to eventually complete tasks independently, with no scaffolds at all. 

#2: Math Scaffolds are more than checklists.

Yes, I said it. Yes, a scaffold might be a checklist that walks the students through a step-by-step process, but it isn’t always. Sometimes a scaffold is guiding questions. Scaffolds can also be giving students manipulatives to help them work through the problem or a vocabulary sheet. Another example of a scaffold might be a model problem worked out for them to see the process or picture cues. 

Give your students the opportunity to have various resources in their toolbox. Give them a buddy who is proficient in the skill, manipulatives, checklists, and more! Teach the students to do their own research when they are solving problems and this will help foster their independent thinking and problem-solving. 

#3: Eventually take the math scaffolds away. 

I am guilty of giving scaffolds through the end of the year, but I have since learned that scaffolds are meant to be taken away. Just as scaffolds from buildings eventually go away when the building can stand on its own, the same goes for your students. Eventually, they will be able to problem-solve independently using the tools that they have learned from their math scaffolds and resources. Allow them to become the independent thinker that you know they can be!

The big question with taking scaffolds away is: when do you remove the scaffold? This is where small group conferencing comes into play. You are already working with your students in small groups, how are you documenting it?

I have this great conference form that I use to help me keep track of what I am working on with my students. One of the questions is assessing how much the student understands the skill. You can find this in my TpT store by clicking here! By keeping tabs on your conferences, you’ll be able to easily see when a student is proficient enough at a skill to remove the math scaffold.

Overall, math scaffolds are a critical tool to help students solve problems independently. They are more than just checklists with step-by-step directions and should eventually be removed once the student is proficient in the skill. 



PS – In case you missed the post about using the CRA model to teach for better math understanding, read that here! You can also download a free planning template with guiding questions to plan using the CRA model effectively. Download it here!

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Hi, I'm Alexandra!

I am a fourth-grade math teacher turned elementary tech teacher. I help upper elementary math teachers like YOU get organized digitally and engage students with digital tools. When I’m not teaching, you can find me taking long walks with my dog, Frannie, or travelling (especially to Disney World)!