3 months.

That's how long it took to get through to a group of 6th graders a few years ago.

I had more than 30 students in that class, 10 of whom were boys with some kind of issue....

ADD, ADHD, ODD, BIP, IEP, 504, you name it, they had it.

It was a constant struggle at first. The boys complained about everything: me, the projects, the class, each other, etc.

They tried to start fights on multiple occasions.

My attempts to have a peaceful class seemed fruitless, but I just dug my heels in and kept trying.

I focused on my own attitude, forcing myself to enjoy the ones who wanted to be there.

I was having fun even if those 10 boys weren't.

I also did not allow them to get away with their behavior, consistently holding them accountable by moving their seats, calling parents, or giving alternative assignments.

I never showed anger or annoyance with them, but nonchalantly applied a consequence whenever they would get out of line.

My joy was unshakeable, and eventually each one of the boys decided that I was okay.

They started enjoying the class and joking with me, and by the end of the semester there was hardly any trace of negative behavior.

Classroom management takes time.

Sometimes it takes a LOT of time.

Be patient with yourself, keep trying, and eventually most of the kids will come around.

You will make it!

It's not you.

It's them.



It is possible to maintain an atmosphere of calm, even in the lunchroom. How do you get the kids to behave when they are in an unstructured environment such as study hall or lunch? The answer is leverage.
A few days ago, there was a small group of middle school kids who were getting a little bit too rambunctious at lunch.
In my nicest teacher "loud" voice, I asked the entire lunchroom group to sit down in their seats.

Three boys remained standing.

I walked over to their table and repeated the instruction.

However, one of them said in a mocking tone of voice, "I have a medical condition. I have to stand up."

This was a classic power play and I knew it.

I said, "Well, you can either sit down or you can sit with me," and then I walked quickly away from the group, not making eye contact.
Immediately, all 3 boys sat down in unison, saying, "Yes, Ma'am."
Why did they comply? They did not respect me because I am not one of their teachers: they only know me as the art teacher and they could care less what I think of them.
I do not have a "relationship" built with these kids, so I have almost zero leverage. If I had kept eye contact with them and stayed in proximity until they complied, there would have been a power struggle. It would have resulted in a negative atmosphere and ruined any chance I have of developing a good relationship, as well as invited more misbehavior in the future.
These boys complied because they wanted to keep their privilege of sitting by their friends. That's it.
They learned something about me, too. I did not yell at them or threaten them. I did not glare at them or say anything negative about them. I simply gave them a choice and allowed them to make it.
The authors of "Love and Logic" say that one of the most powerful bits of leverage we have is moving a student's seat. This strategy is one that I use often and it works almost every time!
The lunch period stayed upbeat and the kids remained calm and cheerful. Several students who never talked to me before looked at me with a new respect that day. It is a huge relief to kids when a teacher can keep the peace.



6th grade art class: day one of a clay unit

-Students won't settle down and be quiet in order to listen to instructions, even after several firm warnings from the teacher to hush.
-The teacher calmly sits down to take attendance and begins writing names on a slip of paper, glancing around the room as she works at the computer.
-Most students catch on quickly to this strategy and get quiet.
-A few students continue talking, oblivious.
-The teacher doesn't say anything, but begins slowly and calmly passing out supplies to each table, continuing to jot down names or put a check mark next to the names of repeat offenders.
-Within a matter of minutes, the entire class gets quiet as it dawns on the students that the teacher actually does mean business.
- There is complete silence as the final clay tool is placed on the tables.
-Finally, the teacher can begin the lesson and joyfully demonstrates several techniques.
-She calls students a few at a time to pick up their clay.
-Some students are not called........... these will receive an alternative assignment before they get to use clay.............

The teacher jots these questions down on the board for those few students who need to take some time to reflect........
1. Write down what a disrespectful student says and does (3 sentences).
2. Write what a respectful student says and does (3 sentences).
3. Write down the reason(s) why you are doing this assignment instead of using clay/paint/paper mache/etc.
4. How will you change your behavior during future art classes (3 sentences)?

(This prescription is recommended for upper elementary and middle school students; ages 9-14)



A student who says they don't like art and who constantly disrupts could be "saying" any number of things that have nothing to do with art:

1. "It doesn't matter if you are mad at me or are laughing at me, I love to be the center of attention." 
....Find as many ways to give positive attention to the child as possible. Also, it will help to take away the child's audience: use a buddy room or let them sit in the hall with a written assignment until they decide to behave in your class. Attention seeking is the most common reason for upper elementary or middle school students to misbehave. 

2. "I am really, really bad at drawing/painting/etc. and I don't want anyone to know just how stupid I am at anything related to art." 

.... A student who is convinced they are bad at art can be dealt with in any number of ways. Give the class non-objective assignments (see below) or keep changing up the medium to find what the kid might excel in. Teach the students (all of them, not just this one student) the Growth Mindset (here are a few resources). The only difference between a master and a beginner is the number of times the master has failed. DO NOT allow the child to complain or say negative things. This habit is toxic and can infect the atmosphere fast! Rule Number One in my class is, "Be Respectful." That includes being respectful to yourself. No negative self-talk. 

F.A.I.L. =

3. "I like to complain and I will complain about anything and everything. The world sucks. You suck. Everyone sucks." 
.... Have this student practice positive thinking and speech patterns. Even better, have the entire class practice so the student isn't singled out. Again, DO NOT allow complaining. It is toxic. There is a chance this child needs to be referred to the counselor, but more often than not this kid is just suffering from a negative mindset. One magical activity to do (OFTEN) is to have students write an encouragement on a Post-It note and place it on a neighbor's artwork. Middle school students especially are desperate for encouragement!

4. "My home life is pure chaos and I don't understand how to handle anything right now. Everything is so confusing and I am furious about it!" 
....A heart to heart talk with this student will hopefully begin to uncover anything under the surface that the student needs help with. Consider referring this child to the counselor.

5. "My parents hate me; I am told every day what an awful/stupid/worthless/etc. person I am. There's no point in even trying to do right because everything I do is messed up anyways." 
....Refer this child to the counselor. Constantly seek to build this child up with encouragement, attention, or anything else you can do to help.

If you teach students from 4th - 9th grade and you are hearing a lot of complaining, remember that many kids this age are SUPER insecure about their skills relating to art. To boost their confidence, break your lessons down to a basic level with very simple objectives. What can they do that is easy while they are still meeting the goals for the class? 

If it is realism you are after, have the kids do a before-instruction drawing to compare the after-instruction drawing to. If they can see growth, you've won. 

One lesson that I continue to see benefit all my students is a non-objective drawing with markers. My goal was to get them to appreciate non-objective art/artists, to choose a style (geometric or organic), and to improve their craftsmanship. 

We also talked about how "line" can actually communicate in a work of art! Vertical lines can symbolize strength and dignity, diagonal or zig-zag lines carry a lot of energy and movement, while horizontal lines are very restful (but can be boring). In addition, zig-zag lines can mean anger or danger (they remind us of lightning) while curving lines sometimes symbolize happiness and joy. 

We compared and contrasted Picasso's "Weeping Woman" with Matisse' "Woman In a Purple Robe" to see how their use of line carried emotion! A few other artists we discussed were Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollack, and Stella.

When the students were asked to draw with black line, I instructed them to choose a style and type of line that matched their own personalities. It was amazing to see the different pieces they created! I also asked them to use no more than three colors, repeating them throughout the design. 

The students had 100% success rate and their confidence in themselves as artists grew exponentially after this lesson.

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



"Is this good enough?"
Every art teacher dreads this question.
What is the most diplomatic way to answer it? Consider possible motives behind the question:
1. Seeking approval....
You want to protect the child's sense of self: you understand that the child needs your acceptance. Any hint of your disapproval could mean damaging their self-esteem. Artwork = extension of self.... this is tricky! Oprah Winfrey says that she hears the exact same question at the end of every interview she's ever done: "Was that okay?" It is human nature to seek approval, no matter how old we are! One of the best ways to respond is to say, "What do YOU think? What is something you like about it? What is something you think needs more work?"
2. Apathy.....
The child just doesn't feel like working on the art any more. You want to teach the child to strive for excellence, to not ever be satisfied with mediocrity! How can you motivate children to work on improving their art without sending the unintended message that you don't like it, and by extension, that you don't like them? 99% of success is hard work - kids need to be taught how to work hard even when they don't feel like it. Sometimes, students have such a low opinion about their artistic ability that everything they create seems shoddy and they don't see the point of doing any more. Always look for something in the piece that they did well and complement that. Many times, kids have a hard time seeing the good and they need us to believe in them until they can believe in themselves.
3. Striving for excellence.....
The child really wants to know your opinion about how to make the piece better but doesn't know how to ask. They usually know whether or not they've tried their best, but they don't always know exactly what you expect from them. Ask yourself, "Were the lesson objectives clear enough so the children can see for themselves whether or not they succeeded?" Rubrics help with this; they spell out exactly what characteristics describe a mediocre work vs. an exceptional one. There are many kids who really do want to create the most excellent art they possibly can, and they respect your expertise! The ultimate goal is to teach students that the only opinion that really and truly matters is their own, and to teach them to constantly try to improve. There is also a time to be satisfied with the work you've done and to call it finished!
4. Attention seeking.....
Is this a ploy to get extra attention from the art teacher? Many students constantly seek attention, no matter if it is negative or positive. If asking the teacher's advice gets them extra attention, they will do it over and over! Saying to these students, "Ask 3 before me!" and encouraging them to get feedback from peers can help with the constant attention seeking. There is also nothing wrong with saying to the child, "I need to help everyone else, too. I've already spent a lot of time with you and I need to be fair."
5. A test....
Some kids want to know if you will indeed hold them to high standards or if you will let them slack off. At other times, if upper elementary or middle school kids know that this question irritates you, they will ask you just to see what happens next! Just smile, direct them to the rubric, and move on. 

For more information about motivating students at any age level, check out this article: Motivation.

"Is It Good Enough?" Is the Wrong Question, by Ralph Ammer, medium.com

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



Which do you think is the most powerful reinforcer a teacher can use to encourage students to behave? Here are your choices: (each of these is extremely important, but there is one that is more powerful than the others!)
1. Engaging Instruction
2. Discipline Strategies
3. Motivation Strategies
4. Teacher Attention

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist so that I could be the one to figure out and finally interpret the language of dolphins. Failing Calculus in college changed that plan! (It was an 8 a.m. class and I failed it twice because I just didn't have the discipline to get up on time and drive the hour commute - that's my excuse anyway.)
Instead, I became an art teacher and researcher. I have been looking for the Rosetta Stone of classroom management for a few years now - what are the keys to helping art teachers improve their practice? Are there just one or two things we can do that will have an immediate and lasting impact on student behavior? I have finally found the most powerful strategy a teacher can use to influence students.... this one IS the key. It is all about focus.
We have many tools in our classroom management toolbox that we can use to influence students to behave well. We are trained to provide engaging lessons; to keep the kids too busy to misbehave. This is the first thing I see teachers ask for when they start to struggle - "What is a fun art lesson for a rough bunch of 4th (or 2nd, or 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, etc.) graders? S.O.S.!!!!" I see this question repeated in all the Facebook art teacher groups; it doesn't matter whether the teacher serves high school, middle school, or elementary school. Everyone believes that as long as the lesson is interesting and engaging enough, the kids will behave.
The second most common question I see is when a teacher has tried all the discipline strategies and failed to reach the kids. They are loud, rude, talk over the teacher, horseplay, and refuse to comply. No matter which discipline strategies s/he tries, the kids just don't care. Here are common things this teacher will list: redirect/remind, re-teaching rules and procedures, talking to the child in the hallway, moving seats, time-out, calling parents, writing kids up, referrals, discipline assignments, etc. At this point, the teacher is frustrated, burned out, and ready to give up. What can s/he do with a class full of kids who just don't care?
Third, teachers will ask about incentives. They often ask, what are some motivation strategies other teachers have used that "work" to encourage hard work, achievement, and respectful attitudes? Raffle tickets for a prize drawing every Friday? Popcorn parties once each month? How about starting an "Art Student of the Week or Month?"
All of these strategies are invaluable for teachers to encourage students to do well, but there is something much more powerful than an engaging lesson, or a discipline strategy, or even students earning incentives.
Guess what?
The teacher's attention is THE most powerful reinforcer in the classroom. Think about it - when you give more attention to the students who are doing well than the students who are acting up, what happens? What happens when you focus on the bad behavior? Of course, you don't want to ignore the disruptors, but holding them accountable while simultaneously FOCUSING on the good behavior will work wonders. I have seen this happen again and again in my classroom. Where is my attention? Am I thinking about the bad behavior or the good behavior?
Students will work for your attention, whether it is negative or positive. What are you acknowledging more of? The vast majority of students WANT to please, they WANT to be the recipient of your nurturing, your mentorship, your acknowledgment. Are you noticing the accomplishments, whether they are behavioral or academic? What behaviors are you purposefully nurturing in your classroom? The answer is whatever you pay attention to the most, whether positive or negative.
I have often wondered what is the most powerful classroom management tool, and I figured out a few years ago that there are several; instruction, motivation, consistent discipline, and the teacher's "warm-strict" attitude. I discovered recently that there is one that supersedes all the others. There is one thing that we all can develop with practice; paying attention to what we want and refusing to focus on what we don't want.
When I am doing a consultation, one of the first questions I ask is, "Are you focusing more on the good behaviors or the bad behaviors?" I have personally witnessed an inner city elementary art teacher see this strategy improve her classroom culture. She was grinning from ear to ear when I left that afternoon a few weeks ago; simply noticing what the kids were doing RIGHT transformed her teaching practice. Over and over, both in my own classroom and in hearing other art teachers' stories, I've seen the truth of this revelation.
The teacher's attention is the most powerful strategy we can use to influence students to behave.

Dr. Fred Jones, Tools For Teaching (at the 16:40 minute mark)
"So, here are these kids playing this helpless hand-raiser game, and what do they get for it? Well, they get to ace 25 other kids out of your undivided helping, caring, loving, nurturing attention, the most powerful reinforcer in the classroom."

Here is a story about how powerful the teacher's attention can be from Rachel Hessing Wintemberg, The Helpful Art Teacher: "I walked into a classroom once and made everyone stand up. I declared that I was no longer going to allow the kids who were there to learn to be victimized by the ones who weren't. I put all the quietest kids (you know, the ones whose names you don't know) in the FRONT and I told them that this was THEIR art class and that from now on it would be all about them. I put all the loudest kids, the ones who were preventing me from teaching, in the back. 'You should be happy now. You get to sit with your friends. Don't be so upset. You won. You don't have to learn if you don't want to.' One boy's face fell; 'Does that mean you are giving up on us? Giving up on me?' Until that moment I had no idea how much power I really had. 'No' I answered confidently 'It means that, if you want to be a part of this class you are going to have to earn your way back in. You have a choice. You've always had a choice. Up until now, THIS is what you have chosen. Man up. Make different choices and I will notice.' The kids that are misbehaving and calling you names, they desperately crave your attention. You hold all of the power. They hold none of the power. So, since they crave your attention, LET THEM EARN IT." artedguru.com

Choose Your Response, my story of how being proactive and focusing on positive behavior transformed an impossible situation. There was no opportunity to develop relationships or have engaging lessons as I was assigned to monitor huge groups of 8th graders during RTI.

"I've had exciting lessons before but minimal student engagement, and some mediocre lessons and awesome student involvement and participation. It really depends on how you interact with the students; showing respect and attention to them. If you pay attention to your kids and show them your interest in them, it's definitely infectious and you'll have kids wanting to do stuff FOR you, if not for them. Kids love doing tasks for the teachers who show they care. ❤️ That task could be cleaning the counter or working 100% on a project." Jill Shinsky, quoted with permission from the Middle School Art Teachers Facebook group

"Focus your attention on creating an enjoyable classroom experience for your students, and refrain from speaking to individual students about their behavior or giving more attention to those that misbehave more often. Instead, follow your classroom management plan and heartily let your students know when they’re doing well." Michael Linsin, How To Stop Wasting Time And Attention On Difficult Students, smartclassroommanagement.com

The Power of Attention - Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline

"Choose to like your students. How you feel about your students is a choice you make that deeply affects your ability to manage your classroom. And if you choose not to like them, or if you allow yourself to become annoyed by them, they’ll know it. It’s something you can’t hide. Negative thoughts about students always bubble to the surface. To create the rewarding and successful teaching experience you really want, you have to see the best in your students. You have to choose to like them, get a kick out of them, and enjoy being around them. Having a positive relationship with your students is the difference-maker that gives you powerful leverage to influence their behavior.The One Thing Standing In Your Way Of Having Your Dream Class, Michael Linsin, smartclassroommanagement.com

"Building trusting rapport is a byproduct of your consistent, day-after-day pleasantness and willingness to see the best in your students." Michael Linsin, Why You Don't Have To Be Cool To Build Rapport, smartclassroommanagement.com



Last year, I had a tough 6th grade group at the end of the day. Out of a class of 32 students, I had 10 boys (TEN!) who consistently created issues for themselves and others; ADHD, ODD, IEP, 504, you name it - we had it in that class! After months of consistent, fair accountability, one by one I was able to win over these rebellious boys BECAUSE I fought to maintain a good attitude toward them NO MATTER WHAT THEY DID (and it wasn't easy...)

My attitude is invisible, but it colors every interaction I have. Nobody can see them, but my thoughts paint a peaceful classroom environment or a stormy one. My attitude is a very powerful thing; it IS the pillar of classroom management. Just like a tree trunk supports all the branches and leaves, so my attitude supports a positive, productive learning environment. Do I have the attitude of a strong leader? Am I consistently, firmly and kindly holding students accountable? Am I speaking positive words, seeking out good things about the kids? 

That 6th grade group was a struggle every day, they tried to start fights with each other, they complained about every project, and several defied any and every little instruction I gave. However, the light eventually came on! 

They finally began to settle down and enjoy the class (and me) because I forced myself to believe in them, to see them for what they COULD BECOME. Because I was determined to enjoy that class, and EVERY kid in it, regardless, my group of 6th grade boys began responding positively to me, the previously hated teacher! Finally, after THREE MONTHS of struggling with disruptive and defiant behaviors, the students began smiling at me, joking with me, being respectful, and working hard. Win!

Atti-TOOT-ers, by Jo Noseda, (YouTube); this hilarious video is about how Mrs. Noseda deals with bad student attitudes in her elementary classroom:

Am I focusing on the good in in my students and colleagues? If my day is going poorly, am I choosing to laugh instead of to get annoyed? If the kids are acting up, am I consistently following through with my classroom management plan in a positive, affirming, caring way? Or, am I allowing my irritation to show? 

Failure is inevitable if I allow a negative, complaining attitude to take over. Success follows a cheerful attitude; a cheerful attitude follows positive thoughts. 

Our attitude as teachers sets the tone! 

Fact #1: There is an invisible power struggle in the classroom; students will seek to gain power over other students AND the teacher. Whether this is wrong or right, this "dominance" behavior happens quite often and it can be infuriating! I have learned the hard way not to show that I am upset when this happens. The times I gave in to negativity and became angry or annoyed at the kids, the atmosphere in the room became toxic. Positive words are the antidote to that poisonous air! Finding something, anything, good to focus my mind on is healing both to me and to the kids. 

Fact #2: We give away our power when we get upset. Classroom management expert Fred Jones is famous for saying, "Calm is strength; upset is weakness." Students think it is hilarious when teachers lose their cool, and some kids will purposefully push buttons just to see the show. They do not have much respect for teachers who are easily upset. But, they respect and admire a teacher who remains pleasant and calm even in crazy situations!

Fact #3: We can strengthen our students, and they us, when positive words are spoken. Even when disciplining, remember that we are helping students by holding them accountable. I say, "I care too much about you to allow you to behave this way..." Also, teach kids to speak positive, encouraging words to each other (and to teachers.) Have them practice encouraging each other and their artwork. If I hear kids complaining or being overly negative, I will nip it in the bud! My classroom is a "No Complaining Zone!"

This video by author and speaker Brooks Gibbs sums up the power struggle really well: How To Stop a Bully. It isn't necessarily about the student/teacher relationship, but this kind of dominance behavior happens in the classroom between students and teachers. Students do try to intimidate us; sometimes with blatantly disrespectful language and sometimes with a subtly defiant attitude. 

How can we deal with the power struggle? By remaining positive and calm, no matter what. Also, by refusing to argue with kids and by holding them accountable for their disrespectful behavior. "Having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone." Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion

So, what is the invisible pillar of great classroom management?

It is simply the teacher maintaining a pleasant, joyful, calm-assertive attitude. 

Principal Gerry Brooks (on dealing with negative people): Like White On Rice

Stay tuned for our next article; "What My Dog Taught Me About Classroom Management; Having a Calm-Assertive Attitude for Leadership."

Further resources: 

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



"I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it." Pablo Picasso
What is "Growth Mindset?" This is an idea originally developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, based on the fact that our abilities and intelligence levels are not "fixed;" they can grow and improve with time and effort. When a student gives up in frustration, crumpling up the paper, they are suffering from a "Fixed Mindset" - they really believe that they simply can't draw. However, if we understand that our attitude and work habits determine success rather than our current abilities, achievement can soar! Purposefully teaching Growth vs. Fixed Mindset can help any student from age 5 - 105. Also, it helps when the teacher demonstrates how to turn a mistake into something beautiful. You don't have to start over every time you mess up! For more information, check out this article: "Dr. Dweck’s discovery of fixed and growth mindsets have shaped our understanding of learning."


Art projects that help students realize they "can" do art: 
non-objective middle school marker designs based on line types

  • Non-objective style pieces such as Piet Mondrian designs, scribble designs, or Jackson Pollack action painting 
  • Sculpture based on design, not drawing skills; kids love to build with their hands! 
  • Playing games such as "Exquisite Corpse," where students collaborate to make something that is funny, not serious at all
  • Pure design assignments such as quilts, African textile designs, etc.
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain exercises such as drawing upside down or blind contour drawing
  • Have students do a pre-instruction drawing before tackling any kind of realistic style assignment (portraits, figure drawing, landscape painting, etc.). They can compare their pre-instruction drawings to the final piece and see growth! The final piece will not be "perfect," but it will be a whole lot better than the pre-instruction piece!

Essential Steps To Turn Art I Students Into Artists, article by Matt Christenson, theartofed.com

Room To Grow, by Anna Nichols, practicing Growth Mindset in middle school through critique

Erik Wahl: The Art of Breakthrough Thinking

The Power of Belief - Mindset and Success, Eduardo Briceno,  TED Talk, Youtube, recommended for high school or middle school

                                                              Embrace the Shake, Phil Hansen, TED Talk, Youtube


Craftsmanship takes time, patience, and effort and is part of what goes into making our artwork look great. However, all the little imperfections are what give the piece character and make it interesting! There is no such thing as perfection in art; to err is human. 
Making Art Fun For a Perfectionist Kid, arthistorykids.com, article by Lotus Stewart

Class Dojo Growth Mindset Episode 1: A Secret About the Brain, Youtube (to view all 5 videos of this excellent animated series, click on this link)

Regina's Mistake; Reading Rainbow, Youtube (features a reading of the children's book as well as interviews with 3 artists)


What Do You Do With a Problem?, by Kobi Yamada, children's book read aloud by Susan Burke, YouTube

Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg, children's book, (for middle/upper elementary.. faster pace narration)  Beautiful Oops, by Barny Saltzberg, for PK-1st, much slower pace)

The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, children's book, (narrated by American man, slow) The Dot, (narrated by English woman, more animated)

Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds, children's book

Zootopia, Try Everything (Shakira), Youtube


               Salt in His Shoes; children's book about Michael Jordan as a boy, by Deloris Jordan, Youtube

               The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, by Mark Pett, Youtube