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



Here is a 6th grade group showing off some paper mache masks a few years ago when I taught strictly middle school. 6th grade is still one of my favorite ages to teach! 

What was most challenging about the switch from being a middle school art teacher to teaching PK-12th grades?

For me, after teaching middle school for so many years, it was both kindergarten and upper level high school. I found it easy to teach grades 3-10. My younger students were a challenge as were 11th and 12th graders. You need an entirely different skill set for these ages! Some of the older high school kids were apathetic and did not want to be challenged, while a few of my youngest students had a lot of impulse and emotional control issues as well as attention span difficulties. Elementary and middle school students will only respect you if you "mean business" so to speak, but too much emphasis on structure/rules will make me lose a group of high schoolers. What "worked" with middle school absolutely kills the dynamic of a high school group and vice-versa. I am learning as I go! 

ELEMENTARY ART STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS: (Generally Kindergarten - 4th Grades)

Elementary artists are enthusiastic, joyful, eager to learn and to please, creative, energetic, and talkative. They love to help and they love all kinds of art; they are not critical of me or the class. There is less impulse/emotional control with younger students so they need more patience, repetition, and specific coaching in a task.
Extrinsic motivation is also needed in the form of consistent consequences and incentives for behavior. Also, and perhaps more importantly, routines and procedures provide much needed structure. This sense of predictability makes kids feel safe and secure. Instructions need to be clear and exact; the teacher needs to make the invisible visible for a smoothly run class.

Potential Roadblocks: (Time!)
Classroom teachers and administrators view the specials classes as break time, not a time of valuable learning. Students view specials classes as another form of recess, not a time to buckle down and work. The art teacher's leverage to expect good behavior (and studious, serious thought, planning, and reflection) is not as strong as the classroom teacher's because our opportunity to build classroom culture and student/teacher relationships is affected by time resources. Our ability to cover all standards is also limited due to time constraints.

Teacher Attitude:
The elementary art teacher's persona can quickly morph from serious and stern to warm and nurturing; the teacher must "mean business." You need a lot more energy to teach younger students and keep their attention. The teacher's language is focused on positives; we look for what the students are doing well and provide tons of feedback, authentic praise and encouragement. My favorite thing about this age group is they help me to feel validated as a teacher because they literally love everything we do in art and hardly ever find fault with me or the lesson. It is nice to be the "celebrity art teacher" on campus!


Students at this age are socially motivated, moody (hormonal!), insecure, but still enthusiastic and highly energetic. 5th-7th graders are responsive to extrinsic motivators in the form of consequences and incentives but fewer 8th/9th graders are. 8th/9th graders are more responsive to relationship building attempts much like older high school students. They still need those extrinsics, though! Structure and routine are just as important as with an elementary art classroom, whether the students admit to it or not!
Middle school kids are more likely to defy authority than elementary kids. They need a lot of reassurance that they are capable of achievement in art. Students love to manipulate hands on materials such as paint or clay rather than spend time drawing. They are generally there to have fun, although most genuinely appreciate learning to improve their art skills to make more "realistic" art, not "baby" arts and crafts.

Potential Roadblocks: 
The intrinsic value of what students do in art class is not well understood by the community at large. Art is seen as play time, creative time, or time to just mess around with materials. The rigor of making art is not perceived as real at all. Students are surprised when asked to do anything remotely "academic" in an art class; they don't understand just how academic (intellectual) art truly is.

Teacher Attitude:
The middle school art teacher's attitude needs to be serious and stern (stoic) most of the time when dealing with the group as a whole, but when dealing one-on-one the teacher is very warm and nurturing. Attempts at humor during the lesson can backfire; many students will use any and all excuses to get silly and cause the lesson to completely fall apart. Just as an elementary art teacher focuses on positive feedback, a middle school art teacher will do the same. However, the difference is that a middle school art teacher has to keep praise on the "down low," so as not to embarrass a student. If not, the paradox is that behaviors will get worse after the teacher publicly praises a student.
The best thing about teaching middle level artists is they are still enthusiastic and open like elementary kids, but they can also produce some amazing art, especially 7th - 9th grade students. To see artistic growth in a student at this age can be astounding.

HIGH SCHOOL ART STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS: (Generally 10th, 11th, 12th Grades)

At this age, students are calmer and more mature, knowledgeable in the ways of the world, but still in need of adult mentorship. Many are extremely insecure, apathetic, and plagued with anxieties of all kinds! To dispel this potentially negative atmosphere, humor is an absolute necessity when teaching high school! Students at this age need a strong teacher leader who is quick to laugh and share light stories. They are not as responsive to extrinsic motivators but ARE much more responsive to the teacher's attempts to build authentic relationships and connections. They have tremendous capability to create much more sophisticated and meaningful artwork if they can surpass the general feeling of "not being a real artist." They definitely want to learn more "grown up" techniques and improve their skills in realism. They tend to see this style as more impressive and worthy of esteem than other styles. They need us to teach the value of artistic expression of all kinds, though, not only realism. Many students will excel when given the opportunity to express their ideas through sculpture or non-objective painting rather than realism.
Most 10th-12th graders don't dare show it if they are enjoying the projects. They have to be cool and behave as if nothing matters. Once I figured this out, and how to successfully phrase academic feedback in my older high school classes it got a lot easier. The "comment sandwich" (positive, negative, positive) that always worked for my middle school kids did not go over well with my Art II/III kids. The timing for feedback was different, too; with middle school I could make suggestions all day long, but not with 11th and 12th grades. No suggestions were taken in a favorable light until I made sure to say things like, "I see that you have met your goal of ___________. The detail work is amazing and your ___________ technique is fantastic. Would you like some feedback about ways to make it even better?" 

Potential Roadblocks:
The value of the arts is not perceived as real; art is a frill, it is something you do as a hobby. Or, art is a farce. High school kids tend to view visual art as something they did when they were younger and have outgrown. High school students are also much more cool and distant than younger students. For me, it was difficult to know when a lesson "hit home" because of this aloof mask.

Teacher Attitude:
The teacher's attitude with this age group can be much more relaxed than with elementary or middle school kids. Although, there still needs to be an internal steeliness; a supremely confident and "no-nonsense" attitude. We can be "real" with older students and have wonderful discussions.
My favorite thing about teaching high school artists is that I don't have to spend so much time dealing with immature behaviors. Also, the artwork they are capable of producing is awesome to see!

Editor's note: The idea for this blog article came from an online survey done by Ann Marie-Aubin Slinkman. I completed her survey and decided to publish my responses here. In addition, a few weeks ago a respected colleague and friend asked me to write about my observations. I hope this helps anyone out there who is considering which grade level they would like most to teach!



There are many things you can do to combat the stress hormone, Cortisol. As teachers, we are constantly bombarded by stressors, whether they are coming from demanding administrative edicts, bad behavior from students, or parents who just don't understand that we have their children's best interests at heart. Teaching can be stressful!

Michael Linsin published an important article yesterday; How Not To Feel Resentment Over Difficult Students. One thing I will add to his ideas is that when kids are ugly to each other or to the teacher, this has the potential to create a toxic atmosphere (especially if the teacher is reactive).

I have always been extremely sensitive; I soak up people's emotions like a sponge. I used to think I was a bit of a freak until I heard about an empirical study done on sweat (kind of gross!) where scientists found that people can actually smell fear! Check out Vanessa Van Edwards' Ted Talk, "You Are Contagious."

It is a scientific fact that people spread emotions just like we spread germs. When we are training to be teachers, nobody prepares us to deal with the negative energy that can so easily overwhelm us. How can a teacher overcome all that negative junk and create a positive atmosphere, especially immediately after a student has a meltdown? 

A while ago I learned that "highly sensitive people" are born with a longer form of the Serotonin carrying gene. Simply put, it takes much longer for our bodies to produce Serotonin after a stressful event and calm down. It was a huge relief for me to learn that there is nothing "wrong" with me. I am just wired this way; a highly sensitive person is actually gifted in the areas of detailed planning and "what-if" scenarios BECAUSE we suffer from so much anxiety. My greatest curse is also one of my greatest gifts, as my dad always told me.

As a highly sensitive person who has battled anxiety for many years, I have found some things that can help reduce Cortisol levels significantly. Anyone can release Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin with these tips.

Here are a few ways to create a safe haven for students (and yourself!):

1. Shake students' hands or give them a high-five when greeting them at the door. This simple touch releases Oxytocin, the relationship chemical, and it also builds trust. It will help both you and the kids to fight the stress hormone, Cortisol, keeping all of you calm! 

2. Find something to smile or laugh about! This releases Endorphins, the calming chemical Serotonin, and it also releases Dopamine (the happy chemical). If you can discipline your mind to focus on GOOD things instead of on all the bad, you can change your internal barometer right back to happy and calm instead of allowing it to fester in anxiety, anger, fear, or resentment. It isn't easy to find something to smile about, but if you can do it, you will be amazed at the change in the classroom dynamic. It literally feels like a beam of sunshine just swept through the room and it is such a relief! I have seen it happen time and time again, just because I made the choice to find something positive to focus on. 

3. Have things that smell good, like a nice lotion or even essential oils. Also, I have found that eating a bit of chocolate helped to reduce the stress and anxiety; eating releases Dopamine! Just a small piece of candy can stop the flood of emotion. Teaching can be overwhelming, especially when you have a lack of support and are serving kids with trauma; there have been several times that I needed that strategy! (Editor's note; be careful when using strong scents in the classroom as they have sometimes been found to be a migraine trigger. This has not been my experience, personally, but it has for others.)

4. "Sharpen the Saw:" using a dull saw takes a ridiculous amount of (wasted) energy. Don't make the mistake of neglecting your health; eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and drink lots of water. Spend time with friends, get creative, avoid social media, and start regularly writing in a gratitude journal. Change your mindset to focus on the positive. 

Note: if you are in a situation where you do not feel safe, I highly recommend that you consider leaving the school. It is not worth your safety, whether physical or mental, to remain in a position where you feel you are in danger. There are plenty of other jobs out there!

Take care of yourself.

Click on the links to read the articles, "Staying Calm" and "Avoiding Burnout:" there are many more tips here. 

Managing the Art Classroom Playlist; Burnout, Youtube

Secondary Traumatic Stress For Educators: Understanding and Mitigating the Effects, by Jessica Landers, KQED News

Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin, by Thai Nguyen, theutopianlife.com

Boost Your Natural 'Feelgood' Chemicals, psychologies.co.uk

Vanessa Van Edwards on Impact Theory, YouTube (How To Liberate Yourself From Social Anxiety), Tom Bilyeu
"Learn from the certified fraud examiner, body language expert, and author as she shares practical insights for decoding human behavior in this episode of Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu."

Simon Sinek has a wonderful piece on leadership, Cortisol, and the "happy" chemicals here: 
Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek, YouTube

Also, Tim Feriss has a couple of great Ted Talks about fear:      



Do you have a group of students who won't settle down no matter what you do? Do you have a class that tests you, day after day? If so, I would love to help you analyze ways to improve your classroom management!

I taught middle school for 13 years and now teach PK-12th grade. I have studied classroom management in depth for the last 5 years for this non-profit blog designed to empower and encourage art teachers. Please contact me if you are in a place where everything you've tried hasn't "worked." It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, it is a sign of strength. 

Because I believe in supporting, encouraging, and empowering art teachers, I am offering free consulting for the first week of October - I will even come visit you and watch you teach your worst class (provided your school is in central Alabama)! I can consult with you via telephone, email, Skype, or Facebook message. 

Here is what you will get:
1. A list of your strengths - I love to encourage!
2. Specific strategies you can use to improve
3. An email with information about resources that will help 

The last three weeks of October, I will be raising money for the two art teachers who recently lost their Montgomery school to a fire. Half of all proceeds will be mailed to Rachel Dudley and Emily Thomas. 

Email me at artteacherhelp4al@gmail.com or message me on Facebook!

If you would like to earn professional development hours and you need the approval of your building administrator, here is a letter of introduction that includes a few of my credentials: 



I recently posted this quote on our Facebook page about a lie we all fall for at least once; that our value is defined by what others think. Since then, I have seen several eloquent comments online about advocacy and gratefully received permission to re-post them. Thank you to Jo Ann Harris, Rosanne Walsh, and Kayla Marie Ohlms for sharing their wisdom! 

We all need some encouragement, and we ALSO need a few tools in our toolbox to help us educate our school communities about the importance of art. Below are listed some practical ways we can communicate the value of art to students, parents, administrators, and colleagues. 

At some point, people around us WILL be critical whether we are "doing a good job" or not. 

Or, because we teach art, we are flat out ignored. 

It can be stressful and sometimes even heartbreaking to constantly be left out of the loop, perceived as a non-academic, non-core teacher, and that what we do in art class simply doesn't matter. It would be nice if the school community held art classes in higher esteem, if they really understood the value of what we do. The sad truth is, most do not. 

It is easy to believe the lie; that making art really is a waste of time and resources. After all, which class is first to be cut when budgets are stretched too thin? 

Middle school art teacher Rosanne Walsh recently posted a brilliant truth about the value of art: 
"I tell students that art class is how we teach them to keep their creative powers strong because the world needs creative solutions to problems. 
So, this makes them realize that being creative is vital to being human. 
Just as we don't expect every student to be an Olympic athlete, we don't expect every student to be a (professional) artist. 
But if you have a body, you need to exercise it to keep it healthy. And if you have a brain, you need to exercise it to keep it creative and flexible.
Big problems will keep on presenting themselves and it's the creative people that will be able to solve them. 
And that's how it is. No joke. It's that serious. And I truly believe that."

High school art teacher Jo Ann Harris offers her clever strategy for teaching teenagers to value art:
"You need to decide WHY you are teaching art. I teach in Kentucky where a class in the arts is a mandatory credit for graduation. Most choose visual art rather than stand in front of someone and perform, like in band or choir.
So, a huge percentage of my students are only there because they have to be. I start the year by advocating for my chosen career and passion. We talk about why the arts are important; I use statistics.
For instance, art develops both the right and left brain, improving critical reasoning and creativity. Also, for the athletes who are embarrassed to try art, we talk about how art improves hand/eye coordination.
I have 8 factual statements about the importance of the arts in education which they can choose from. Once they choose, they make posters advocating for why the arts are important.
YOU have to believe in what you do and its importance before they ever will."

Here is one more tidbit of wisdom from Kayla Marie Ohlms. She recently posted this YouTube video about what it means to be an artist; 

What Does It Mean To Be An Artist?, video by elementary art teacher Kayla Marie Ohlms

Finally, this is what I teach my students every year: 

Everyone is an artist; everyone is a creative individual - it just comes out of us in different ways. Some people sing, dance, play a musical instrument, act, or paint and draw. Others like to cook, sew, write stories and poetry, or work with wood. To be human is to create!


All of us have heard someone say that art is a waste of time... it's not necessary... it is just something to do when you are bored. Is Art class really just a "frill?" 

Actually, we would all be naked and living in a cave without art! 

Without art we wouldn't have clothing, jewelry, shoes, houses, furniture, cars, televisions, movies, books, magazines, the Internet, video games, theaters, stores, amusement parks, museums, schools, cell phones, cameras, and the list just goes on and on! A creative artist had to design all these things at some point for us to enjoy them. 


There are three main ways: 

1. Art makes you smarter! “Creativity” means “problem solving,” and in Art class you are using your brain in ways that you don’t get to in your other classes. On this chart of higher order thinking skills, “CREATE” is at the TOP! It can be a real intellectual challenge to come up with ways to effectively communicate your thoughts, ideas, and feelings! It can also be a challenge to figure out HOW to make whatever it is that you have envisioned! Creative problem solving is what we do all the time in Art class! Studies have shown for years that students who take art actually score higher on standardized tests such as the ACT than students not in an art class. 

2. Art helps you communicate! When you hear people say that they can “express themselves” through art, what they really mean is that art helps them communicate. You can say things through colors, lines, and shapes that cannot be said in any other way. An image is extremely powerful…a picture is worth a thousand words!

3. Art brings beauty to the world!
 As artists, we have a "Super Power;" we have the ability to find beauty even where there is ugliness. We can show others the beauty we see! 
Also, it is often relaxing and therapeutic to create with art materials like paint, or clay, or paper mache. Scientists have shown in studies that people who practice an art form actually live longer! 

In this incredible Ted Talk, a young man talks about how he learned to turn a rejection into an opportunity.

"I found that people who really change the world, who change the way we live and the way we think, are the people who were met with initial and often violent rejections. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or even Jesus Christ. These people did not let rejection define them."

"Just treat everybody like it's their birthday, even if they don't deserve it. Because we all mess up sometimes. The biggest mess up? Not forgiving each other's mess ups.... You? You're awesome! You're made that way! You were made from love, to be love, to spread love! Love is always louder. Even if hate has a bullhorn, love is louder! So let your life be loud! Let's shout to the world, 'Things can be better! It's okay about all the mess ups!'"

Encourage Creativity; Teach the Arts, Americans For the Arts

Art Speaks, Springfield Public Schools

Arts In Education Research Study; An impact evaluation of arts-integrated instruction through CETA, artsedge.kennedy-center.org

Art Advocacy: Learning To Speak the Language of Your Audience, Amber Kane, theartofed.com

NAEA Advocacy Toolkit, arteducators.org

10 Salient Studies On the Arts In Education, onlinecolleges.net

The Importance of Art In Child Development, by Grace Hwang Lynch, pbs.org

The Artful Advocate, advocacy blog by retired elementary art teacher, Phyllis Levine Brown, creator of There's A Dragon In My Art Room



"Our students sign contracts every a.m. saying they will be in control of their voices and bodies etc. If someone appears to be having a problem, I ask them to step to the back of the room and take 5 minutes to get themselves back in control. Yesterday I asked a 6th grader to step to the back. His immediate response, "What? What did I do?" My next step at that point is to hand them a pen and paper. Turns out he DID know. Lol" Jeryl Wittenburg Hollingsworth, the Art Teachers Facebook group

Below are listed a variety of ideas for discipline assignments designed specifically for and by art teachers. We hope these are helpful for you and your students! Please leave a comment if you have successfully used any of these ideas or if you know of more to share. 

We understand that there are many in our field who believe writing assignments used as a consequence for misbehavior could be harmful to the learning process. 

As of today, we have found no empirical evidence to prove this is true. To the contrary, after 15 years of teaching art I have found writing assignments to be effective in managing student behavior as long as they are used responsibly, especially as a reflective exercise for the student. Written assignments are also valuable as they can potentially serve as documentation for student behavior.

After all, the goal is to help students.

If you have ever seen any empirical research (not just opinion articles) which shows scientific evidence that written discipline assignments are harmful, please contact me. I am very interested in further reading! Thank you, and good luck! 

The following types of commonly used discipline assignments are discussed in this post: 

1. THINK SHEET or REFLECTION SHEET (elementary, middle, or high school)
Note: you can Google "Think Sheet" and see hundreds of available examples. 

This is a written form designed to help students reflect on their behavior. Many teachers give these to students when they need a time-out or a break from the activity.  I have assigned this form to elementary or middle school students when they were disruptive, playing with the art materials, or otherwise not behaving responsibly. It is a natural and logical consequence because the child is usually separated from the group in order to think about why his/her behavior is harmful to the learning environment. The child is also required to come up with an alternative way to respond in the future. Teachers have found that the most effective way to use a Think Sheet is to have a short conversation with the student; ask him or her to tell what happened, the reason they had to write, and what better choices they could make next time. 

The relationship is key; kids need to know we care. 

Note: Think Sheets are the least controversial "writing assignment." Many art teachers who feel very strongly about the supposed detrimental effects of writing assignments have no qualms about issuing Think Sheets. They are not viewed as a "punishment," but as an opportunity for students to calm down and collect their thoughts. PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions &  Supports) is a research based, nationally recognized program that encourages this type of written reflection. Click on this link for examples of PBIS reflection sheets and click on this link for one from theartofed.com.

2. BEHAVIOR ESSAYS (for upper elementary or middle school grades)
It can be very effective and developmentally appropriate to require an older child to write a short reflective essay about the choices s/he made and what better decisions could be made in the future. This is a good way to help them exercise their vocabulary, written communication, and critical thinking skills. 

Writing an essay about behavior is mentioned as a logical consequence by Harry and Rosemary Wong in their highly renowned book, The First Days of School, 2001, (pages 155-156).

However, this particular writing assignment is a bit more controversial than the Think Sheet because of the negative connection between writing and consequences for misbehavior, i.e. "punishment." Language arts teachers would prefer their students to associate enjoyment with the art of writing, after all! 

Personally, I do not see much difference in a child filling out a Think Sheet and writing a Behavior Essay. It is good for children to express their thoughts, explain their point of view, and verbalize a strategy for changing the behavior. Writing these things down gives the child an opportunity to calm down and think. Occasionally I will ask a middle school student to write a one page essay about respect and responsibility. Restorative practices would also call for a written apology and a description of the cause and effect of the child's choices. 

99% of the time I have assigned one of these essays the result has been better behavior. In my personal experience the Behavior Essay is even more effective than the Think Sheet.

Whenever I assign a Behavior Essay, I give prompts such as:
1. Describe specifically what a responsible and respectful student does and says. 

2. Describe what an irresponsible/disrespectful student does and says.
3. Describe what s/he did that was a poor choice and/or what s/he could do differently next time.
4. Write down how s/he plans to behave in my class for the rest of the year. 
5. What will you do? What will you NOT do?

One of my middle school colleagues writes: 
"I had a college professor who once got mad at a student in our class, and the professor required us to write an essay at the end of every class. This was in addition to the lesson, and if you couldn't finish before class was over, you stayed until you finished. I became a great writer as a result, which is why I ultimately decided to be an English teacher." 


As an art teacher, this strategy has been extremely useful to me in encouraging students to make wise choices in handling art materials. Temptation abounds for kids to swing rulers or paintbrushes around in the air, or to paint pretty butterflies on their friends' hands, or slap printing ink onto a friends back, or just pour out all the paint to see what will happen. I have seen middle school students do some interesting things with paint, tools, clay, you name it! 

In my classroom, if students can't be trusted to use the materials safely and appropriately, they can choose instead to read about the process in the textbook and write down answers to questions at the end of the chapter. I have also required students to read and summarize a section of the text. Reading and writing about art is definitely part of the curriculum! 

This website has a list of extra credit art writing assignments that could be used in lieu of art materials: artsology.com, and this website has art history information for kids: Art History For Kids (ducksters.com). Also, there is an abundance of interesting articles about artists available, such as this one about Kehinde Wiley from The Atlantic

The Art Prof, Clara Lieu, has a collection of articles written by high school and college students that could be useful on a day you have a student who needs to take a break from materials: Emerging Artists, artprof.org

Also, this is an assignment I used to post on the dry-erase board (entitled, "ALTERNATIVE ASSIGNMENT") at the more difficult times of the year, such as before holidays or at the end of the school year. Just seeing the assignment on the board was very effective for my middle school students to be reminded to put forth their best effort to behave! 

Marlene Nall Johnt, in her excellent book A Retired Art Teacher Tells All, describes preparing discipline assignments for her high school students ahead of time. She kept a few ziplock bags of magazine articles she found about famous artists. The students had to read the articles, then write a one-page report that night. They had to write a 2-page report if the assignment wasn't turned in on time! Marlene's discipline plan was in place for many years, and her students loved her. She was aware of the fact that many in education frown on this type of consequence, but she understood her school community very well. She writes that this strategy was extremely effective as a deterrent for misbehavior! 


    "...the most frequently used and also the most effective of the strategies employed by teachers was the use of rote punishment (i.e., writing sentences, copying rules, etc.)."  Children's Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Classroom Management Techniques, Journal of Instructional Psychology, Michael Tulley & Lian Hwang Chiu, 25 no3 189-97 S '98

    Editor's note: Managing student behavior involves far more than discipline techniques. In order to create an environment for student success, the teacher needs to provide quality instruction as well as appropriate motivation. Most importantly, the teacher needs to have the right attitude for leadership in the classroom. Finally, having a solid classroom management plan with rules and procedures set up from the beginning of the year is also extremely important - students need to be very clear about what the teacher's expectations are.

    disclaimer: These are a set of ideas about being proactive in teaching based on classroom experience as well as various education authors. Many times there are circumstances in the classroom that are beyond any teacher's control, especially when serving at-risk populations or in environments where those in administration fail to provide effective leadership in a school. Sometimes, regardless of the prevailing theories about teacher responsibility, the teacher is not to be blamed for out of control students. Finally, we do NOT recommend that you put any of these strategies into practice if your administration disagrees with them. 

    article by Mrs. Anna Nichols
    updated September of 2018