Are you trying to motivate students to behave better, to work hard, or to accomplish and achieve greatness?

....There are a lot of things a teacher can do to help motivate their students, but the person who controls how much work the kid does is the kid, not the teacher. 
"Nonschool factors do influence student achievement, but they are largely outside a school's control Some research suggests that, compared with teachers, individual and family characteristics may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement. But policy discussions focus on teachers because it is arguably easier for public policy to improve teaching than to change students' personal characteristics or family circumstances. Effective teaching has the potential to help level the playing field.

This article outlines seven potential reasons why kids won't work. Then, possible solutions to the problem are listed as well as a few resources I found helpful and valid. I hope you find something here that will help a student in your classroom! If you see any more good resources, please let me know! 


..............possible reasons for student apathy: 


  • They don't understand how or what to do.
  • The student is a perfectionist; trapped in a faulty mindset that every line has to be perfect and is easily frustrated with mistakes. (Click on this link for Growth Mindset resources.)
  •  Entitlement mindsetThe student has been previously (erroneously) taught that the artwork s/he does is always perfect, that there can be no room for improvement because art represents who they are.
  • The student has "learned helplessness" and wants constant feedback from the teacher instead of buckling down and getting to work.
  •  S/he believes Art is not important and thus hard work is unnecessary.


  •  The student wasn't paying attention during the demonstration/lesson.
  • The student has friends in the class and is more motivated to play than work.
  • The student doesn't feel like working/doesn't want to work.
  • S/he doesn't have to pass the class to advance a grade.
  • Defiant attitude - the student doesn't want to submit to the teacher because either s/he has an inflated ego or the teacher has not yet won the respect of the student.
  • The student is seeking attention by talking too much, not working, or wanting excessive help. 
  •  The student knows the teacher will not hold him/her accountable for working hard.


  • There is a dislike for the teacher, or a belief that the teacher doesn't like the student. 
  • They don't like the project media, style, etc.
  • artwork credit:
  • The project does not personally relate to them.


  • The student is afraid of failure, of looking stupid and incompetent. 
  • The student has had a pattern of failure at school, and has given up. S/he believes the work is too difficult to attempt. 


  • The student is bored because the work is too easy.
  • The student is unengaged because s/he is tired of working on the project. 

  • The student is stressed, suffers from lack of sleep, sick, or hungry.


  • The teacher's experience and attitude can either help or harm student motivation: 
  • The teacher gives vague instructions, is unenthusiastic, negative, talks too much or too fast, expects students to perform at a too high (or too low) level than they are capable, or does not take into consideration the interests of the student. Also, if the teacher inconsistently hold students accountable (ignores misbehavior), this can create a chaotic environment in which the temptation to be lazy flourishes. 

8th graders motivated with real easels. They worked like artists on this!
All in all, I have found that secondary teachers' number one issue is dealing with unmotivated students. Kids come to us believing they don't have to work hard because "It's just art, right?" In middle school, they know they don't have to pass my class to go on to the next grade, and they usually start out the year much more motivated to talk and play than to do their work. I also have to be very creative at finding ways to encourage my students to produce QUALITY work because they do not have to pass my class to advance a grade

I tell them that they will not like everything they create, and that some people who love to draw don’t like the unpredictable nature of paint/clay: some people who dislike drawing are gifted designers, etc. I throw out a lot of different kinds of projects so they can find something they can be successful with! Also, I try to provide as many choices as possible and to create an environment where it is okay to fail. ("The road to success is paved with failure.") The bottom line, though, is that 99% of success is hard work. Chuck Close once said, "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and work. Every idea I ever had came out of the work." 

Five powerful, PROACTIVE ways you can motivate your students to succeed:  

1. RELATIONSHIPS: click on this link for more information

  • Developing positive relationships with kids is one of the MOST powerful things a teacher can do to help a student do well in class...
  • “Many popular teachers are strict; yet, at the same time, they treat students in a friendly and respectful manner, they make their classes as interesting as possible, and they try to make every student feel a part of the class. Such teachers are both liked and respected, and they wield a great deal of power with students.” Dr. Irvin King, "One Man's Perspective of Discipline in the Schools"


2. INTERESTING, RELEVANT LESSONS (that are confidently, enthusiastically, clearly taught) 

  • "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Steven Covey ... Have you surveyed your students to find out about their likes/dislikes? Do you know what kinds of projects they enjoy and which they hate? 
  • .....Try something messy like paper mache or clay instead of drawing. There are actually very few kids who are highly motivated to draw really nice, sophisticated drawings. However, almost all students are motivated to get their hands dirty and build! Most students we teach will not become professional artists, and it is important to foster an appreciation for art, keeping it fun. 
  • Make your instructions clear and concise to avoid student they understand the "big idea" behind what they are doing? How does it relate to their lives? What's the point of doing it? How exactly do they accomplish the objectives of the project? Detailed rubrics really help make the "invisible visible" for my students. If it is clearly in writing, they are much more likely to try to meet the criteria for the project. 
  • Giving students as much ownership in their learning as possible will go a long way toward engagement! Teaching For Artistic Behavior (TAB): this pedagogy is one that I am currently researching in order to try it in my classroom. It is an excellent way to motivate kids, and it seems to be one of the BEST ways to foster creativity and problem solving in the classroom. It takes a lot of courage to hand the reigns over to students, putting them in charge of their learning! Providing as many choices as possible within the constructs of an assignment is a win-win. Resource website: Teaching For Artistic Behavior.....Facebook Resources: TAB Choice & Midwest TAB Choice, and here is one of the best breakdowns of how to set up a TAB classroom: TAB MAEA Shared, (Google Docs)
This quote from Melissa Purtee sums up the TAB Choice philosophy quite well: "'I am learning because I want to do it,' vs. 'I'm learning because you want me to do it.'"


Teach them how to think; teach them about their own unlimited capabilities; teach them about the universal power of visual art. 

"When students respect the teacher for the knowledge s/he possesses, when they master significant knowledge and skills, and when they feel good about themselves because they are achieving, they are less likely to misbehave." Dr. Irvin King 

Behavior Expectations and How To Teach Them; Aaron Hogan,
Advocate...teach your students about the value of art: Why Art Teachers Are the Most Important Teachers In the School, Matt Fussell,
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes in front of them so they can see how you handle it. Make your thought processes visible to the kids, be an example. 
  • Also, teach your students about the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset. 
  • If they think they will be unsuccessful with a project, show them all the ways they have already succeeded...look for ways to praise their efforts. Have high expectations for your students! Everyone has the capability to learn, and we all learn in different ways. There are no excuses for not trying just because we think the end result will be mediocre at best. Everyone has to start somewhere! These videos might help: 

"One reason many students seem unmotivated is because of lack of hope and optimism. Low socioeconomic status and the accompanying financial hardships are correlated with depressive symptoms (Butterworth, Olesen, & Leach, 2012). Moreover, the passive "I give up" posture may actually be learned helplessness, shown for decades in the research as a symptom of a stress disorder and depression. Research from 60 high-poverty schools tells us that the primary factor in student motivation and achievement isn't the student's home environment; it's the school and the teacher (Irvin, Meece, Byun, Farmer, & Hutchins, 2011). Effort can be taught, and strong teachers do this every day." How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement, Eric Jensen

 4. DISCIPLINE; if students won't work, and you know there isn't another issue (health, lack of understanding, etc.), they just might need a little motivation in the form of a negative consequence.  Click on this link to read more about discipline. ... This link takes you to the page, "Discipline Assignments For Art."


  • Providing authentic praise and encouragement, and even rewards can help tremendously. Use rewards and incentives carefully, though; overuse can backfire, leading to a lack of motivation. These also lose effectiveness with older students. 
  • The more positive remarks you make, the more you look for ways to authentically praise your students' efforts, the more they will be encouraged to do well. 

editor's note: you can find lots of tips about motivating elementary students here: ELEMENTARY TIPS AND TRICKS

Whether you believe you can or you believe you can't, you're right. 

8th grade self-portrait by Brittany
Further Resources:

Is This Good Enough?, article by Mrs. Anna Nichols

"I Hate Art!", article by Mrs. Anna Nichols

Making Art Fun For a Perfectionist Kid,, by Lotus Stewart

Strategies To Build Intrinsic Motivation, by David Palank,

"8 Ways to Fuel Your Students' Intrinsic Motivation," by Michael Linsin

5 Innovative Methods For Maximum Motivation,  by Ian Sands,

3 Ways To Channel Your Fears Into Creativity, by Meera Lee Patel,

Artists Are Re-drawing Their Old Work To Show How Much They've Improved, by Sara Barnes,

How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement, Eric Jensen

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed, David L. Kirp, The New York Times

What To Say To Calm An Anxious Child,

Jessica Balsley ( has a list of 50 Positive Ways to Reward students in the art classroom.

175 PBIS Incentives for High School,

5 Questions To Ask Yourself About Unmotivated Students, Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy

3 Methods To Motivate the Unmotivated, by Jill Jenkins,

How To Help Students Develop Ideas, theunstandardizedstandard, by Amber Kane

How To Get Your Students Unstuck and Out of I Can't Mode, theunstandardizedstandard, by Amber Kane

Strategies For Reaching Quiet, Disengaged, Struggling, and Troublemaking Students, David Cutler, Edutopia

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs To Know, We Are Teachers

8 Things Teachers Do To Cause Boredom, Michael Linsin

Simple Classroom Management Solutions For the High School Art Room, Timothy Bogatz, theartofed

Essential Steps To Turn Art I Students Into Artists, by Matt Christenson,

Avoiding Learned Helplessness, Andrew Miller, Edutopia

NAESP; Getting Beyond the Entitlement Mindset,
Edwin Colbert

Five Signs of Entitlement In Our Kids, Tim Elmore

19 Daily Habits of Artists That Can Help Unlock Your Creativity, Katherine Brooks, Huffington Post Arts & Culture

What I Really Wish I Would Have Said To The Teacher Who Called To Talk About My Child's Behavior, Cherie Lowe, Today Parenting Team

3 Ways To Motivate Your Students On Tough Days, Melissa Purtee,

Dan Pink on Motivation, TED Talk, author speaks about motivation in a business setting, suitable for high school

"Students who show little or no effort are simply giving you feedback. When you liked your teacher, you worked harder. When the learning got you excited, curious, and intrigued, you put out more effort. We've all seen how students will often work much harder in one class than in another. The feedback is about themselves—and about your class. Take on the challenge. Invest in students who are not putting out effort. In a study of more than 1,800 children from poverty, school engagement was a key factor in whether the student stayed in school (Finn & Rock, 1997)." How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement, Eric Jensen

"It is a lot easier to be satisfied in life when you have low standards. It is easy to be lazy. We learn to stick with what we are already good at, avoid what we are not good at, and try to steer clear of looking foolish and taking risks. We learn to have low expectations for ourselves. We learn low standards and laziness and the defiant attitude that no one can judge me or try to hold me to a higher standard." Matt Appling, Life After Art

"Systems of recognition for expected behavior (which can include verbal, non-verbal, and tangible acknowledgment) are present and necessary across our society as a whole – in personal relationships, in business, in the community, in sports, and pretty much any other setting you can think of. ... Recognition, tangible or intangible, does not decrease motivation. That’s a misunderstanding of the continuum of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic. Almost nothing a person does in the course of the day is 'intrinsically motivated'. Intrinsic motivation means a person does something purely for the sake of finding joy in the activity – no additional outcome. Some examples might include children swinging on a swing set, a person singing in the shower, or stepping outside to watch the first snowfall. These are not comparable to the behaviors we need students to use in the classroom. No student is standing quietly in line or completing math homework for the pure joy of it. To some degree, there is an external motivation (a grade, pride, pat on the back). Then there are some things for which we are purely extrinsically motivated, and there’s no problem with that. The reason we pay our electric bills is because we have to do it to keep the lights on. Sure, we get entertainment, heat, ability to keep food fresh, and a host of other benefits from the electricity, but we only pay the bill because it’s required. Purely extrinsically motivated behavior.Pretending that all behaviors related to school need to be “intrinsically motivating” is just nonsense. Students will be somewhere on the continuum from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation for all manner of things during the day. Extrinsic motivation can be employed strategically to change behavior, and that can be a good thing." Deanna Maynardcommenting on the article, One of the Worst Classroom management Strategies I've Ever Seen, by Michael Linsin 
"Lack of confidence or an impossible ambition may both cause failure but if we work realistically, accepting ourselves as we are, confidence will come or vaulting ambition learn a moderation that leads to success. As the power of achievement grows, we shall find that we have it in us to do work stamped with our own distinctive character, because character develops inevitably with the things we do, and that we shall be making a contribution in itself unique to our surroundings.
The only fatal thing is to give up trying, to allow that sense of innate ability to become submerged, turning to a feeling of frustration and finally indifference. By so doing we shall cheat ourselves of some of the best things in life.
Once started on the good road to craftsmanship there is no knowing where a man will stop. One thing has an odd way of leading to another, interests and accomplishments grow and thrive by the way. To the end of our days we shall probably feel conscious of the things we might have done and did not, but in so far as we were willing to pay the price of achievement we shall have something to show for having lived."
— Charles H. Hayward, The Woodworker, April 1955 issue,

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


Claire Caldwell, middle school said...

In general, one of my biggest concerns is that teachers should be firm but fair, but in so doing, establish relationships with and get to know their students - make a point to work one on one with each person, give praise, encourage steady work, assist where help is needed. I have measures in place to recognize and reward each student, for example, I have a birthday calendar and the student gets to wear the birthday hat on his or her big day; I have "art bucks" which are given to students who do good deeds, help me with errands or chores, help others, etc. - I draw art bucks each Friday for small art-related prizes I find at the thrift stores. The kids will respect you if you set guidelines, enforce them and hold students to those standards, while fostering an environment of learning! Make lessons fun and keep your sense of humor.

Finally, make sure you contact parents when necessary, but not necessarily just for negative issues, such as undesirable behavior. Send a note home praising a student who has done an exceptional job on a project or in the classroom. If you do have to contact a parent or guardian, make sure you say something positive about the child in so doing. Most parents WANT to hear from the teacher, whether for positive or negative concerns.

Anonymous said...

an experienced high school teacher writes: "My number one management issue is with kids' homework assignments and them turning them in on time. (middle and high school) In itself, this really is not an issue of classroom management per se, however, it becomes one when I have to constantly chase down homework, talking to kids ( usually it's the same 3 or 4), reminding them day after day to bring it in: in other words I am losing precious instruction time. I have looked at this matter for many years and tried many things and even though it's gotten better it's still a problem. Our school has a "no zero" policy and teachers could get in trouble for not going the extra 1000 miles (and being able to account for that effort) to make sure each kid is turning in homework in order to get some kind of grade even if it is just a few points.I don't realistically think there is an answer out there because this problem just comes with teaching kids. Lazy kids will continue to show up in art classes as in any other classes. It's nice to be able to speak this aloud amongst like-minded art teachers. Maybe someone will have a new idea I have not thought of yet!

Elizabeth Ware, retired, middle/high school said...

She is right. There will always be lazy kids so you will never get 100% participation. I always gave points but that didn't matter to some. I checked their homework during class and would try to brag and show good pieces. That would spur some to try to do better to get recognized. At random times I required them to use one of their homework assignments as their class project. They never knew when I would do this so most of them tried hard to have good homework ideas. Hope this helps.

Sharon Christman, retired, elementary/college said...

Find out what the other teachers do in this situation. The school and teachers should work together so everyone is doing the same. Probably those 3-4 are not handing in homework in their other classes as well.
In some situations home-life might play a part in homework not being done. Find out if there is a time during the day, study hall etc. when those students can come sit in your room to complete homework. Making it an inconvenience for them not you may cause a change in attitude toward homework. Then again, there are those few who will not do homework for you or anyone else a mindset that “it is not important."


Something that you might find interesting are some extreme measures two rather famous educators went to in order to motivate their students to do their work – Ron Clark, author of The Essential 55, and Ben Chavis, author of Crazy Like a Fox.
Both Ron Clark and Ben Chavis would visit students in their homes as well as use wild incentives. Ben Chavez would use monetary prizes and resorted to public embarrassment, too. He said he would rather embarrass a student in school than have the student embarrass his/her family later by getting arrested or dropping out of school. (Mr. Chavis was hired to turn around a failing school (close to 100% poverty) in Oakland, CA., and within 4 or 5 years had made the school one of the top 5 performing schools in the state.) Ron Clark took his students on extravagant field trips, had pizza parties galore, and used any and all means to get them excited about learning and motivated to work hard. I’m not saying you should try anything like that (especially the embarrassment bit), it’s just something interesting to think about.

Chris Screws, high school said...

This is my 12th year of teaching art. I taught middle school for 6 years and I am now in my 6th year at the high school. I will answer as a high school teacher since this is where I am currently placed. My goals for my students as a high school teacher vary. First of all I must understand why a student is taking Art.
· Art 1: Some students simply need an art credit to graduate, so we focus on completing basic assignments and understanding content. For others in Art 1, Art may be one of the classes that they adore. Understanding that there are some students that will never take art again helps me to keep perspective. Now don’t get me wrong, I never write off a student as a “one-timer”. I strongly believe that any student that walks through my door can achieve and create art they never thought possible. We focus on Drawing and Design with small forays into Sculpture. This is mostly due to class size(usually around 40) and lack of fee money since the class is required for most high school students. Most students are on task and work because of the credit needed and the simple fact that they’d rather draw for a grade than be in another academic class. Most high school kids are reasonably calm. They are social, but I don’t run a silent classroom.
· Art 2: Most choose to take Art 2. My Art 2 is an exploration of visual art. Drawing, Painting, Sculpting, Printmaking and Mixed Media. We switch gears so often, they don’t have a chance to get bored.
· Art 3-4: They all really want to be in art. By now they have started to develop a style and know their strengths. They still explore new ways of making art, but also have a chance to create a body of work focused on their strengths.
· AP Art: We only have 7 this year and these kids are amazing. Keeping them on a strict time table is the biggest challenge. 24 amazing pieces in less than one school year can be rough, but can be done.
Ultimately it boils down to know your kids and why they are in Art. We teachers know they content we need to cover, but understanding what your students are ready to absorb at that time is the trick. I am constantly taking inventory of what is sticking. You have to listen to them as well. It’s not always the words they say, but their behaviors. Are they on board with the project? What are their personal barriers to entry? Is the project to difficult or too easy?

Carolyn McDonald, high school said...

I give students' ownership in their own production by giving assignments that they can choose media and variations on the assignment. I also play different types of music to either calm, stimulate, or simply enjoy. We sometimes do a little yoga before we begin for the day and I try to get to know my students personally and let them know that I care. It really works!


It has been my experience that many of my students think they don't need to work hard in art due to the fact they don't have to pass the class to move on to the next grade. I teach middle school, so it takes some time to win them over to "my side!" I try to talk to them about how success in life is "99% perspiration and 1% inspiration," We talk about how important art is in everyday life and how they need problem-solving and creativity skills in their future jobs. I praise the ones who are working hard and taking the time to make their projects neat. I really make it a point to acknowledge it when kids do something "extra," too, like a really good idea on the art piece, or picking up someone else's trash, etc. I have a place on the rubric for "Participation/Effort," and I can dock points if they make it a habit to not do seat work or clean-up. Basically, my expectations are that the kids WILL work hard. The experts say they will live up to your expectations!
Sometimes, the kids are being disrespectful and taking advantage of my good nature, and they try to get away with playing/talking/goofing off/sometimes throwing paper at each other, etc. At that point, I figure they need disciplinary action and I will write them up. That kind of misbehavior can usually be spotted even before the paper wars start, and I will give a verbal warning to get busy, then I will have them sign the blue form and write the discipline assignment, call parents, etc.
My personality is not big like some teachers; I am pretty reserved and quiet (not that I don't get loud sometimes, I do!) So I have had to learn other ways to motivate the kids besides just having a magnetic personality. I have survived 10 years, thank God!

Clay Cox, high school said...

One big concern is just effort from the students. Giving them a daily participation/conduct grade helps tremendously. Also, making each student turn in SOMETHING to be graded (whether finished or not) after each 5 days of work helps to keep them accountable…

Anonymous said...

The biggest challenge as a middle school art teacher is that most middle school age kids want to be the same. They want to fit in and not stand out. This translates into their being afraid to take risks in their art work. In general there is a fear of making a mistake so they are overly cautious.


I agree wholeheartedly! My students, both artistic and non-artistic, are afraid of making mistakes. I try and try to talk to them about the learning process, and recently I heard a quote (probably from one of the TED talks) that if one is afraid to take a risk, one will never be original/come up with a new idea. I think this year I have trained most of my students that it is okay not to love every project they create, and it is okay to mess up sometimes. Like you, though, I really wish they weren’t so freaked out by being “different”.
Just out of curiosity, what community do you serve? Is it mostly blue-collar, like mine, or is it more affluent? I recently talked to a middle school art teacher who serves a VERY affluent community who said almost exactly the same thing you did.

"I can accept failure. Everybody fails at something. But I can't accept not trying. Fear is an illusion." -- Michael Jordan

"Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller

"Go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is." -- Jimmy Carter

"A man would do nothing, if he waited until he could do it so well that no one would find fault with what he has done." -- Cardinal Newman

"Pearls don't lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it."

"Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called 'sure-thing-taking.'" -- Jim McMahon

Rachel Dudley, high school said...

I think that the biggest concern as an art teacher is student motivation. In saying that, there is a lot of thought and time put into planning lessons that will be seen meaningful to the students, but at the same time will build a strong foundation for them in art production, art history, and art aesthetics.
Another integral part of successfully motivating students is for me as a teacher to establish relationships with students and to allow them to be a support system to each other.
Breaking up the classroom time to provide opportunities for individual and group critiques, allowing students to participate in community service projects, and school improvement based art projects allow the students to see purpose in an art program, because all of those activities build relationships and character in and outside of the classroom.