How Do You Handle Absent Students?

I was recently talking with one of my art teacher friends when the topic of absent students came up. Because many of us do not see students every day (or sometimes even every week) dealing with absent students can be tricky. My friend teaches at an elementary school and shared that she usually doesn’t have students make up work. If a student misses a lesson, they just miss it and jump back in with the class when they return. I get where she is coming from. When you teach so many students and have to fit in so many projects, sometimes it’s just not possible to let every student make up every project. However, I think that if a student has started a project, he or she should be able to finish it. The trick is letting the student finish without (a) giving up my prep time, (b) having them fall behind the class, or (c) having gazillions of art supplies out at once. Today I’d like to share three ways that I deal with absent students.


1. Build in a “Finish-Up” Day

Near the end of each semester, I build in a Finish-Up Day for each grade level. Any students that need to work on unfinished projects sit at one table. The rest of the students choose something to work on from the free choice station.  This set-up works well because I can work one-on-one with students that need to get caught up, while the other students have a day to choose an art project that best meets their interests.

2. Use students as extra teachers.

If a student misses the first part of the lesson but is back for the second day, I often utilize another student as an “extra teacher for the day.” This student is in charge of getting the absent student caught up on the first part of the project by helping him or her get supplies and reviewing the steps we have already completed. I love this technique because it allows me to give students extra responsibility, while freeing me up to help the other students get started on step two.

3. Find extra time that students can catch up on projects during class.

At the elementary level, I often start with students on the carpet where we may read a book, look at a piece of art or have a discussion. This carpet time usually lasts anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. If I have a student that needs to catch up, I sometimes will ask that student’s classroom teacher to send him or her to the art room five minutes early. The extra few minutes let me get that student started on the project, which he or she can then work on during carpet time. Often, this gives the student enough extra time so that they can jump back in with the rest of us.

Of course there are those times when having a student make up a project is either impossible (gone three weeks to Hawaii) or just not worth it (missed a one-day lesson with a sub). In those situations, I just let it go.

We would love to hear, how do you handle absent students?

How do things work differently at the middle school and high school level?

Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Jorena

    Amanda- These are EXACTLY the things I do as well. The catch up day at the end of the grading period also allows me some time to “catch up” as well. Often I will work on what I need to do to finish up the grading period while the students do their thing.

    • So true, Jorena. Sometimes a catch up day is good for everyone. :)

  • Vicky Siegel

    As I am reading this I have fourth graders who were absent last week trickling in at lunch recess to finish painting monochromatic masks!! This way their paint will be dry, and then they can add mixed-media items this week. Although, some will just use marker instead if they do not show up today! I do all of the above, too! Sometimes for first graders, helpers will do parts of theirs, or they will use my example, but usually helpers will catch them up or I will during work time and everyone is settled- although this time of year some classes are not “settled!:

  • When the weather is bad here in the Midwest (Snow, cold or rain) one option that works is to give students permission to come into the art room and get their work and basic supplies, take it back to their classroom, and work on it during indoor recess (I typically was busy with duties). This worked great for 3-5 students who were a bit more responsible.

    • Yes! That is a great option for responsible kids!

  • Ms.G

    I teach middle school in a very low income school and absences are a big problem. making grading hard, and we have regular report cards with standards based grades. So those absent students frequently endup failing
    I will loan out supplies when there is interest and I have them to spare. I hold a weekly homework club that concides with my art club where kids that are behind can not only have time and supplies, but also get lots of extra help. But it still doesnt seem to be enough. I struggle with this a lot

    • That sounds really tough. I’m inspired by your dedication to try and help those students catch up. I student taught in a similar situation. One idea off the top of my head is to make projects a bit shorter, with the option for extension. That way, maybe more kids could finish up the actual project, and kids that are there for more days could take it farther. For example, you could have all students do a self-portrait, but kids who are there for more time could then add a decorative border or do some creative writing about their piece.

  • Kristie Gillespie

    I call it “teacher at the table” I have a student that works quickly and is usually ahead to help the student that was absent catch up. I like the built in catch up day idea, I will need to do this as I always have students who are in the middle of projects and miss a class.

  • Backroads

    These are really good ideas