Are “Problem” Students Really a Problem?

"problem" students


As art teachers, we have a unique perspective on student behavior, because we get to see students in a much different environment than other teachers. The art room is a place where students can let loose a little. It is a place bursting with creativity and hands-on learning. It’s fun. So, when a classroom teacher comes to me and says something like, “Watch out for Johnny! He’s disruptive, rude and rarely does anything without being asked 50 times!” I always have mixed feelings.

On one hand, I do appreciate the forewarning, especially if it’s about a student that has a history of violence or a student that may have a medication change or other big shake up in his or her life. But, on the other hand, I kind of like to figure those things out on my own. Behaviors that students exhibit in other places in the school don’t always appear in the art room.

Have you ever been talking with other teachers, praising a student that does a wonderful job in your room, only to hear that he or she is a total nightmare in other classes? It’s happened to me on more than one occasion. In fact, some of my most favorite students are those who don’t do well out of the art room!

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So I’m curious to know, how much information do you like to have on incoming students?

Do you want to know every detail, or do you like to start with a blank slate?

How helpful is all that extra information? With so many students, can you even remember it!?




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. 


  • Ashley Fournier

    I listen to the teachers, and take the information with a grain of salt. Many times the students that act out in the general education classroom are the ones that flourish in the art space.

    For the students that typically have the ‘behavior issues’ it’s good to know that they are having a rough day, and to have a heads up that they may be easily set off. On another train of thought depending on what is happening in class there are times I support the general education teacher and have a consequence follow through into my class time. There were times in the past where I didn’t believe in that, but as educators we should support one another and provide a consequence when needed, if relevant, and if it makes sense as a repercussion.

    There are times when I am shocked to hear about what is going on with a students life and I would most certainly look at the behavior differently if I knew what was going on at home. As a specialist we are often the last to know these matters, which is unfortunate. It took me a while to understand this but I am not ashamed to say that I modify my behavior and consequences based upon the background and story of my students. We have the great opportunity to know students for a longer period of time, and to know what consequence works best with each.

    • Vicky Siegel

      I agree with your last paragraph, Ashley! It is those students that I like to have be helpers and I really try to boost their confidence!

  • Maria Watson Meredith

    I sometimes have the opposite problem. I work in a Montessori school and in their classrooms the children are free to work on their own work at their own pace. But in specials like art, they aren’t used to working on the same thing at the same time, and a few tend to misbehave and balk at the lesson. And they aren’t as used to listening in a group while the teacher is talking so I am constantly having to tell them to be quiet, which as far as I know doesn’t happen as much in their regular classrooms.

    But, I do agree that a lot of times the ones that may be problems in the classroom do well in art.

    • Sarah

      Maria- have you heard of TAB, or choice based art? It’s a perfect fit for Montessori, and I love the way students work and what they discover in this approach.

    • marnioberpriller

      The thing I’ve found to be most helpful with whole-class vs independent work is providing Montessori students with forewarning and guidance through transitions. Forewarning that a transition or stopping-point is coming. While not all students have a sense of time in elementary school. Having a heads-up that a transition will be coming or that there will be time to work on a project the next session.

  • Melissa Enderle

    Amanda, I totally agree that we need to stay away from pre-judging a student and falling into the trap of feeding into pre-conceptions. Some of my most enthusiastic, talented students have been those who have learning (or other) disabilities, behavior problems elsewhere, etc. The arts is often one area where such kids shine and succeed. True, we do need to know when there is a strong potential for safety concerns (i.e. kids who eat art supplies, are prone to physical outbursts), or physical need (i.e. hearing/visual impairments) that would manifest themselves in art. Kids are very aware of labels and pre-conceptions, which leads to self-fulfillment attitudes/actions- whether good or bad. For those students with “wiggle” problems, I found that giving them achievable responsibilities and opportunities for leadership channels need for action into useful purposes. Look at kids for what they can do!

    • hahaha. Yes- please tell me who is going to try and drink the paint water or eat the glue! :)

  • Kelsey Lapin

    I like when I don’t know everything about the students coming into my class. I don’t want to start with a biased opinion about them. I do however, run into the situation where staff and classroom teachers don’t let me know about students with special needs. Especially students that identified as EBD. There are also many skills in IEPs can be worked on in the art room but no one informs me and I shouldn’t have to seek that information out when I have 1,000 students.

    • Yes- so true. There are kids we absolutely should know about and don’t. It’s definitely a balance!

  • kathleenMK

    I like to be forewarned but give the kids a chance to impress me as a helper or just a little honest praise for their efforts. They are usually starving for that.Today one of my ADHD kids captured the sunlight streaming through the classroom window in his still life so I snapped a picture and sent it to the principals because I know they have seen him too often for behavior issues. So many of my kids have heartbreaking stories and through Art I can give them a little TLC and have truly seen Art become their way out or tragic situations.

  • Katherine Braun

    Just today I had a Kindergarten teacher drop off her class with a “I’m not a happy camper” face and a verbal warning of “We are not having a good day.” We get in, get to work, had only positive interactions, and learned some great stuff about drawing facial expressions! She almost seemed bitter when I bragged on how well they did in class today… perhaps everyone just needed a break! Still, I love my students at my Title 1 campus that’s considered one of the tougher ones in our district. Even though it is only my second year, these kids are like putty in my hands! Having clear expectations, more engaging learning activities, and A TON of student input on projects are all factors I think have really helped :)

    • Nic

      Ugh that happens all the time. I don’t like when they drop of their kids with a negative attitude. It makes the first couple minutes of art class so awkward!

      • I agree! Even if they ARE having a rough day, I’d rather figure that out on my own, or see how they do with me. Otherwise, it creates anxiety from the first minute of class!

  • Karen

    Having all sorts of “problem” students lately. they do not respect me or the art room or the materials. They throw erasers at each other and at me. They say they do not care and don’t even try to do their best work. I am at my wits end!!!

    • Yikes, Karen! Sorry to hear you’re having a rough time! I hope things turn around for you soon!

    • Linda

      Karen, can I suggest that you spend a lesson getting to know your kids, sometimes they don’t respect you because they know nothing about you and you know nothing about them. Build relationships and see if the respect you earn from that makes a difference to your class. When I have a really naughty student I spend time with that student and give them praise and encouragement. When we are at our wits end we get frustrated and angry which only makes the situation worse. I hope you can turn it all around. This link on behaviour management may help issue 1 for 2013 Effective Classroom Management to Promote Learning, it helped me.

  • marnioberpriller

    I have always found the Generalists’ assumptions and projections frustrating. A simple Student X has been struggling in my class room today, would suffice vs. You can send Student X to the Behavior room. At least the child has the control and decision to stay or not; vs a teacher that completely withholds a student from Art.

    • Generalists need to take the time to realize (and be enlightened) that kids do FUNction in alternate environments from what the generalist classes have to offer – or not offer!

    • It can be as simple as reassuring and letting a student know that when coming into the art room that s/he is getting a “fresh start.” I have no idea how his or her day is going prior to arrival at my door.
    • As Kathleen said, a small job or purpose can have an HUGE impact on turning a student’s day around!
    • It is disheartening that students are withheld from Art as a consequence for something else that takes place in his or her day; because s/he is not functioning in the traditional class room environment. There have been times I’m not even aware that the student is in school, because another adult “filtered” that student from my classroom.
    • On a similar topic, having Generalists withhold a student from my class to clean, file and collate papers for their classroom! Grates on me.

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  • bianca

    I appreciate the warnings for sure so that I can set myself up with a firm tone and make sure that I can keep consistent in managing the group. I like to remind the students when I walk into the room that specials is a time for a clean slate in the classroom and I expect them all to achieve excellent behaviour. This is especially useful when the classroom has a behaviour chart and they can visualize their name on the Great Behaviour section.

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