Why Your Students are Overstimulated in Art, and How to Fix It

I recently read an article about surprising ways our brains work, and it stated, “Despite being one of our five main senses, vision seems to take precedence over the others.”

If some of your students have issues in the art room and you aren’t sure why, perhaps it’s time to think about your environment in relationship to the 5 senses. Too many posters on the wall? Unnecessary supplies set out? Cluttered countertops? Art toys littering your desk? Yes, this sounds all too familiar.

You may notice the second students walk in they begin to comment about anything new you’ve put up on the wall, a supply that is out, or a drawing on the board. They are watching. And clutter or change can be oh-so-distracting.

But it isn’t just about visual stimulation!

Today we will walk through a sensory map of your entire art room, thinking about all 5 senses, to see where you may be causing sensory overload for your students. Being sensitive to sensory overload issues can help students on the Autism spectrum, those with special needs, and really, ALL students. Most days, I am personally overstimulated by this colorful life we live. Now, imagine how your students feel when they come into art once a week!

I enlisted Alicia Peters, expert in reaching all artists, to help me come up with the ultimate sensory map to help you identify where you are overstimulating your students in the art room and what you can do about it.

Because it is apparently the most important, and we are artists, let’s start with vision.

Posters, bright florescent lights, cluttered countertops and items hanging from the ceiling can all contribute to visual overload. For students who can’t focus, Alicia likes to offer what she calls “Personal Art Studios,” which are simply cardboard desk dividers. Any student can choose to grab an “art studio” at anytime, as long as it doesn’t become an issue.
The art room is full of smells to which we become accustomed.

Alecia shared, “I had a student who exhibited behaviors every time we used glue sticks, which I identified over time. The smell bothered him for some reason. Simply switching glue sticks did the trick.”

If smell is a major issue, you can also adjust the smells of common art room supplies, like paint, by using Koolaid Powder.
Some students like to put things into their mouths, and we know, it happens in the art room too.

Alicia worked with a paraprofessional who refused to let a student use supplies because “he would just put them into his mouth.” So, she got creative and said, “Let’s start with something in the mouth first.“Gum, or a rubber chewy from the classroom did the trick. Once that sensory need was fulfilled, the student no longer needed to put supplies in his mouth.
If you have a student who is on the Autism Spectrum, for example, and the productive noise of the art room is problematic, have an honest conversation about the situation, in confidence, with the rest of your class. Focus on the importance of community and how noise level can really hinder some students. Reiterate that everyone is valued in the community. Students will respond well.

quiet art room

In addition, did you know that wearing lipstick can really help students with hearing impairments? The color creates more contrast for lip reading.

Another tip is to avoid the common mistake of turning your back to the students while you talk or draw on the board. Facing students as much as possible will help them hear and read your lips.
One of my personal favorite tips is to always keep a box of cheap, Latex-free gloves in your classroom. If students don’t like the feeling of clay or paint on their hands, why make them miserable? Pull out a set of gloves and make the art experience enjoyable. They can be selectively available to anyone.

As Alecia says, “If it’s good for one student, it’s good for all!”
Here is a really wonderful Sensory Matrix Map that Janine, a student in AOE’s Autism and Art class, recently created. I wanted to share it with you because it does an excellent job of visualizing the concept of thinking about your room in this way. And, hopefully, it will give you lots of creative ideas to start with if you decide to create your own Sensory Matrix Map!
Sensory Matrix Map

What is your biggest sensory issue in the art room?

What have you done to help solve it?


Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Mr. Post

    errrrr, I know I shouldn’t say this in a forum dedicated to art teachers, but many of them love clutter. They have scrap boxes full of paper or yarn that they never use. They keep cabinets full of dried out glue sticks and paints. The have a stack of assorted butter containers under the sink along with cans of stiff paint brushes that haven’t seen the light of day since the 1980’s. I personally have thrown out 15 dumpsters full of crap in my 20 years of being an art teacher.

    My school district moves teachers based on school enrollment so I have been in over 14 different elementary buildings. Whenever I get a new school I fill a dumpster or two with trash left behind by the previous art teachers. One time a teacher left large plastic containers full of bird seed in a cabinet over the summer. The mice threw a raging party for three months before I evicted them and the disco ball they made of glitter and glue.

    Keeping a visually neat room helps kids to understand the order and layout of the room. They know where to find supplies and where to put them back. Overly cluttered spaces seem counter-productive to teaching and learning to me.

  • Kathy

    Mr. Post, you surely knew my elementary art teacher! LOL!

  • Art Teachers Hate Glitter

    This is why I don’t really mind moving classrooms every year. I keep only the necessary stuff, clutter doesn’t have time to accumulate, and while to some, my wall could be described as “boring”, I like the bare-bones look. I only hang what is absolutely necessary (classroom rules, current project samples/poster). My students comment on how clean and spacious my room looks. I love it!

  • Pam Tycer

    I have been in the same room for over 15 years and I find that I have saved things for way too long! My back storage room is over flowing and I need to streamline my materials. I have been trying to sort through one area at a time and making some progress. Luckily I have the support of a great custodial staff that encourages me to throw stuff away, but all too often have this feeling of insecurity whenever I am going to pitch something. I am afraid that as soon as I do, I will think of a great use for it! It has happened before and then I kick myself thinking I should have saved that. I am 6 years away from retirement and I don’t want to leave a pile of junk for the next art teacher at my school so I am going to keep plugging away at getting rid of the clutter. This article puts a whole new spin on my commitment. I haven’t really thought of my room as being distracting to students. I know it causes me anxiety being in a cluttered environment. My students should not have to suffer from it also. I think I’ll go clean out a cupboard. I am staying late for conferences. Are there more of you out there that can relate to my dilemma?

  • Ronni DiGioia

    It is all about balance. You need to balance your teaching style with your student needs. You need to decide what behaviors you can tolerate and still maintain a learning environment.
    When accommodating for special needs students, I have been very fortunate to be able to rely on the special ed. staff. They usually know the student better, know the IEP better, and have a specialized knowledge in that field.
    To reduce clutter and distraction, materials stored outside of a cabinet or closet can be kept in containers/boxes that match. These can be as cheap as copy paper boxes or plastic bins purchased at Wal-Mart.

  • Amber George

    I have a few students on the spectrum who are sensitive to noise. I have a pair of headphones that they can use to help muffle the sound when the room becomes to loud for them.

  • Helen Snyder

    Amen on the get de-cluttering I’m still throwing out stuff from previous art teacher 5 years ago – distracting to students? Absolutely, though we creative types tend to love a little clutter. I’m the queen of plastic shoe boxes and baskets full of strange art stuff. Recently found a local Trash to Treasure place that actually takes old crayons/colored pencils – only so much recycled crayon making I can do. I hate it when kids paint their hands, especially middle school kids :) Once they do that they have to stop painting.

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