5 Strategies for Working With High School Students Who Hate Art

Working with high school students can be challenging at the best of times, but when you have a student who hates your class it can ruin an entire semester. You know what I’m talking about–always late to class, rolls their eyes when you give a direction, refuses to work, or is just basically disengaged. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help turn even the toughest case around.

5 Strategies That Work to Build
Relationships and Improve Behavior


1. Treat the student with respect.

This strategy is essential, but it can be really difficult, especially if you encounter defiant behavior. It’s so tempting to raise your voice or resort to sarcasm when a student is rude or disrespectful but doing so will always make the situation worse. The student’s behavior will escalate in response and cause a much more difficult situation for all involved. Instead, take a deep breath and maintain your cool.

Next, ask what’s going on and listen. Try to be non-confrontational. For example, instead of asking, “Why are you refusing to work?” try, “I noticed that you put your head down a lot during class. Are you getting enough sleep?” If you discover a problem during your conversation, try to help solve the issue, which could range from providing extra support to setting up a meeting with a guidance counselor.

Remember, suggesting that a kid who’s always tired needs extra sleep may seem obvious, but there are many children who don’t have a parent that gives this sort of advice. Just listening empathetically can really help form a positive relationship.

2. Be flexible and fair.

On first glance, these descriptors don’t seem to belong together, so let me explain. Fairness, in my book, means that everyone gets what they need. This often results in different expectations for some students. Sure, it’s the teacher’s job to hold all students to high standards, but if those standards create a barrier to learning, then enforcing them is a losing battle.

For example, one of my expectations is that my students create and maintain blogs used for reflective writing. It’s an important part of my curriculum, but in every class I have a handful of students who struggle with this task.

I have to be flexible to provide the best learning experience for each of them. Some end up with a one-on-one review of the assignment and specific feedback about how to make their writing more analytical. Other students need frequent reminders to keep up with expected blog posts. Some, due to working with a disability or language deficit, have modified written assignments or an oral reflection. Each student receives the support they need. To do what is fair, teachers often have to be flexible.
be flexible Melissa

3. Focus on improvement.

Think about where the student is now and what they could do to improve. For example, for a student who is chronically late, being on time more often than not would be a big improvement. Once you’ve developed a positive relationship with the student by treating them with respect and being flexible and fair, it’s time to talk about what needs to improve.

Be direct and honest: “When you come in late every day it’s frustrating because you miss important directions. Could you try to be closer to on time?” Yes, it would be ideal if this kid was there before the bell rang every day but that’s not currently happening. Some improvement can help make a positive change.

4. Include choice.

Students are all individuals with their own likes and dislikes, abilities, and interests. Letting them have the responsibility to make choices about the content, direction, or process of their artwork can be motivating. Including meaningful choice in assignments often improves participation and engagement. It’s also very beneficial for classes that have a range of ability levels because when the artwork becomes increasingly different there is more room for every student to feel successful.

Meaningful choice goes beyond things like selecting a color scheme or a type of background. It involves making decisions that have a higher level of impact on the artwork. Areas of choice include materials and content of the work. Choices can be modified, meaning students can be given a few options to select from, or open with a broad spectrum of options available.
include choice

5. Let it go.

Not everyone is going to like your class, and that’s okay. Sometimes personalities clash or a student just isn’t in a place where they can engage and participate. Hopefully, applying the above tips will make the situation tolerable. However, if you encounter chronic behavior that disrupts learning, it might be time to take the problem to your administration. Before you do, make sure that you’ve documented the interventions you’ve put in place and contacted parents.

Working with kids who hate your class is a challenge but using strategies like building respectful relationships, being flexible, focusing on improvement, and including choice can help the situation.

How do you deal with kids who hate art? Tell us your tips in the comments below!


Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • BossySnowAngel

    It’s hard to deal with defiant students and we seem to get all the kids who fought with the band director, don’t want to speak in class and avoid theater or simply don’t want to learn music. We’re their last stop. My biggest dread is seeing a senior come into an Art One class knowing he probably needs the credit and that he (or she) avoided it for four plus years (we have eighth grade high school art one for advanced middle school students) I try to engage them on a social level. I emphasize improvement over expertise. I try to help them if they are willing to work. But I also have to say there are those kids who simply don’t want to work, and although I am not happy about it, in my tenure as a teacher, I have failed two seniors who needed the credit because they simply turned in nothing. Yes, I contacted parents, etc. But by they time a kid’s a senior, if they aren’t going to seize chances to succeed, I’m not sure Art One is the place to make a stand.

    • melissa purtee

      I know what you mean about seniors. I’ve had a few who refused to work. Still, I hate failing them knowing how the lack of a diploma will affect their life trajectory. If they meet me somewhere in the middle I do all I can to make sure they oass.

    • Lisa

      In the end the seniors fail themselves, we teachers simply record what they do or don’t do all while trying to encourage them to turn it work. I am dealing with the same situation right now. The student was disrespectful by talking to me in a false voice and when I confronted him about him not being sincere he admitted he didn’t want to be in the class but was told he needed it for the credit. He is starting to stir up some of the borderline students. Wondering where to relocate his assigned seat so he won’t disrupt others but then don’t want to “punish” the good workers by putting the negative guy by them either.

      • Bhatter

        I found success showing struggling or disengaged students projects that will lead to success. I’m not opposed to allowing these kids access to a light table if it means they will actually like their artwork because it looks good as long as they give whatever copied image their own twist. This practice has worked wonders in my 16 years as an art teacher.

        • Lisa Michne David

          Bhatter- what do you mean show them an image on a light table? Do you mean trace it? I have same prob with seniors that just need credit to graduate

          • Bhatter

            Yes, I let them trace for some of my intro projects. Especially students that have no idea how to draw. i honestly think allowing some tracing gives frustrated students lacking drawing skill success. Most of the time kids thrown in art are afraid to fail and are scared to look bad in front of their peers. I’ve had too many kids come in that draw like toddlers at the high school age. A few tracing successes and with guided practice I see these students grow artistically.

  • April Hallock

    This is a wonderful article. I have a group of young artists in middle school who do not enjoy “traditional” media or techniques. Some do not even enjoy school at all. I’ve been trying to think outside the box for 3 years and THEN I got the idea at our TAB Institute from Carol Woodard and Jen Rankey to create what I am calling our Construction Site studio space. I am getting feedback from many of our artists but these middle schoolers in particular, on what we need /want for the space. Hammers, nails, electric screwdrivers, saws, wood, measuring tapes, etc. are on the list!!! The sixth grade proposed taking one of the walls down in the studio to create a bigger space to work. An eighth grader is officially taking the project on. This is especially exciting because the student has been the most challenging to motivate. Give them the opportunity to lead and they will!

    • melissa purtee

      Apeil, I want to take your class!

  • Hilary McLean

    Love, especially the first tip. I have a student who claims to hate art, but still does his work. He grumbles the whole time, but it doesn’t keep him from actually making some cool stuff. “This whole “I hate art” thing seems to be working for ya!” I said to him, and now it is kind of a joke between us. I think students like to be accepted and *seen*.

    • melissa purtee

      I so agree! Your students are lucky to have you. :)

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  • Laura Moakley

    This post is great.. The best thing I have learned after teaching high school studio art for the last 10 years with 30 students.. Don’t take everything they do seriously ( pick your battles) build relationships– talk about shows they watch, use sarcasm, make them laugh — Ask them what they like to do. Yes and if serious issues do arrive take it to administration. I found the more kids I wrote up the worse the class became, ( when I was a new teacher) the more I worked with them and helped them the better the class became tolerable.

    • Lisa Michne David

      Laura- what do you do when your studio kids enter room? Do they just pick up on the project in progress or do you do some engagement activity? I have one class leaving as another one enters- the entering class has some immature 10th graders mixed in the class. It’s a crafts class so I can pretty much do anything with them. We are using wire now.

      • laura

        My students are on a routine — i teach 3 sections of studio art about 30 kids to each class.. half the class doesn’t want to be there
        1. put back packs away
        2. retrieve art portfolio go get supplies out
        3. Look at board or google classroom to see what to continue
        I stand at the door for rougher classes, to structure them to direct them on what to do at the beginning of the year.
        Once you get them on a daily expectation schedule you are set the class is automatic..
        4. I don’t make the projects to hard.. thats for advanced art classes.. the harder or more advanced the projects get in studio the more you lose them.. Basic concepts and skills.. the same with a crafts class.. Make books, jewelry. Tell them what they are expected to do when they walk in.. stand at the door great them.. etc.

  • Lisa Michne David

    Frustrated as a first year high school teacher (taught elem before). I have a crafts class that is packed with kids who need the credit. There are a few kids who get the others going. What are your best engagement activities for when the kids come in? Or do you have them start right on their projects?

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  • anonymous

    Really wish the bitch if an art teacher would let us be creative and not put a bunch of rules for what we can and can’t do in the with our art

  • Jon

    I love my art teacher, but hate the class so bad. I would have quit if it weren’t for the teacher herself, she’s a lovely person. :)
    But I still feel like crap every single day I’m in class. I’ve always been academically inclined, with good grades and an understanding of the curriculum. But I just *can’t* do art. I quite literally fail to make a straight line with a ruler! I can somewhat trace over things if given a lot of time and very simple lines, but I can’t even do a basic scaling when transferring a photo into a drawing, for example. Not even an empty window. You have no idea how discouraging it is to work SO hard just to get the tiniest bit of progress, and run out of time every. single. time. before finishing an assignment. It makes me feel like a stupid, worthless idiot, and I dread coming to class every day.
    I’m so glad to have such a great teacher. There’s no way I could have kept up this long otherwise.
    I’m probably an unusual case, but I’m sure there are at least a few others like me. Some of them might be too ashamed to admit that they can’t do things that most kindergartners can do, and consequently act out.
    I hope this might be of use to someone, and thank you very much for reading.

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