Relationship Building

How to Get Students to Open Up in the Classroom

student working at computer

In order to do their best work, students need to feel comfortable and able to give fully of themselves. It’s a tough sell, especially for the “non-art” kids at the higher grade levels who might only be in the class to fulfill a requirement. Developing a space and culture that encourages vulnerability and trust helps students make that leap toward opening up more.

Here are a few ways you can set up your classroom to encourage all students to open up and bring themselves into their artwork.

painted hearts

1. Create a welcoming space.

Art rooms can be magical spaces. Students feel comfortable getting messy, trying new ideas, and experimenting with new materials. How can you maximize this feeling, as an art teacher, through the actual physical space?

Here are some simple steps to help build a welcoming space.

  • Display student artwork. 
    Doing so creates a sense students have some ownership of the room and can contribute to their environment.
  • Highlight artists with identities we don’t normally see.
    Putting posters and work on the walls representative of various artists’ identities, including artists of color, female artists, and more, helps students understand that artists can look just like them. Artists don’t only look like the older white men we usually see in the art history canon.
  • Keep supplies clearly labeled and accessible. 
    This type of organizational system encourages artmaking. Students aren’t slowed down by a big mess or hidden materials.

All these little things in the space set the mood for students to start opening up.

art room

2. Provide opportunities for students to make more choices.

Giving students options about how to approach a project makes them invested in the work. The level of interest in recreating a teacher example quickly wanes, especially as students get older. At the same time, the push to make things their own, or to pursue a particular personal interest increases.

Why not create as many opportunities for student choice and voice as possible? This might mean allowing students to choose their own subject matter as long as they work with a particular medium or technique. Or it could be the opposite, having students work specifically around a topic or big question, but allowing them to choose their own medium.

Leaving projects more open-ended gives students a chance to have their voice or input incorporated into the actual artwork. At times, this might mean projects veer a little off track from our intended goals or outcomes, but it might also mean creating a more invested student in the class.

3. Give it time.

In short, getting students to open up won’t happen overnight. You probably won’t create buy-in after a single class, and maybe not for a whole project. For some students, it will take time to open up.

Staying patient and allowing students time makes a huge difference. Rushing them through the process can break down any trust you’ve already built up. Let them come to it on their own terms and remember, each time you give students some space to express themselves, it matters, even if it doesn’t seem like they’re taking advantage of it. You have to learn to trust in them as well. They’ll come around and eventually the lessons and ideas you’re sharing will start to stick.

If you’re really having trouble with a particular student or class, you may find some of the strategies in the Motivating Reluctant Learners PRO Learning Pack helpful. You’ll discover how a growth mindset and the right strategies can help motivate every student.

student working at computer

4. Be ok with things going sideways.

When a project starts to move in an entirely different direction, how can you support and encourage the student, rather than shutting them down for not meeting the stated outcomes?

It might be that this new direction is the first time a student has felt engaged or excited in the art room. If they’re exercising their creativity and showing some real enthusiasm in experimenting with the arts, isn’t it our responsibility to help encourage their fire and energy? I’m not advocating allowing students to always do whatever they want in the classroom or completely disregarding every project you present to them. But, using your insights and experience with specific students to gauge the right approach is important. If you’re finally seeing a spark, don’t shut it down! Letting go of the reins on a particular project might really pay off in the long run.

5. Be yourself!

And finally, remember students know when you are authentically invested in a class and project. When you share yourself fully and open up in the classroom, it will encourage them to do the same. You don’t have to tell them every detail of your weekend or all the ways you love a particular artist, but giving some anecdotes about a particular art class or experience with an artist or museum fleshes you out as a person. Rather than playing a character or the archetype of a teacher, being the real you and sharing your unique personality quirks and interests gives you a chance to connect. Give them another reason to trust that the art room is a safe space for them to open up.

You won’t always reach every kid, but creating space, both physical and mental, for students to be their full, authentic selves in the classroom goes a long way toward building artists of the future!

How do you encourage students to be fully engaged in the classroom?

What prompts work best to get students to open up?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Raymond Yang

Ray Yang is the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion of NAEA and a former AOEU Writer. They believe the arts can change the world.

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