Instructional Strategies

What Do We Do with Those Early Finishers? (Ep. 015)

Those comments like “I’m finished” and “What do I do now?” are enough to drive any teacher crazy? But what do we do with those kids who are done early? Listen to some of Cassie’s ideas as she shares specific suggestions for early finishers (7:30), what her early finisher early project list looks like (10:15), and why you should probably invest in some dry erase boards (15:30). Full episode transcript below.


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I’m going to say some phrases to you and I want you to think about how they make you feel. On a scale of one to red hot, steam coming out your ears, freaking annoying. You ready? All right, here we go.

I’m done. Do you like mine? What are we doing today? Do I have to?

All right, be honest. Each one of those four phrases totally made you go to red, steam coming out your ears because if you’re like me, that’s how I feel. I just thought for just a second, what are some of the most annoying phrases that I hear in my room and those right there, I’m done, do you like mine? What are we doing today? And do I have to? Are you even kidding me? Those are my top four. But you know what’s at the tip top of my list that, I’m done. Which is usually quickly followed by, what do I do now? Yeah, those early finishers. Let’s talk about what to do with them when they are done, son. This is Cassie Stephens and this is Everyday Art Room.

Before we get into this, if you follow me on Instagram, where you can find me @Cassie_Stephenz with a Z because I was a little too late to the party to get my actual name, or if you follow my blog or just me on Facebook, then you know I am currently obsessed with figuring out that monster, that beast, those early finisher and friends. It’s at the forefront of my mind. I haven’t completely figured it out yet but I’m really excited about some ideas that I have, I’ve been kicking around and I plan to roll out after Thanksgiving break. It’s probably a little too soon to be sharing this with you but I always feel like I have to talk things through and I’m also hoping for some feedback from y’all. You guys, we’ve all been there, early finishers. What we do with them?

If this a little bit of a repeat from things that you’ve seen me talking about, just know that me personally, this is how my brain works. I have to overthink something before I can feel confident enough to tackle it. Thanks for letting me have a little therapy. I appreciate it. Let’s talk about those early finisher and friends. First of all, let’s address the real topic. Are they actually finished? Because if you make the carrot at the end of the stick a little too good, meaning if those early finishing activities are just too much fun or what they perceive to be as more fun than what they’re currently working on, because that’s nothing that drives me more crazy than when I’ve come up with this amazing lesson plan and all they want to do is scramble to free draw town. What is up with that?

Anyway, I digress. How do we get them to know or how are we certain that they’re actually finished? And is the project that they’ve completed up to not only your standards but their level of ability? After all, our job is to teach our students a skill, at least this is what I believe, teach our students a skill, create lessons that help them achieve that skill and then make sure they actually do. Knowing your students and knowing your expectations, allows you to know when they are actually finished. What do I do when I have friends who are quote, finished? And I’m not sure if they actually are? I’ve told them many a time that I am the meanest most rottenest art teacher they will ever encounter and that I expect the best things out of the very best artists and those are the only kind of artists that I teach therefore don’t even think you’re going to get away with giving me anything other than your very best.

I give that lecture, I wouldn’t say every art class, but when I think that they’re actually going to attempt to pull a fast one on me, then I bust out that little speech. And a lot of times, you guys, like I said, you know your students. If you see them walking toward the drying rack with a masterpiece that you know they did not complete in that 10 minutes that they worked on it, ask them to show it to you and give them feedback. There’s nothing wrong with asking students to go back and work on something again and to make it their very best. That’s part of our job to make sure that they are meeting those goals that you’ve set out for them.

Knowing that I’m not going to tolerate anything other than their best, my students are usually pretty good at making sure that they are finished, finished. In fact, I have some students that are actually very fast workers and very good creative types. It’s hard for me to be like, hey buddy, can you go back and rework this? Because it looks amazing. That just doesn’t even make sense. I actually have quite a few kids who are finished, like legit finished and they don’t have any reason to back and rework on something. That’s what an early finisher looks like for me in my art room. That was an extremely long winded explanation.

But if you aren’t sure about how to approach those kids who are saying they’re finished or maybe they’re just not responding to you saying, “Hey, I’m going to need you to go back and work on X, Y, Z.” I have always noticed that kids respond a lot better to peer feedback. Sometimes I pull my art teachers in training into giving it my students who early finishers feedback. If you’re not familiar with art teachers in training, I chatted, Cass, so you’ll just have to go back, dig through the archives and give that one a listen because art teachers in training are a savior of my sanity in my art room. If I have a student who says they’re finished and I’ve given them feedback, meaning I’m saying, “Hey buddy, you’re going to have to back and work on that some more.” And they’re just not responding to me, I’ll often say, “You know what? Why don’t you go ask your art teacher in training? Ask what they think? Do they think you’re finished?”

Now, I do hand pick my art teachers in training so I usually can count on them to have my back. You could also do the ask three before me trick. Have that student ask a couple of buddies if they think they are actually finished. And there you have it, early finishers. What do my early finishers do? Let me break down what my art class looks like, or I guess I should say my schedule. For my kindergarten kids, I see them for 40 minutes once a week. For my first and second graders, I see them 30 minutes twice a week. For those shorter classes, if I have an early finisher, it usually means they have a handful of minutes max five, that they can actually have to go quote, spend that time wherever they like.

It’s my classes where I have my students for an hour and I have doubled classes. I have about 35ish students. Those are the classes where I actually do have early finishers. In fact, in those classes, it’s very interesting because I will have some students who work very, very slowly and me being a slow worker, I can totally appreciate that because usually they’re doing an excellent job. But then I also have some of those early finishers who are done just right quick. There’s that weird balance for me with such a large class of having such an array of kids that work at different speeds, work at different paces.

What do you do? Let me share with you what I am striving toward. Remember I said I’m going to be sharing with you what I’m working on. I’ll have to give another podcast to let you know if it actually has worked out. Here goes. There’s a sign that I’ve created in my art room which I will be sharing on my blog very soon, it’ll be a free downloadable PDF that you are more than welcome to post in your art room. And it will say at the tip top, “I’m finished.” Because I don’t like I’m done. What are you a chicken dinner? No you’re not done. I’m finished is what it will say at the top. And first thing underneath that will be, “Clean your area.” Because if it’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s my early finishers, they will put their artwork away and then they’ll zip on over to early finisher in town, meaning free draw land, blocks area and when I look back at their seat, they’ve left out paintbrushes, paper towel, sometimes even their chair’s sticking out. Top of the list is clean your area.

Second thing on the list is write an exit slip. You want to slow down those early finishers a little bit, you want to make sure they’re actually doing a good job. Put two little things that aren’t quite so fun at the top of your early finisher’s list. Clean your spot, write an exit slip. In case you’re not familiar with what an exit slip is, an exit slip is, in my room, a stack of Post-It notes and I have a large bulletin board in my room that says, “Look what I learned today.” And underneath that sign that says, “Look what I learned today,” I have four sections of my bulletin board. One is for first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade. My students write in a complete sentence or sentences, something they’ve learned today. They walk over, they put the Post-It underneath their grade level.

Great tool for assessment. Always interesting and fun to read. Although I did have a fourth grader write, “Miss Stephens is cra cra.” And I’m thinking, it took you until fourth grade to realize this? And he spelled cra cra wrong. Even the first graders noticed it. He wrote cry, cry. C R A C R A, yeah, that’s not cra, cra. Apparently he didn’t learn that in that class. Anyway, those are the top two things at the beginning of my early finishers list that I’m creating.

Next one up is check the time. Here’s my biggest conundrum when it comes to early finishers. They have literally two minutes left and what do they go do? They go get a box of blocks that contains 3,000 million trillion pieces and they dump it all out. Or they go get one sheet of free draw paper, make two lines on it and then what do you know? The three minutes are over and your recycle bin is full of paper and they’re scrambling to clean up a mountain of blocks. To get around that issue, my new thing is I have a giant time timer in my art room. If you’re not familiar with what a time timer is, it actually looks like an old school clock, one that you might imagine would be in PE class when you were growing up. I love it because it’s such an awesome visual for all of my students.

It’s a, like I said, a giant timer as the time ticks away a sliver of pie gets smaller and smaller. I took a picture of my time timer at 10 minutes and five minutes and I’m taping that timer to the front of all my early finisher activities. My blocks container, my fashion plates stash, my free draw paper and that timer is taped to those areas so my students will know exactly how much time they will be able to spend in that area.

In the meantime I’ll actually have my time timer going throughout the course of the class like I always do. That way my students can glance at the class time timer and see okay, I have 10 minutes left of art class, then they can glance at the bins and see the little time timer picture that I’ve put on the bin so they can see what’s available to them. If they have only five minutes left, then they’ll be able to see okay, I can’t get out 3,000 blocks because I only have five minutes left but I can do a free draw on a dry erase board. That’s like something that I’ve always struggled with and after 18 years I’m just now coming up with a solution.

Fingers crossed it works. Then last but not least, on my I’m finished poster board, why can’t I talk? Poster board drawing is pick an activity. And when they’re to pick an activity so that they’re not bouncing around from blocks to free draw to my light table, I’m writing pick one activity. This I’m doing because I really want them to dig deep into exploring the light table or having fun with observational drawing and not just be an artist who’s bouncing from one thing to the next. That’s my thinking process behind the pick one activity.

Like I said, I’ll be sharing more on my blog, especially as I go a little bit further with this. I really think I’ll have to have an updated podcast to keep you guys abreast to the situation. Now that I’ve shared with you what my poster is going to say, I want to share with you what is available to my early finishers. I’m trying to think of it as being broken up into three categories that will hopefully in the future expand to more categories. The first one is going to be drawing. Here’s what I’m going to have in my drawing area for my early finishers. Things that will be bins available to them with that little clock on it so they’ll know exactly how much time they have available to work.

Thing three one, and I actually learned this at an Art Ed Now conference from the blogess, Art Teachers Hate Glitter. Fabulous blog and I learned this from her and it was worth the price of admission. Invest in dry erase boards you guys. You can get dry erase boards for a dollar at the Dollar Tree. Still not an endorser for them, although you would never know that. I would not recommend getting their Dollar Tree dry erase marker, I have found those to be no bueno but their boards are fabulous and I have a set of 20 to 30 dry erase boards and my students absolutely love them. They are excellent for early finishers when there’s just a sliver of time left.

I also love dry erase boards for, side note, practice drawing. Especially with my shorter classes, my kindergarten through second grade, if they’re struggling to draw something. For example, my students in second grade are working on creating superheroes, if they weren’t comfortable drawing straight away on paper, I’ll tell them to go get a dry erase board. It really loosens them up a bit and makes them get over that whole, the white paper conundrum thing that they feel like they have to conquer. So anyway, dry erase boards is definitely one of the things that’s in my early finisher area. They can either just draw whatever they like, like a genuine free draw are they can use my how to draw books.

Speaking of, how to draw books. When it comes to how to draw books, you can find them at the thrift store, when your school has a Scholastic book sale, you can find a ton there and even there you can ask for parents to purchase those books for your art room. But when my students use those books, like I said, they can use the dry erase board or they can get big rule of mine, one sheet of free draw paper. One per customer. You have two opportunities, a front and a back to create your masterpiece. You also need to make sure to use a pencil and then when you’re happy with your drawing, that’s when you can trace over pencil lines with a Sharpie if you so desire or you can simply use markers or whatever other art supplies I’ve made available. But, one sheet per customer is a big, big rule in my room.

Drawing prompts is something else that I have available for my students in my drawing area. I actually just discovered these drawing prompt ideas. What I did was I purchased a bunch of those extra large tongue depressor sticks from Dollar Tree and I wrote on them a bunch of drawing prompts. To find really good drawing prompts, all you have to do is simply Google writing prompts or elementary writing prompts and you’ll come up will all sorts of things like, draw yourself as President. Draw yourself as an alien. Invent a homework machine. Those kind of things. Once you start coming up with ideas for drawing prompts, you’re going to get a flood of ideas. These are sticks that my students can simply pull out, they’re only allowed to take one, and draw from that drawing prompt stick.

Observational drawing is also something I am really hoping to explore with my students because I feel like that’s not something I, as an art teacher, spend enough time teaching my students. In my observational drawing area I’ve got mannequins purchased from Ikea but they also sell them very reasonably online. I have flower pots with fake flowers in them. I’ve got dinosaurs from the Dollar Tree that I’ve sprayed painted a whole bunch of different colors because why not? And even blocks are great for kids to draw from. Those are some of the other drawing things I have as well as things like fashion plates and spirograph. Those are just some options for my early finishers in the category that I’m calling draw.

I have another category, build. In my build area I’ve got blocks, like I’ve mentioned a lot. And if you’re wondering where I purchased some of these things, I’m telling you guys, hit those yard sales and hit the thrift store. I really never, rarely ever, buy anything brand new just because of the price factor and it’s just, it’s great to recycle. And one thing that I have in my blocks area are bristle blocks, which are really old school. So are the old school fashion plates that I have. What’s so fabulous about that is that you can actually share a toy, we call it a toy, but let’s call it an educational exploratory tool, that you enjoyed as a child with your students. I also have little magnetic boards and pattern design blocks. You could even send out an email to other teachers saying, “Hey, if there’s any toys that you’re looking to get rid of, consider donating them to the art room because we’re exploring with those in my art class as well.”

Reading is also one of the options that I plan to have open which that’s pretty self explanatory. We all have a mountain of books, just make sure you flip through all of those books, especially ones that have actual works of art in them. Check for nudity. I learned that the hard way with the Matisse book. We’ll just end it with that.

One thing that never tried with kids that I really am excited about for my early finishers to add to the little list are chores. But I don’t like that word so I’m trying to come up with a better word for it but I have a lot of students who when they’re finished early, are not interesting in drawing, are not interested in building, they’re interesting in helping. And I love that about those students. I always want to give them something to do. Can I help you clean? What can I do for you? Is usually the question I’ll get from them which is just so sweet and kind. My goal is to have several chores which can be done continuously, I’ll have to create some sort of video or explain to the students how to do it properly so that I don’t end up with a even bigger mess. Here’s my short list of chores that I’ve come up with. Things that I’m constantly having to do that I’d much rather put on somebody else.

Brush washing. The kids could totally wash brushes, right? Please tell me I’m not crazy. Marker testing. Let’s be honest, markers aren’t made like they used to be and marker testing is a thing. Why not put a student on it? And side note, don’t throw away those dead markers, do a little Google search, find out how you can make marker juice, as we call it in my room or paint from your old markers. Cabinet cleaner. I had a sweet little student in first grade last year who was obsessed with getting a spray bottle of water and a sponge and wiping down the front of my cabinets. Pencil sharpener. Now, that I say at your own risk because me personally, I don’t think I can stand the sound of a pencil sharpener any more than I have to hear it.

Those are my, I said three, four, look at that, bonus hour. Four things that I want to share with my students who are finished early. Now I am not a choice based teacher. I am not a teaching for artistic behavior teacher. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t use these early finisher areas or activities as a way to open the door a little bit for my students. I don’t know about that area of teaching, it’s not my area of expertise, but I do feel the need as an art teacher to have more choice in my art room. And I really feel like having early finisher activities that allow my students to really explore is a good way to give them a taste of that and just to see what it would look like in my art room. The beauty of being an art teacher is that there’s no solid handbook for it and that you can go with what works well for you and for your students.

And some other areas that I’m kicking around in my head, I’d love to have a weaving fibers area. I have several looms that I’d love for kids to just be able to go over and explore on. I think having a sculpture or a collage or even a collaborative space would be a lot of fun. I’ll keep you posted but I will say this, I’m really, really excited and I have really, really chatted with you for a long time. Thank you so much for letting me share all of this with you. I really would love to hear from y’all. I’d love to hear some feedback on what you do with your early finishers. How it looks in your art room. Thanks guys.

Tim Bogatz: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. Thank you for tuning in to Everyday Art Room, we appreciate everyone that has listened, left positive comments and contacted us with your feedback. If you want even more information from Cassie, check out the podcast tab on and get signed up for the Everyday Art Room weekly mailing list if you haven’t done so already.

We’ve been talking a lot about Art Ed PRO, the subscription service that provides on demand professional development for art teachers. You can check it out at I also want to tell you that a lot of administrators are supporting the service and a lot of schools have funds to pay for your professional development. You just need to ask. You can send your administrator to where they can click on Pro for schools to see if it will work for your school. It doesn’t hurt to try and who doesn’t want to have control of their own PD? Please make sure your admin checks out PRO for Schools at

Cassie Stephens: Let’s take little quick dip into the mailbag. Cassie, what do you do to get your students attention? Well, you know, I’m not good at sticking with sayings like, Mona and then the kids say Lisa. I don’t know why, I just can’t seem to do it. But I do have a couple things that I say and or do. One thing is I have a chime, a single note energy chime, small plug here, it’s made by husband’s company called TreeWorks. Anyway, that was awkward. I love my chime because it fits right in my pocket, it makes a nice high pitched sound that cuts right through the chatter of my hardworking artists. Another thing that I do, I’ll play it and it’s so ear piercing that they immediately stop doing whatever it is they’re doing and then just look at me. I don’t even have to tell them, “Hey, when you hear this sound, make sure you stop and look at me.” No, no, they just do it.

Another one that I do, especially with my littles is I’ll say, “Point to the ceiling. Point to the floor. Point to your nose. Point to your toes.” And usually at that time they’re so busy pointing fingers everywhere, looking at me like I’m bananas, I usually have their attention. It also makes it so they have to put their tools down, whatever they’re working with to do those kind of hand motions. Sometimes I’ll just say, even my older kids because they know it’s an attention getter, I’ll just say, “Point to the ceiling.” And they’ll do it or they’ll just look at me with crazy eyes like they usually do.

Those are just a couple of things that, actually that’s it. Those are just a couple of things that I do to get my students’ attention. But, if you have a class that’s working loudly, that chime, I’m telling you, works like a charm. And I also take it with me any time that I do workshops for art teachers because you know we art teachers, we love to chat but when you’re leading a workshop, sometimes you need them to shut up already and pay attention. That thing works like a charm.

All right, so now are you feeling pretty confident? Are you feeling like you can go back in and when kids say, “I’m done. What are we doing today? Do I have to? And do you like mine?” Know that at least with the I’m dones you have an idea in mind. At least I hope I’ve helped you guys know what you’re doing, you’ve probably already had lots of ideas that you’re kicking around in your head. But now we know, early finishers, number one, make sure they’re actually finished and if they’re not responding to your feedback, have them get feedback from buddies. Then make sure you have plenty of things for them to do. Have a way for them to know if there’s actually enough time for them to do those activities. And don’t let them scoot away to early in finisher in town if they haven’t cleaned their area and written that exit slip.

All right guys, hae a fabulous week and thank you so much for letting me share this long winded podcast. It’s been fun.

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.