Ask Patty: Controlling Noise Level in the Art Room

Many readers ask me how to control noise in the art room. I appreciate why this is one of my most asked questions; a rowdy classroom can drive you nuts. It’s a hard question to answer as all teachers have different volume thresholds. You can probably sense from my blog posts that my threshold is somewhere in the middle.

My goal is to achieve a creative space where children are comfortable. I don’t equate art class with noise and chaos but I also don’t think the art room should be so quiet that children are afraid to speak. You can buy charts and bells and chimes and even iPhone apps to help induce quiet in your classroom, but to tell you the truth, noise level is entirely based on how you teach and conduct yourself.


Entering the artroom

When children come into class, I expect them to walk in quietly and find their seats. I use a seating for each class and I find it extremely helpful in getting children into the classroom and ready to begin art. If children rush in, talk loudly and are generally rowdy, I stop them and make them line up outside again. This consequence humbles them pretty quickly. Don’t make this a threat, just do it. It helps to enforce this with a pleasant demeanor and not with a wrinkled brow and a frown. You will just scare them and that’s not what you want.

Setting the tone

For Kinder through to grade three, sitting the children on the carpet at the front of the class has proven effective in welcoming them to art and setting the tone for the class. I smile and thank them for walking in quietly and I’m honest about it. If they don’t walk in and sit quietly, I do what I explained above. Once they are seated, try to be happy that they are there and talk as softly as it is natural for you to do. Children want to hear what you have to say and if you reduce the volume of your own voice, they will pattern after you. I don’t have scientific proof to this theory but it works for my own kids as well as the classroom.

Using transition signals

I use a bell to signal transitions. It’s a simple little bell and it works for me. You might have the children repeat a series of words, you might shout out a word signal or even try clapping a pattern. Whatever you do, be consistent and for heaven’s sake, if the children fail to stop talking and do what you expect of them, stop the lesson. There has only been a few times in the nine years that I have been teaching that I have asked a class to pack up and leave because they failed to listen to directions. But I do it and you should know whether you can do it as well.

Use what works for your personal style

Everyone has a system that works for them and just because it works for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. A system is just that; a system. It will not make you better at controlling noise level, just like reading a book on organization will make you a better organizer. We all have very specific personality traits that will over-ride even the most “successful” systems.

Case in point: I read a post at the beginning of the school year about a small poster “Show Me the Mona Lisa”. The blogger raved about it. The idea is to hold up a poster of the Mona Lisa whenever you want to get your class’s attention. The idea is that the Mona Lisa’s eyes are watching the teacher, mouth is smiling and hands are quiet. Sounds like a brilliant idea, right? Well, it is and many art teachers love this signal. It didn’t quite work for me though. I found it incredibly awkward holding up this large poster to my Kinders and I couldn’t quite remember why I was holding it nor could the kids. I just don’t do props very well and sadly, the kids know it.

Be confident

The best system is to be confident with your personal teaching style. This is so important. It’s your class and you are the teacher. You need to be in control no matter what your style is. You could be the wackiest, most unorganized teacher, but the kids love you because everything that comes out of your mouth is interesting and fun. So what if the volume level of your class is loud? If the children are engaged, great!  You might be soft spoken. If this is you, use this to your advantage. Your voice can be a powerful tool; you probably don’t yell, but you can ask children to leave or pay attention only to the children who are raising their hands or behaving in an appropriate manner. Quiet teachers radiate control.

No shushing, please

Try not to shush students or beg them to lower their voice. Shushing more than once will fall on deaf ears. Telling them to be quiet isn’t great either. There is something about the tone of a teacher that has reached her personal threshold that transfers power to the student. Believe me, I’ve been there and I’ve seen the look in my student’s eyes when they know they’ve got me. Not pleasant.


If all else fails or you want a little back-up, try a Noise Volume Chart. I found this poster on Teachers Pay Teachers and I happen to really like it. I enlarged it, laminated it and posted it on the edge of my white board. It’s referred to often enough that the children know what it means.

What helps you? Do you feel you struggle with noise level? Please feel free to share what works and doesn’t work for you…

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  • Jen

    I start out class with silent sketchbook time. I play music while they sketch. I also pick at random kids who are working quietly during this time to go in my “super star cup”. This is my setting the tone time. it get everyone calmed down and quiet…quick!

    • Patty Palmer

      Do you have any great CD recommendations?

      • Leslie

        I listen to Chines Meditation music off of youtube. It all started when I had a lesson on Chinese Brush Painting and I put it on to set the mood. Little did I know that the kids would be requesting it from then on. Other classes heard about it and requested it as well. I tell the class I have to be able to hear my music. It doesn’t always work, but it helps.

      • Jen

        Yes, on my itunes these are some soundtracks and CDs that I love to play:

        “Under the Tuscan Sun” soundtrack
        “Finding Neverland” Soundtrack
        “Harry Potter” Soundtracks
        “The Holiday” Sountrack
        “The Little Princess” Soundtrack
        “Pride and Prejudice” Soundtrack
        “Twilight” Soundtrack
        (All of those are simply classical scores)

        I also like these artists that do have some words on their CDs
        Enya- (Amarantine and A Day Without Rain)
        Sufjan Stevens- (Illinoise)
        And just some singles that are great songs.

      • Nylah

        Patty, I play classical music during my class, my little preschoolers sometimes remind me to turn it on when I forget to raise the volume after I have done explaining the lesson. The CD I purchased, was from a store called Marbles the Brain Store. The CD is called Marbles Mind Music CD…they have a part1 and 2 I believe, I have the first one right now. I am hoping to purchase the next one too. They also have other CDs such as “Bach on my Brain” and “MOzart in my Mind”. They have an online store too…..with lots of art games. They have some really amazing artist puzzles…worth checking out!

  • Gail Joseph

    I ring a bell when I want the student’s attention for additional directions or to tell them that the noise is too loud and that some children can’t work well when it is very loud. If that doesn’t help I ask for a library voice or 5 minutes of quiet time.

  • Mrs.C

    Lots of great advice! I lined a 4th grade up today and had them go back out into the hall to re-group before I let them re-enter my room! I use the Mona Lisa cue all the time! I say “Mona” and the kids respond with “Lisa” I have my Mona poster and directions on the wall in the front of my classrooms where it is clearly visible to the students. In fact the other day I had another visual hanging over it and one of my 1st graders told me I needed to move the other visual because Mona couldn’t see the class! 🙂

    • Patty Palmer

      I love this! The “Mona” strategy is great…wish it was more natural for me to implement it!

  • Megan

    I agree with you-students can tell when they have the power and you’ve lost it by raising your voice/pleading for quiet. My students earn stars for being bucketfillers with the reward being a free art day at the end of each trimester. I also play music while they are working. I have found there is a huge difference in the quality of their projects when they are talking vs. when they are listening to music and creating. I tell them often that art isn’t outdoor recess or social hour. I want the art room to be controlled, relaxing, and not chaotic or stressful to anyone, including myself! If I forget to turn on music, it never fails that one or more will raise their hand requesting it!

  • Judy

    Megan & Patti, What are some of the CDs you use successfully in the classroom?

    • Patty Palmer

      I don’t play music but I do have a CD player. Any music suggestions anyone?

      • Mo

        I always play music when my second graders create art. They LOVE it. As the majority of my students either were born in another country or their parents were, I opt for a children’s cd of classic American songs, such as, O Suzanna, I’ve been Workin on the Railroad, The National Anthem etc. On the premise that perhaps they wouldn’t get this exposure at home. It doesn’t take long for them to memorize every word to every song. It is absolutely adorable to hear them sing, while swinging their feet and creating art. One of my favorite parts of my week…and theirs. To mix things up I play classical music, any type.

  • Judith Westerfield

    I’ve had a link to your blog on my blog for years.
    This particular post is wonderful. I’m a therapist and I’m going to refer to it for my clients who need PARENTING skills!.

    I enjoy your blog, just to look at the children’s art. Thanks so much.

    With your permission I would love to do a VARIATION for parenting on my blog and OF COURSE a link back to your blog.

    Judith Westerfield

    (Wish I had had your guidance it when I was a first year teacher in 1970! My classroom was chaos cuz the kids knew that I didn’t!)

  • Carin

    I occasionally pull out classical music to play while the kids are working on their projects. For some classes it works well, but for others they just get louder. A lot of it has to do with how their teacher runs the classroom. The teachers are generally in the room with me, since I am not credentialed. I have been toying with the idea of playing music that coordinates with the time period/country of the artist and their work. Since this is my first year teaching for the entire school, I’m keeping that off my plate until next year. I do, however, think that when teaching about a specific artist, music influences the way the artist worked. Last year we did a lesson with kinder and 3rd looking at Jackson Pollock, listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, they danced to the music for a bit and then put the movement into the painting. It was great fun for all of us.

  • monica baker

    I use pandora radio sometimes. There is a kids Christmas music station that they like. There are also children’s classical music stations that are great!

  • Janis

    I also use Pandora on my computer and we enjoy listening to classical piano music!

  • Susan Antonelli

    You have some solid suggestions here, Patty. Especially about not shushing!
    My favorite music for “work time” in the classroom is George Winston piano music. I also like the CD, American Acoustic, by Tingstad and Rumbel. Lovely instrumental songs. Enya’s stuff is popular with the kids too (but you have to watch for the “Sail Away” song- they all chime in and sing it!) 😉
    If we’re doing artwork from a certain culture or country, I sometimes play a Putamayo CD. The kids “World Playground” disc is good.
    My brother is an awesome teacher and he plays kid versions of current pop music and dance techno stuff. He teachers 3rd – 5th and they love it. Not my style, but it works great for him. They think he is sooooo cool.

  • Melissa

    I work in the inner city and struggle with keeping a quiet classroom atmosphere. I use the A.R.T. letter system I saw floating around on some other blogs a couple years ago. If it gets too loud or kids are talking over me, I flip a letter over. They can earn a point for each letter remaining at the end of class. When they’ve reached the set amount of points, they earn a playdough sculpture day. So far only one class has earned it…
    As for music, I play a classical music station on Pandora. After receiving many complaints about the music, I added in some Vitamin String Quartet for variety (Pandora users will know what this means). This group plays instrumental/orchestra versions of famous pop songs. So now there’s some Michael Jackson, Rhianna, and Lady Gaga thrown in but it’s much less annoying and I don’t have to worry about bad language! The kids get pretty excited about it.

  • Jess

    I listen to music quite often in my room. Actually, all the time. I use Pandora and we really like Colbie Caillat and the Jack Johnson station. My kids request it if I am not playing music at the time. I have done classical, Andrew Llloyd Weber, etc. They USUALLY respond well to most any music. I say, as long as it is clean music any music is great. 🙂 I have a high tolerance for noise so I like to see the kids drawing and singing or bopping while they work once and a while. Makes me realize they are enjoying themselves.

  • Karen

    My third and fourth graders like the music of Randy Kaplan. They get quiet to hear the lyrics of his wacky songs. iTunes carries his CDs.

  • Jen

    All good advice, Patti – as always!
    I started this school year with the kids illustrating and writing about their ideal art day – from projects and materials to environment. A remarkable number of students prefer quiet and some even silence. I had the students share there expectations with each other and call on that lesson when I need to remind them respect each other’s creative wishes. I usually have some silent art time each class to help reset their volume and improve focus as well three minutes for third grade, four for fourth, five for fifth (sometimes second grade, rarely younger). I put music on either when silent art is over or if they have been successful for a minute or two.
    I have been doing mostly classical music this year, but I will also find music that goes with lessons. I also have been a big fan of Greg Percy’s “Songs in the Key of Art” CDs. I’ve made playlists from them that reinforce vocabulary to complement the lessons. Classes often find favorite songs that they request for years! I think NASCO prices might be netter, but here is a link to his site.

  • Maggie Mo

    When students come in, I like to hear them exclaim, “Wow, we’re painting today!” or whatever, which shows how excited they are about Art Day. Whenever a teacher tells the class to come in quietly, it actually feels wrong to me.
    My 1st year teaching elementary art, I bought and decorated a 9″ gong. I have a Steno pad with all my class lists to keep track of turns. Each art day, one student gets to hit the gong to start class, and the next student hits it for clean up time.
    If the class is too quiet, I tell them to talk softly so that the “gonger” can have the fun of making them quiet. But if the class yells, no one hits the gong next week. I reinforce the idea of responding to the gong by saying, “Thank you for respecting (student’s name) and i remind them that when it’s your turn, it’s only fun if everyone responds to the gong when you hit it.
    My website has a photo of this gong, which I’ve used for 11 years. When former students visit, they always beg, “Can I hit the gong one more time?”
    When I bought it, it came with a card saying that the sound of this gong makes you more creative!
    As to the noise level during class, I have tried out a 5 minute rule: for the first 5 min. of working, you must be thinking about what you’re doing and there’s NO talking. Then when I start the CD player, usually classical music, they are allowed to talk. Sometimes that is right to do, but sometimes they are collaborating and I don’t like to be too rigid.
    When we make our crayon resist Jim Dine hearts, I have made CDs of music with “heart” in the songs. It’s very fun to hear how many people sing about their hearts as we draw them.

  • Cheryl Trowbridge

    I agree with you, Patty, that holding up the Mona Lisa poster would be awkward, plus it would only work if the students happened to be looking at you!

    By the end of last year I was so frustrated by all the talking and all the effort it took when I needed to quiet my classes down. So, this year I started using the “Mona Lisa Call and Response”…. when I say “Mona” the kids reply “Lisa” and give me their best Mona Lisa pose: eyes on me, mouths quiet, hands still. (The poster is up just to remind them of what their “pose” should look like, and because I also give them a “fun Mona Lisa fact” each week, and often refer to something in the painting when I share a new fact with them.)

    The “Mona Lisa call and response” has seriously been the BEST classroom management technique I’ve ever used. It works like a charm for me, usually on the first try. I almost never have to say “Mona” more than twice, and if I do, I make my voice even quieter the second time, which causes the kids to repeat “Lisa” even louder to get their classmates’ attention…. but at least that way it’s not me raising my voice at them. I have a lot of very chatty classes, and this strategy has completely saved my sanity this year!!

    • Patty Palmer

      Yes, I think it was your post that got me excited about the Mona Lisa!

  • carla

    I think it helps to start the kids working with about 5 min. of “quiet” 0r “thinking” time- I am pretty relentless about insisting on this- even whisperers get to do a short time out- but I ALSO try to be honest about letting them know when the time is up- often by then they are so involved in their project that they talk less after this 5 minutes- but sometimes they are just loud- as long as they are working after this time I try not to get too upset about the noise.

  • mary

    I once visited my daughter’s school during a transition to an enrichment class. Students were allowed to run into the room, pushing and shoving , laughing and yelling. I was not impressed. It took a long time to get the students calmed down enough to begin their lesson. And it seemed disrespectful to the teacher, the facilities, etc. to enter that way.
    For my own art room students are expected to come in quietly and sit in their assigned seat, ready to start. Since we have only 40 minutes once a week, we can’t really paint or do clay if we waste 5 or 6 minutes talking and messing around. Also, because I have no minutes between classes, often one class is walking out the exit door while the next one is entering the entrance door. Coming in loudly or going out loudly would affect the other class as well.
    I have rules posted in my room, picture icons for K-2, words for 3-5. On days when students seem way off, like they have a sub or have had indoor recess for several days or it is right before a break, I will sometimes stop class and go over the rules with them. One class that was very difficult (made substitute teachers cry) found out quickly that I would stop as many times as necessary to go over the rules. Finally they decided to be respectful and do their artwork instead of repeating the rules over and over again. One day of that was enough and after that they chose to work hard and be nice to one another.
    I ring a bell to move onto the next step and use positive praise for kids who respond and are quiet “Look, Sarah is ready! Will is listening!” or “I see 5 kids that are ready, now I see 8, oops, now 15!” stuff like that.

  • Cristy in WY

    We do 5 minutes of silence at the beginning of classes where I need kids to really focus, or with classes that tend to be loud. I give the directions, explain that I want them to have the opportunity to think without their neighbor jabbering in their ear! Then I set a kitchen timer, put on some music and insist on no talking until the timer rings, and quiet talking is fine after that. It really helps kids to “go inside themselves” and make choices from their own intuition. Often kids beg for more silent time when the timer rings. I think it helps with the brain-side-switch, and I also think that kids get so much noise and chatter during the day that they come to relish a meditative art period.
    Great post, Patti – thanks!

  • Jude' Hadley

    I found small red yellow and orange traffic cones at the dollar store. I have a set on each table with the orange on top yellow in the middle and red on bottom. When all projects are quietly “under construction” the traffic cones stay on orange. If a table gets loud or misbehaves I just walk over and change their cone to yellow, no words spoken. It’s usually enough to get them to quiet down. If they maintain quiet they go back to orange. If they continue to be loud the cone goes to red and all work stops for that table. At the end of class if all cones are orange they get to move a picture of their teacher up a ladder on the wall. When their teacher reaches the top of the ladder they earn an open studio day.. basically a free choice day. It’s worked for three years now.

  • Will Ford

    My expectations for my students (K-5th) are that they enter my room and sit with their heads down and voices off. Once the entire class are showing me these things, I tell them to sit up and then start introducing the lesson or reviewing last week’s lesson. I started doing this last year with all grades and it made such a huge difference. This sets the tone for the class and gets everyone focused. If certain students enter my room talking, jumping around, shaking their art box, I ask them if they can re-enter my room the correct way.

    My students know that they may talk quietly once we start working on our projects. I really do like to hear students talking quietly while they work. Sometimes this inspires some good creative ideas, but a loud class is just chaos. If things get too loud I will tell the class that we need to lower our voices. I will do this two times, the third time we have no talking. (With my youngest grades I will instead have them “practice” being quiet for a couple minutes with their heads down.)

    To get my students’ attention I hold up a sign and say “Show me this sign”. It’s always something different so they can’t memorize it and hold it up without looking at me. This year I decided to use sign language, so we’re learning the ASL alphabet when we sign!

  • Caitlin

    Thanks for these suggestions! I also use A – R – T attached to the wall with velcro squares (I found this idea on http://www.theartofed.com/2010/06/08/art-for-a-quiet-art-room/). I take down the A as a first warning to lower voices; the R is a second warning; and if the T comes down, we must have a silent room for the rest of class. If anyone talks after the T comes down (which hasn’t happened many times for me), that student will have to sit out for a few minutes at the beginning of the next Choice Day (once a quarter, I set up centers with different materials for the kids to experiment with). I love using this system because I don’t have to say a word, ring a bell, etc. to add to the existing noise level–just taking down the letter is usually enough to remind everyone to quiet down.

  • Katie Matheny

    Great suggestions. For noise control, I let the class decide how loud it is. For example, if the class is roudy and loud, I stop the class by doing a clap pattern. And then I ask them to show me with their fingers on a scale of 1-5 how loud it is in here. 5 being recess loud, and 1 being silent. They all raise their hands with a #, then I say “ok, it looks like most of you agree its a 4 or 5, lets make it a 2.”
    By letting the class show how loud they think it is, it allows those who are aching for quite time to express their frustration that its loud, and it allows the loud ones to see that their loudness is not appreciated in a non-threatening way. By giving them this scale, it lets them see what loud sounds like and what quite work time sounds like. I also praise them for reaching levels 1 and 2, to reinforce what those volume levels sound like.

  • Donella Robbins

    Love your suggestions and have used many of them at one time or another. I am a senior who is a volunteer art teacher in class rooms not set up to be art friendly. Many of the children are ADD but love to hear a story which the teacher reads once the art lesson is in progress while I guide the children with whispered suggestions where needed. They seem to focus more on what they are doing.

  • ruth

    I like your new suggestions and that really works…..
    Im from Sri Lanka….
    thank you alot….

  • sarabi_j@hotmail.com

    Hello Patti 🙂

    How do you deal with a nasty student who picks on other children? Im not sure what I am supposed to do here,do I talk to the parent it has happened every class now ahhhh ,,Have you had to deal with this before?


    • Patty Palmer

      This is tricky. Sometimes there are is a backstory that accompanies this type of behavior. First I would talk to the classroom teacher and get her advice on how she deals with his behavior. Then, if you are both on the same page, implement that behavior. But if you are on your own, tell hime to sit alone at a back table until he can join the group. I’m not sure what your class rules are but state calmly that he broke them. Then, when he seems ready, let him come back to his regular table. Treat him normally. I’d really recommend you heading over to Michael Linsin’s website Smart Classroom Management. He is a genius!

  • sarabi_j@hotmail.com

    My apologies..Patty not Patti 🙂

  • Kimberly Swanger

    With my younger students, I’ll sing. It ALWAYS gets their attention. If I need for them to quiet down for directions, I’ll invent a little tune or use a tune the kids know. For example, “Voices are too loud right now, quiet down, quiet down. Voices are too loud right now, let’s all whisper.” sung to the tune of London Bridge. Before I know it, the kids are all singing it too and their voices are quieter.

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