Crying in the Art Room


There is no worse experience for an art teacher than when a child cries during art class. We’ve all been the witness to crumpled paper, crayon throwing and plain old meltdowns. Our heart breaks for the little one and often we blame ourselves.

This post examine the reasons why some kids have meltdowns and what you can do about it.

As I was poring over my inbox after vacation, this email from Ashley stood out….

Help! I am used to teaching middle and high school students and I am not familiar with teaching little ones. I read your post about managing an art room last night and went in today feeling better. I had one child start crying mid-way through class because he didn’t like any of his artwork. We had just read “Beautiful Oops” and I tried to convey that mistakes are OK and can become something nice in their work. He ended up crumpling his drawings and throwing them on the floor. I tried to get him to keep working through it but he was frustrated. He told me the Sharpie (marker) was too fat for his hands and he couldn’t use it. He is a third grader. Have you ever had a student frustrated and/or crying?

I’m pretty sure that every art teacher reading this has experienced this scenario. I’ve had kids from almost every grade level break down occasionally. The most important thing for Ashley to consider is whether or not crying is a common occurrence in her classroom or if the episode was rare.

Here are a few things to consider:

Although teaching art is fun, it’s not always easy.

When we think of elementary school art, we conjure up happy images of children blissfully working with paint, pastels and paper. Pinterest, art ed blogs and other forms of media all contribute to the fantasy that if we introduce a fun subject, every child will be engaged. The truth is, idyllic classrooms can happen, but it’s not without years of practice.

My mission for my art classes is to inspire creativity. That’s my main goal and whatever it takes to get kids to experiment, learn, take risks and relax into the process, I do it. This for me means lots of reflection and questions. If a lesson doesn’t connect with the students, I ask why. Was the technique too hard? Was my demonstration too hard to follow? Did I have too much expectation for the lesson? Was the lesson subject boring?

Note: Be careful of portrait making at the beginning of the year. Most classroom teachers do some type of beginning-of-the-year portraits and many art teachers do a portrait project every year. I bet if you surveyed a bunch of 6th graders, they will say that portraits are the most boring subject!

Make sure you allow time for your own lesson/teaching reflection. If you are open to the possibility that your presentation, delivery and execution could use work, you will become a stronger teacher fast. Listen very carefully to the feedback from staff members, parents and children. Some people won’t say negative things directly, but they will bury them in comments that suggest that the lesson was too hard (wrong project), or that the kids were overly rowdy (class room management needs work) or the some kids were too hard on themselves (you might be too hard on them). These aren’t 100% accurate, but you get the idea. Be gentle on yourself, but never stop learning and growing as a teacher.

Take the advice from people who really know.

I’m not credentialed which means the classroom teacher must be present in the classroom. If a child starts to cry, I’ll often shoot the teacher a glance and the teacher will indicate whether or not the child needs to be left alone (he’s having a hard day), if the crying is chronic (nothing I should do at the moment) or if the child is frustrated (my clue to step in). This is wonderful for me but what if you don’t have the inside scoop on the child?

Watch for the pre-cursors for a strong reaction before it happens. Other children will often tip you off to a child who is having problems. You might hear comments about a child commenting negatively on someone else’s work. Or a child may stop working and look for the teacher out of concern for his frustrated table-mate. Or maybe you’ll see some kids huddled over one child who is experiencing the frustration. These are all signs that something is amiss. Step in a very calmly and assess the situation. I don’t like to embarrass the child by bringing unwanted attention to his frustration. Sometimes, it’s best to ask the child to help you with something and then you can talk in relative private.

Consider the development of your group. If you are a new teacher, this is hard to do, but if you have had these kids before, you know how much instruction they need. This is not as easy as it sounds but if you can start the year off with easy, no-fail lessons like painting paper (messy but extremely fun and satisfying for a beginning of the year project), you will reduce the potential crying rate. Starting the year with a directed line drawing is great, but make sure it’s easy and make sure you know how to deliver a good directed line drawing. Ask the homeroom teacher about the kids and how well they can sit and listen to instruction, or if there are any kids that might need some additional help.

Bottom line: if you don’t have a relationship with the teachers at your school, develop one as soon as you can.

Some children will respond differently to instruction.

I once stayed at work late to work on some projects. I sat in the back of my art room while an after-school art program was being conducted. The instructor was doing a directed line drawing and was particularly picky about everyone following along at the same moment and making sure all lines were similar. This was not necessarily her art philosophy but part of the art franchise expectation.

There was a little kinder boy who absolutely went crazy with these limitations. The instructor couldn’t stop the class to attend to him, but his outburst was very painful to witness. He was crying violently, he was shaking…utter turmoil. Because I was not the teacher delivering the lesson, I felt no personal responsibility and was therefore able to really see how the child was suffering. The instructor called the office and sent the child there to cool off. When the child came back, the process started up again. I asked the art teacher if the child could work with me in the back of the classroom. We worked on something non-related to the lesson. He calmed down immediately. There was something about the art lesson that triggered his negative reactions.

All night I wondered about this child.

Was he a perfectionist?

Did he suffer from a disorder?

Was an after-school program too much for him at this age?

I then wondered how this child would work in a group supported by his peers. I went online and google “collaborative art lessons”.  Circle paintings came up and after looking at various ways to conduct a circle painting class, I put it on my schedule.


The next day, the kinder class came in. I explain the “rules” for completing a circle painting (basically none). You can see my post about the process here. This child’s experience was beyond amazing. He was cooperative, gentle, creative, complimentary and most importantly, calm. I could see his little body relax and I knew he was experiencing joy.

What did this teach me?

Kids will react to situations differently because of simple things like the time of day, hunger or if they had a bad experience before coming to art. Or they child can be a highly sensitive child (like this little guy) and they need different types of lessons. That doesn’t mean he needs a special program, but he needs to have equal opportunity to enjoy an art lesson that suits his temperament every once in a while.

Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction

Just like I said before, intercepting the strong reaction before it happens can be effective with little ones, but sometimes, not over-reacting to the frustration is equally as effective. Older kids who grow frustrated do not need an art teacher sitting beside them telling them that mistakes are beautiful. But tapping him on the shoulder and asking for help with paints is a good way for the child to regain composure. There is no artist on earth who hasn’t had a strong reaction to his work and wanted to crumple it up (including many of you!). It’s natural and sometimes, you just don’t need to make a big deal about it. Respect the process and move on.

Your turn…

Now it’s your turn…how often do you experience crying in the art room? How do you handle it? I can’t wait to read your responses. Let’s help Ashley out.

What do you think?

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  • Patty Lee

    I have experienced several upset children in the past. I learned that usually extraneous circumstances already had the child in an elevated emotional state prior to class. I found that having a reading corner or a quiet place to go in the classroom works wonders for de escalation and projects can always be completed later. Always be kind. Art is a break from the rigorous structure in the classrooms today.

    • Kim

      I had a very soft hearted 6th grade boy cry during one of my art classes. I think he was just overwhelmed and wanted his work to be perfect. I always say to the class ” I just want you to try…that’s all I expect”. I always show the student how to work with the mistake and make it part of the design. I want art class to be a fun, relaxing 45 minutes of the day. I like that the students look forward to me arriving to their classroom. We hang most of the art work up in the halls. They love to see their own work displayed for everyone to see. I do too!

  • Rita Gatti

    Couldn’t help but jump in here. I am 70 now. Have taught special ed in classrooms and privately for years, also non-special ed classrooms and privately. I have painted sets for all kinds of theater groups since high school and many years for an excellent children’s theater. Presently I tutor several special ed kids (in math and woodcarving) and make my living as a classical architectural woodcarver (second generation). But at about 7 or 8 I was in a 3rd or 4th grade class doing soap carving. We were carving missions in Ivory soap. It was exciting and everyone was having a ball. I did well for awhile, but then I failed in my expectation and had a melt down. I threw my soap away. Another child saw the still large enough to be worked with piece of soap in the trash and retrieved it and started to redeem it. I was furious and grabbed it away. Tears and anger welled up in me and the teacher was beside herself. That incident always stood out in my memory as I journeyed on in life, struggling with issues arising from early childhood orphanage abuse. I am sharing this only to highlight the possibility that a meltdown can actually have little or nothing to do with the immediate circumstances, but a little frustration can trigger some deeper issues. I would imagine that few children can say why they do some things…at the time. I think just stating that certain behavior is unacceptable, giving the other children firm and calm leadership and dealing as kindly as possible with the offender, at times is as good as it gets. Hope this helps someone somewhere.

    • Patty Palmer

      Thank you so much for sharing. I’m pretty much think along the same lines as you. It’s really hard to know the background variables of every frustration. I think we all probably had a moment or two just like your experience.
      Thanks for sharing!

  • Kari Bacon

    I have been teaching children art for many years. Art opens the mind and in children this can be a relaxing, calming time. Sometimes this can also open the drain for festering frustration from their day. If someone starts to cry I always say…”There is no wrong way to do art”. I then offer them a different medium to complete the project or just let them sit in my ‘special’ chair ( which happens to be my desk chair that spins around) until they calm down. Sometimes just watching the other kids work is all they need to get back in the game.

  • Amanda le Roux

    When someone starts crying in my class, I tell the other kids to just continue working, because they all become upset and wants to comfort the crying child. I slowly move around till I reach the child and speak softly to him/her. I have a saying: Never fear when Amanda is near. I take the childs hand and ask her if I can hold her hand while she continues with her drawing. Immediately the child relaxes and the fear of making mistakes dissapears. Sometimes I will ‘help’ drawing a better picture – but that does not happen often. It is so cute when her friends tell her how beautiful her drawing is, just to comfort her!

  • KM

    Thank you for this. When I taught in a group setting, the kids were young and my projects were easy enough to not bring about tears. Now working with my own 3, my older 2 often struggle more. My youngest has had more of the “mistakes are part of the learning” in her art education and she is the most relaxed. The boys have too high of expectations for themselves. I love the success with painted papers! I really do need to post some of those pictures for you.

  • Rina

    Hi Patty
    I’ve seen children cry in a couple of different situations, even when the project is appropriate for age.
    If a child is a perfectionist, he may cry if the art doesn’t measure up to his vision. I try to remind older kids that the best and most famous artists didnt always like their art the first time, and just tried again.
    A child who has made multiple attempts to weave or make a coil pot may cry if the artwork isn’t holding together. I try to partner up these kids with a patient peer.

    • Patty Palmer

      I’ve always wondered about the “partnering up” philosophy. My children were always the calm ones and were placed with children who had behavioral issues. Occasionally it seemed fine, but the more partnering they did, I often wondered how effective peer partnering was. My kids didn’t like it as they had a harder time finishing their own work.
      This is another discussion I suppose! Thanks for weighing in.

  • Stephanie Needham

    I was one of those kids who would sometimes cry. I tell my students the truth. My art-work meant so much to me that i would become emotional and that often meant tears. Once they experience some apathy they often calm down. I always say. “I can relate because I was a true artist and my work was really important to me”. They settle down much faster when they know it’s okay to feel what they are feeling.

    • Patty Palmer

      Yes…I think this one sums up the reasons for most emotional outbursts. The children’s work can mean so much and sometimes, it’s the only opportunity children have to working with paper and paints. They don’t want to mess up the opportunity.

  • Sandy Daly

    I hate to be picky but when you examine something closely you are “poring” over it, not “pouring” over it. Sorry…I don’t mean to be rude. Misspelling drives me nuts.

    • Patty Palmer

      There’s always someone who points out my mistakes! Rude or not, it’s helpful.

  • Kathwell

    Often other students will bring the tears to my attention. I gently encourage the child by telling them that I will help, “I can’t help when there are tears. Let me know when you are ready.” Supportive without hovering. It’s the child’s choice. When I do help, I draw on another piece of paper to show them how to correct the mistake by “turning it into something else.” “I make lots of mistakes, that’s how I know how to fix this. Just keep going. It looks like a big mistake right now, but by the time you finish with color you’ll hardly notice it. Do you see the mistake on my example? (no) I’m not going to show you because only I know where it is.” If it is beyond hope, they get another piece of paper because they tried.

  • Sara Blackburn

    I work with urban, low-income children in a Christian non-profit after school program. I get the privilege of teaching art classes to about 60 children once every week. I try to expose them to a variety of art forms while teaching the basics. The ultimate goal of our art program is to use therapeutic art methods to allow the students to creatively express themselves in a positive manner. Normally, I am the “start over if you need to” type of teacher, but since a big part of our goal is therapeutic, I will occasionally throw in a project where only one piece of paper is allowed. The reason for this is that my students live in a world where they are often encouraged to give up or give in if they encounter difficulties. I do not allow them to give up during this type of project. If a mistake is made, they have to come up with a way to make it okay… and the tears do come (and often become a part of the finished artwork). It is frustrating to many of my students. However, those students who get frustrated need to learn how to work through those frustrations in a safe environment. This is a life skill that needs to be learned and absolutely necessary for the success of many of my students. So tears, while difficult to deal with in the classroom, can be very therapeutic and cause breakthroughs in many aspects of a student’s life. If you can get to the root of why there are tears and then come up with a solution to help the child work through the tears so they can eventually get to a place where that experience/situation won’t cause such great distress, you will leave that child in a better place than they were when they came to you. Just avoiding the things that cause distress does that child no good in the long run. A holistic approach, such as I mentioned in this post, will benefit the child much, much more.

    • Patty Palmer

      Love this perspective. Gives a whole new meaning to Crying in the Classroom. Thank you!

      • Rita Gatti

        So very wise Sara. Oh that there was more of that kind of wisdom at work on behalf of our children. I also worked in an after school inner city program where many of the children live in poverty and failed community. Patchwork Central was that refuge, that safe place for them and there were/are wonderful folks there for them, exercising them in the skills necessary to not only survive but to overcome. Bless you.

  • christy maurer

    I teach elementary art. If a child is upset because they messed up or don’t like their work, I tell them to use it as a practice piece to work out the rest of it, but that they need to stick with it until it’s finished if they want to start over. (“finished” can vary by degree depending on the project and the student) I talk to them about how they would like it to be different, and how they can achieve that. When they finish they can do-over if they want to, but honestly getting over that hump usually is all they need. They’re usually happy with it when it’s finished.

    I also tell them that it can be a lot of fun to dislike your project, because you can try some crazy things that you’d usually be afraid would “ruin” it. If you already dislike it, you’ve got nothing to lose. They don’t buy in to that as much, but someday when they’re old enough I hope they’ll remember that!

  • Sarah Clare

    Patty, this may seem like an unrelated question but looking at your “circle” picture reminded me. What and/or how do you instruct students not to continually mix paint colors on a picture until they end up with a brownish-blackish mess? I find this challenging. On one hand I don’t want to stifle their creativity but on the other hand, if I’m not vigilant with my reminder not to continuously mix colors, the finished product is not something I want to hang up or send home with the student.

    • Patty Palmer

      Hi Sarah,
      This is a great question. Avoiding mixing muddy colors is tricky. You have to allow the child to experiment with mixing all colors together at some point so as to satisfy their curiosity. They wouldn’t be kids if they weren’t wondering what would happen.
      But once children have experience mixing non-friendly colors together, make sure you do lots of paintings where you show how to mix friendly colors together.
      Young children may not see the difference but as they grow and develop through art skills, they eventually get it.

  • Celina Robledo

    This was so helpful. I had a sleepless night- had a child have a total meltdown. This was my second class with her- second meltdown. Thank you for your tips.

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