How to Survive Kindergarten

Image source: Flickr by Brit

Kindergarten is my toughest class. Some teachers are “naturals” at teaching Kindergarten, but not me. The first time I taught Kindergarten was in my first class of my first teaching job. As it turned out, it was one of “those” classes that come around once or twice in a career. Lucky me.

Here are a few highlights during my first month teaching Kindergarten. . .

  • A couple boys thought that they were “puppies” and decided that crawling under the tables and barking would be a good idea just at the very moment the principal walked in the room.
  • The “potty train” to the bathroom was getting out of hand until the one day I said – “No more- no one else can go until after class”. Then a child promptly peed right on the floor.
  • Another day, I was handed a lovely lock of hair (draw your own conclusions on what happened).

And those are just a FEW of the highlights!

I did survive get through Kindergarten that year, but it has taken several more years to really feel like I can manage a class effectively.  Below I have listed a few suggestions that work for me.

Lesson Ideas. It is hard to teach art without the lesson ideas. Here are a few successful art lessons I have used with my Kindergarten students, along with a list of art ideas from other teachers.

Classroom Management. This will make or break you. I love the post written by Jessica Balsley “Teachers, Forget Your Lesson Plans“. She discusses how important the classroom management details are to implementing a successful art curriculum. The following is a list of strategies I wish I had during my first year teaching Kindergarten.


  • Create a supply table or counter-top.  Pour the paint, set out the paper, organize materials. Make sure you have enough of everything so that you’re not running around during class trying to replenish supplies.
  • Label front of smock with child’s name. Have them wear it to every class until you know their names.
  • Don’t bother with seating charts. They forget where they sit.  If you are continuing a project from one class to the next, strategically place artwork from the previous class around the room with name side showing so that you can separate students appropriately. However, sometimes it is necessary provide “learning locations” (aka assigned seats) for few children – just write it down so you’ll remember from class to class.
  • Only put on their table the supplies they will need at that very moment – everything else is just candy and causes more problems than it is worth.

Instructional Management

  • Smile. You can be a kind, nurturing teacher and still have students meet your expectations.
  • Check out the whole brain teaching strategy described in a great guest post by art teacher Katie Jarvis.
  • Name on paper. Always make this the first direction before anything else. Check to see that it was actually done (because not all Kindergarteners are capable or even want to write their name) Then move on.
  • Get students attention quickly. Try these attention grabbing strategies in art.
  • Find things that make kids laugh, it can grab their attention, but don’t be TOO funny (there is a backfire point for everything).
  • Before you give any instruction or demonstration, wait until all eyes are on you, bodies are sitting up, nothing is in hands, and all voices are off. Don’t say a word, just wait. It might be 1, 2, or even 4 minutes. It will kill you to wait the first time.  If necessary, give hints to kids quietly that you “wish you could start but you’ll just have to wait”. Wait until everyone is looking, with mouths closed for a full 8 seconds. Wait as long as it takes – it might take months to see real progress, but it WILL happen if you remain consistent!
  • Eliminate distractions. If you have the space, pull all the kids together for demonstration or discussion.
  • Pace your lessons. Show only a couple of steps and let them try it. Gather the class together again, and show a few more steps. This will not only help all your students feel successful but it also slows down the rushers and buys a bit more time for the slower workers.
  • Don’t let a demo or discussion last longer than 10 minutes.  Even if they’re sitting quietly, chances are you’ve lost them.
  • SLOW DOWN. Yes, I know sometimes it is impossible – a clay project that has to get finished or one last step in a painting process (occurrences that only art teachers can fully understand). But the beginning of Kindergarten, make sure you build in extra time or alternate your “messy” lessons on one day to “not-so messy” on another. Use those classes that don’t HAVE TO have artwork completed to teach classroom procedures.
  • Don’t get mad if students are not following your procedures. Just practice the proper behavior until they get it right.  Complement the children when you see them doing the right thing and let their homeroom teacher know when they do a good job.
  • If students are still not following your procedures, walk students back to the outside of their regular classroom and start class over. They hate it. Waste their time now, then you will get more time back later.
  • Teach them the “need to know” rule otherwise known as the Tattletale Trauma.
  • Potty trains. Rule: One person to the bathroom at a time. No one is allowed to go to bathroom while you are giving instruction. (yes, once in a while if a kid is giving you “the look” and holding himself, that would be a good time to make an exception)
  • Transition activities. I have several different puzzles set aside for students to work on as students finish their artwork.  Train them on your expectations for sharing, quiet play, and clean up.  Students who have trouble with these expectations should lose the privilege during that class.
  • Absent kids.  If you’re working on a project over two or more class periods, and a child is absent on the first day, grab a piece of paper that the children are creating art on and add the absent student’s name.  The next week, you will see if anyone was absent or not by the blank piece of paper left from the week before.  Group absent kids together to give instructions for catching up at the same time.

Clean up

  • Don’t expect your students to remember a list of clean up procedures.  Give them a visual – create your own clean-up map.
  • Brushes.  Train the students to drop brushes in the sink or in a soak cup.  As much as you may want to teach them how to clean their own brushes, with limited sink space, it needs to be used for hand cleaning, not brushes.
  • If you use sponges, squeeze them out for the students and only give them to children who are sitting at their seat.  The table signals that they are finished by stacking all the sponges.  Peers pressure each other to follow the procedure and it gets the sponges out of the hands of “enthusiastic” cleaners.
  • If the room is still a mess, ask the children to each pick up 10 (or 20) scraps off the floor.
  • When it is time to line up, send only a few at a time.  You could choose to have students who sit the quietest, clean up most efficiently, or who are most helpful to one another.
  • Have students SIT in line. It is harder to bump into someone when they are in one stationary spot.

How do you manage your Kindergarten classes?

Theresa McGee

Hello! My name is Theresa McGee and I am a National Board Certified Art Teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator teaching in Hinsdale, Illinois. My curriculum is structured around creative thinking and technology integration into the learning process. I have authored eighteen articles for the Tech4ArtEd Column in SchoolArts Magazine and several iTunes U courses for professional development. I've presented at the state and national levels including several online webinars for art educators. In 2010, I was awarded Illinois Elementary Art Educator of the Year and in 2011 I was awarded the national PBS Teacher Innovator award. I love to share ideas that contribute to the art education profession!


  • March 5, 2011


    Some years, kindergarten has been my toughest classes. Thankfully, I have instructional assistants who stay with their kindergarteners at this school. Most of the schools where I have taught, did not afford me this. I’d say that if you can advocate for anything, advocate for this. If the classroom teacher needs help, we certainly do. jan

  • March 5, 2011

    Becca Ruth

    I teach Kinders with centers. It works so well I actually love teaching Kinders! Check it out here

  • March 5, 2011

    Laura Allan

    LOVE this post! You have wonderful suggestions, and I have to say I found myself giggling as I read it, remembering my own experiences. Thanks for sharing! :)

  • March 5, 2011


    Great post and refresher! Call me crazy but kindergartner is my favorite group, with first grade right behind them! I spend more time prepping and cleaning up this group but the ‘aww’ effect of working with something new makes it worth it!

  • March 6, 2011

    Nancy Walkup

    Great suggestions!

  • March 7, 2011


    I found this post very helpful! thanks for posting it!
    I have to agree with Jan; many people just don’t realize how demanding a bunch of Kindergartners can be. BUT! also how rewarding it is. :)
    Your tips seem very applicable!

  • March 24, 2011


    Great post!
    I agree – k is hardest.
    You packed a lot of valuable info in here – thanks!
    Cristy in WY

  • April 18, 2011

    Susan Riley

    What a great post to share with new and experienced teachers alike! The one thing I like to do with my kindergartners is to say “Make me your focus point”. We use arts integration throughout our school and all the teachers have now gotten into the habit of saying this phrase. It reminds students the refocus their attention and places it directly on the teacher. This works almost instantly!

  • April 28, 2013

    Tom McIntyre

    Wonderful list of “what to do” and “how to do it”. Very helpful tips.

  • August 17, 2013


    This was just what I needed. My first week of my first year of teaching art just ended, and my kindergarten class was the most challenging, right next to eighth grade. I have 26 kindergarteners in a tiny classroom with no aide and I realized immediately my “plans” were not going to work whatsoever. I teach K-12 where my room is in the high school building. Imagine how scary it must be for kindergarteners to leave the comfort of their classroom teacher and walk down the hall with high school kids. I had one student who cried the entire time wanting to go back to her normal classroom, which then triggered another student to cry. I also had “puppies” under the table and two students didn’t want to wear their shirts anymore. When I student taught my kindergarteners were a dream–but I also had them in the Spring semester where they had already learned class procedures with my wonderful cooperating teacher. What an eye opener for me! Thank you.

  • August 6, 2014

    Jan Alston

    Great post! I’ve been teaching 23 years and it was nice to know I might actually being doing it right. Sometimes you wonder. I will add one thing I’ve tried that the kids love. If the floor is really messy- I’ll give the children a piece of rolled masking tape and tell them to vacuum the floor. When their tape is full I give them another piece. It works wonders. Thanks for sharing. Another Jan

  • May 11, 2015


    This year I *Loved* teaching Kinders. I am a third year teacher, and I am started to find out what they can do, and what they can’t. Unfortunately 2 of my Kinder classes were so low this year, we had to spend 8 weeks on Mouse Paint. We had to spend one week on Red. One week and yellow…one on blue. The poor kids couldn’t write their own name (some couldn’t even SAY their name)…let alone identify colors. We took it slow and progress was made! My high Kinder class LOVED mixing colors and were into painting more than any older kid. Really amazing how different each Kinder kid can be…which makes it challenging yet exciting.

    One thing I disagree with is the seating chart. I rely heavily on this, and I even do attendance each class. This is the only grade level I do attendance with. I do not record the attendance, I just want to see that everyone is in the correct place. I have 511 students, and I know about 450 by name. If i practice saying the K classes’ name each week, I will have their names memorized as well! The seating chart is also helpful for students who can’t write their name, and students who forgot to write their name, and left the room. Just my 2 cents.

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