What to Do About Tattling

“Jaime isn’t lining up in the right place.”
“Grayson said a bad word.”
“Olivia hit me!”

I know from teaching young children myself how challenging it can be to face a seemingly endless parade of students reporting things to you as you’re trying to teach.

Figuring out how to deal with what we commonly call “tattling” can take a significant amount of time and energy and, as a result, teachers are often tempted to tell children to keep problems to themselves. Indeed, some schools enact tattling bans, and many well-meaning teachers ask me how to “enforce” such bans.

While perhaps well-intentioned, discouraging tattling creates more problems than it solves. It leads to a “culture of silence” in our schools and sends children disheartening and confusing messages:

Adults say they care, but they won’t listen to my problems. If I tell when someone does something bad, I’m being bad, too. I’m alone here; no one will help me.

Such inadvertent but powerful messages clearly work against the culture of emotional and physical safety we want to establish for our children. Frequently we see reports of school officials who uncover bullying and learn that many students knew of prior incidents involving the same children. But the witnessing children told no one, and their silence emboldened those experimenting with bullying to go even further. We are often surprised by children’s silence in these cases, but we shouldn’t be. Often they’re simply following the “no tattling” rule they learned at home or in school at a young age.

Rather than tattling bans, then, we need to develop a more nuanced view of tattling, along with ways to help children understand when and how to report problems.

Why Do Children Tattle?

There are many different reasons why students “tattle.” Here are the most common ones:

  1. Legitimate concerns: Students may have good reasons for concern about others’ behavior and its effects on them and their friends. We need to fully embrace this truth rather than just pay lip service to it.
  2. Need for information: Some children may be testing the limits or trying to figure out whether you’ll enforce rules. When we respond with a disapproving “Remember—no tattling,” or a pointed question such as, “Do I need to know that?” they become confused.
  3. Wish for attention or recognition. Some children want us to notice them or to acknowledge their efforts at following the rules. With their regular reporting and need for constant affirmation, these children can frequently get under their teachers’ skin!
  4. Limited problem-solving skills: Adults often tell students to handle problems themselves, but students may lack the skills to do so. Tattling may be their only problem-solving strategy.

Better Ways to Handle Tattling

If we decide not to ban tattling, then we need to offer children strategies that will help them know what to do when they feel uncomfortable about behavior they’ve seen or experienced. Good strategies for managing tattling will:

Encourage children to report significant events—those that threaten someone’s emotional or physical safety.

Assure students that if they’re uncertain whether an event is significant, adults want them to speak up.

Help children develop independent problem-solving skills and resiliency.

Here are a few strategies you can adapt to fit the needs of your class:

  • Proactively explain your expectations about tattling. You might begin by exploring students’ prior understanding of tattling, followed by naming your expectations:

    “I know that some teachers and maybe even your families have told you not to tattle. They may have had good reasons for that. But I want you to know that there will be many times when I’ll want you to tell me about behaviors that you’re noticing. Today we’ll begin talking about how you’ll know when to tell.”

  • Help students know when to report incidents to you. Brainstorm common events that students report to you (someone writes the wrong answer on her paper, students call each other names, someone pushes a classmate down, etc.). Put these incidents on index cards and then sort them with students using a chart with three columns, labeled: Tell An Adult, Handle it Yourself, & Let it Go.

You may want to try to sort them yourself or with a colleague before doing so with children. Doing so will help you guide the discussion appropriately and know which behaviors might be hard to classify.

As when learning any skill, children will need multiple lessons and experiences to internalize these concepts. Revisit the discussion often. Add to the list. Have students reflect on whether they’ve reported behaviors adults need to know about, what they’ve learned about “letting things go,” and so forth. End every conversation by emphasizing that when in doubt, children should tell an adult about behaviors that concern them.

  • Be ready with respectful responses to tattlers. Presume that a child’s motivation for tattling is positive. Respond with a simple affirmation: “Oh, you’re right. I did say that’s how we should line up. I’ll watch more carefully next time.” Or say, “You really know our rules.” If a child has reported a serious problem, be clear that you appreciate and will follow up on the information.
  • Let students report to you privately. Some teachers keep “conversation journals” in which students write daily or biweekly messages to which the teacher responds. Others have boxes where students can leave confidential written messages. Offering a written outlet for concerns may increase the likelihood that you’ll hear about serious problems. For students who over-report, it’s an alternative to interrupting lessons.
  • Reinforce students who report serious incidents. It’s often challenging for students to report a problem to an adult, especially when the incident involves a friend. Make sure you validate the child’s reporting. You might say,

    “It can be hard to know when to tell a teacher something classmates have done. It takes courage. But telling me that Mark was taking Lucy’s lunch every day gave me a chance to help both of them. That’s really important.”

  • Help parents understand and support your approach. Guide parents who ban tattling toward a more nuanced view. On the other hand, work with parents who encourage their children to tell teachers about every single problem to help their children develop independent strategies for dealing with life’s setbacks. Help all parents by talking about your approach at parent meetings, in your weekly newsletter, and on your school or class website.
  • Give students positive ways to get your attention. For students who seem to be seeking your attention through tattling, consider giving them a unique responsibility in the classroom, showcasing their talents at Morning Meetings, or writing them the occasional note letting them know you’ve seen their positive efforts or accomplishments.

    You might also teach these students to give you a nonverbal signal when they’ve either handled an issue on their own or let something go. For those who want recognition of their rule-following, a simple nod or smile in response shows that you recognize their self-control and increasing social skills.

  • Teach conflict resolution. If you expect students to address problems independently, you must teach them how. Caltha Crowe sets out a clear process for this teaching in her book Solving Thorny Behavior Problems. But remember—it’s unrealistic to expect students to solve all problems on their own. Some problems require adult assistance, and in some situations, particularly if there is any hint that bullying is involved, child-to-child conflict resolution is inappropriate.

Building a Culture of Safety

Above all, children need to know that when someone’s behavior worries them, adults will listen. Learning needn’t be interrupted—and is actually enhanced—when we teach children how and when to voice their concerns. Such teaching increases their feelings of safety and also the possibility that we really can fulfill our responsibility to keep everyone safe in school.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

This article, first published in the Responsive Classroom Newsletter, was an early version of the “Teasing” chapter in Margaret Berry Wilson’s book Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More: Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors (NEFC, 2013).

“Every teacher knows it’s the ‘little’ daily problems that sap our strength. Margaret Berry Wilson’s Teasing, Tattling, Defiance, and More is just the sort of book you wish could fit in your pocket so you could carry it around to use at a moment’s notice.”
—K. Amy Ross, grade 4/5 teacher, Seaside CA

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Classroom Rules, Responsibility