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

3 Replies to “What to Do About Tattling”

  • Here is an example of what we should say to a child when they ‘tell on’ someone. If they say something like, “Max cut in line in the cafeteria,” we should say something like, “I can tell that it really upset you when Max cut in line, and it would really upset me too if I saw someone do that.” We can then ask the child questions like these:

    “Are you telling me about this because you are concerned about your own safety?”

    “Are you telling me about this because you are concerned about somebody else’s safety?”

    “Are you telling me about this because someone did something illegal?”

    “Are you telling me about this because you are trying to keep someone out of trouble, or because you are trying to get someone into trouble?”

    “Have you tried handling the situation yourself”

    “If yes, have you been successful?”

    “Is there an alternative?”

    Of course, if a child tells you something like, “I think I saw a weapon in Sarah’s locker,” you do not need to ask them any questions, because it’s pretty obvious. If Brad says something that hurts Jane’s feelings, before going to an adult, Jane can say something like, “hey, Brad, please don’t say that, because that hurts my feelings,” or, “you know, Brad, I really don’t like it when people say that, so please don’t say that.” However, if Jane is continually needing to ask Brad not to say whatever it is that is hurting her feelings, and he keeps saying it, that is when she needs to seek help from a trusted adult.

  • I think that as much as teachers want to think they can handle this on their own, they can’t and the district or Principle need to establish a set of rules and guidelines. I say this because I agree and disagree with the information above and not much of the process but the comprehension of relating situations that children go through with every day adult situations. For example: If someone cuts in line at school, they should be heard because if someone cuts in line while you as an adult are at the DMV, would it be okay with you? These are the best and easiest examples that help our little ones make the right decision when they become an adult and not think that they need to resolve to violence in order to handle a situation when they are not heard, we need to provide our children with tools that combined with problem solving which comes with age, can really impact someone’s life when they become of age when they must fend for themselves. Then we have the other small situation, for example: If someone is not walking in a straight line and a child feels the urgency to have to tell an adult then we can proceed to explaining to them that they must not tell on an individual because they are of beat because they may have a condition, may be tired, and/or other reasons that may not be someone breaking a rule but just kind of not meeting the tattletale’s expectation of how to follow instructions. This is when a teacher must NOT (get frustrated with a child because it might feel like a child is calling you as a teacher out for not enforcing your own rules) assume the child’s manipulative motives, and remember that a child is struggling to understand a set of rules at home, at school while in class, and at school while not in class.

    I really hope that this doesn’t offend anyone or group of individuals because what I am trying to accomplish here is simply to relate a child’s situation to a real-life adult issue before assuming that a child’s problem is mediocre, they will someday have the same issue as an adult and will deal with the issue the same way without analyzing it because the analytical problem solving was never introduced to the child so they will not try to solve this issue because they have been given a solution straight-forward.

    Something needs to change because I feel like as a parent, I don’t want any child to ever feel alone. Children need to be loved, disciplined, cherished, educated, and most importantly PROTECTED. If this is not provided and understood a child will learn to be defensive and always be on the offensive because they must protect themselves or they will be demolished.

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