Tattling in school is one of those perennial thorns in the sides of elementary teachers. It's so… well it's just plain irritating, is what it is! But we have to be careful that we are not ignoring important information that is just disguised as tattling but is actually telling.
Here's a question I received that illustrated the issue perfectly.
Tattling in school Q&A
Question: “My classroom has a rule against excessive tattling in school. Recently, I have encountered issues in which a student felt physically or emotionally threatened, but didn't tell me so as not to violate the rule.
“How do I help the students understand what is appropriate and what is not?”
Answer: Great question! Sometimes the tattletales at school do get out of hand, don't they?
I can see you worked hard to limit the disruptions in your classroom. Now you just need to tweak it a little. You have a teachable moment on your hands! Use it!
A Brief primer on handling grade-school tattle-tales
This is a developmentally appropriate behavior for the six- to nine-year-old set. This is the age when kids have that belief that adults can control and fix everything like magic. But this is also the age where we want to develop socially acceptable behaviors. That means children have to learn the difference between tattling and telling.
Students often tattle about things that they could have dealt with on their own. But they are so used to having adults fix everything, they haven't transitioned into taking on that responsibility. So we practice and role play in the classroom. For example:
Jacob: “Amy took the markers I was using!”
My response is to NOT step in and handle it… rather, I model for Jacob how to respond appropriately, giving him the words to say:
“Amy, I was using the markers, could I please have them back? Or maybe we can share!”
After practicing this, if a student speaks up about another student I ask, “How did you handle that?” I suggest, “Maybe you could try…” and I may go with the child to help prompt the correct thing to say.
Later on, if a student begins a statement (especially after recess or lunch) with another student's name, I'll stop them and ask if this is a tattle or a tell. 90% of the time they'll stop and remember my lessons and modeling – they know they can fix it by themselves after they have been shown the words and the social approaches to doing it.
Back to my answer…
I would ask the student you described if it is okay if you use the situation to help the entire class learn the difference between tattling and telling. Have a class meeting where you share several different examples of each. Have the students contribute their own examples.
Ask students why they think you don't allow them to tattle in class. I'm sure they are well aware. Prompt them if needed.
After getting student input, use the aforementioned student's situation as an example of when telling would be appropriate.
Bottom line: If physical or emotional safety is threatened, that's when you tell.
Discuss how the student felt. Invite students' reflections on the situation. Give students some other possible scenarios and have them decide which category they fall under.
Then set expectations for the whole class on this topic. If a student engages in it, they need to take responsibility for it (you can decide this based on your management plan for your classroom).
Be sure to follow up! Have another classroom meeting within a couple weeks to revisit the issue. Take time to celebrate the positive changes as well as time to tweak the system as you see fit.
The chronic tattler
Most students do understand when to speak up and when to remain silent, especially after you talk through a class meeting on the topic.
But every year, you'll have at least one who simply can't stop, even though it undermines his friendships and starts to turn other students against him. It can become a very self-destructive cycle.
With these kids, it's time to dig a little deeper. You may find:
- Exaggerated desire for attention
- Deep-seated sense of persecution – “the world is so unfair” syndrome (aka “poor me”)
- Compensation syndrome (when things are out of control in one area of a student's life, sometimes they attempt to over-control other areas)
- Social immaturity… a common affliction in elementary school (remember your grade school days?!)
A chronic tattling scenario
James came in upset after every lunch recess, complaining bitterly that certain other boys were not following the rules about responding to the recess bell. He would explain in detail how he yelled at them to put the soccer balls away and line up, but they ignored him.
We talked it through several times. I had to get him to verbalize why he was putting himself in the role of rule enforcer. It came down to his need to control at least one area of his life. Dad lived out of town, mom was getting remarried. Neither of these things fit James' internal rules for how life is supposed to work so he started enforcing rules elsewhere. Kids started avoiding him – not a good scenario.
This was definitely a self-defeating cycle. After talking it through a couple times, it almost came down to a “repeat-after-me” exercise:
“It is not your job to enforce the playground rules. All you have to do is follow the rules. The playground supervisors can handle the rest of the kids in the way they see fit.”
Repeat daily for a week (or more).
Video tips: managing classroom tattling
The critical thing to understand is that a chronic offender will not easily understand the difference between tattling in class and telling. In their mind, everything is appropriate telling and a generalized class discussion won't help; they think it doesn't apply to their situation.
You must work with them one-on-one for each of their particular scenarios to help them understand what it means in the context of their little world. It does take time, but getting this impulse under control is critical for their social development and long-term relationships with other students.