Tattling Versus Reporting

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Tattling is telling or complaining about the actions of a person or group. Children often go to an adult to solve their problems rather than try to work their troubles out themselves. Many teachers are unsure as to what to do about tattling. They need to be aware of some information, yet they cannot spend their entire day listening to accounts of minor infractions. Examples of tattling are: “Sam took Lilly’s book.” “Sara won’t play fair.”“Jessica keeps talking to me.” “Cameron pushed ahead in line.”

Children need to be taught that it is necessary to tell if they or others are hurt, in danger or being bullied (see Educator’s Guide to Bullying). Examples of reporting or informing are: “Clyde is beating up Adam on the playground.” “Emma fell from the top of the monkey bars!” “Melissa keeps calling Natalie mean names in the rest room.” “Sam was making fun of the way Bill runs and will not let him play.” Some teachers maintain that tattling is appropriate only when someone is being physically hurt, but psychological injury caused by habitual ridicule or exclusion are also valid complaints. In addition, any form of harassment such as inappropriate grabbing can cause a school system to become involved in a lawsuit.

There are several reasons why children tattle on others. When possible, listen to the child, and try to decipher what need he or she is trying to fulfill. A child who tattles continuously may have low self-esteem (see Understanding Self-Esteem) and/or poor social interaction skills.

Motives and Methods for Dealing with Tattling
  • To seek attention
    Solution: Notice the child at other times and provide needed feedback and compliments for appropriate behaviors.

  • To pursue power
    Solution: Give the child opportunities for leadership and focus on his/her strengths.

  • To manipulate or threaten
    Solution: Try to facilitate the child’s positive social interactions with peers and/or refer the child to the school counselor for additional assistance.

  • To gain an understanding of the rules
    (For example, a young child might say to him or herself, “We are supposed to obey the rules, but some children do not follow them. If I tell the teacher, she will call it tattling. Is it a rule if they do not get caught? Which rules are the ones that children really have to follow?”)
    Solution: Point out examples of the rules and be as consistent as possible.

  • To understand the difference between right and wrong
    (Children may want to confirm their assumption that what they observed was wrong.)
    Solution: Say something like, “I’m pleased that you did not do that because it is against the rule. Thank you for telling me;I will take care of it.” In this case you are acknowledging that the child knows the rule but explaining that discipline is the teacher's responsibility and not the child's duty.

Additional Thoughts For Teachers

1. Role play various scenarios to teach children how to distinguish between telling to get someone IN trouble or telling to help someone OUT of trouble. Ask the child:

“Are you telling me (state the behavior) to be harmful (tattling) or helpful (reporting)?”
”Are you trying to get someone in trouble?” (tattling)
”Are you trying to help me discipline my students?” (tattling)
”Are you having a problem with bullying?” (reporting)
”Are you helping a friend who is hurt?” (reporting)

2. Avoid asking questions like, “What happened?” or “Who started it?” When children complain about the actions of others, their responses are usually biased.

3. Relying on the word of one child against another may present problems. If a report of ridiculing or other non-physical bullying seems to warrant some action, observe long enough to know what is actually going on before intervening.

4. Teach children ways to assert themselves instead of telling on someone. Stress that students need to use their words and talk to each other. The child could say:

“When you____________(call me names), I feel_________(sad), because I________(don¹t do that to you). Or, teach them to say, “I don’t like it when you________(tease me). It makes me feel_________(angry). I want you to_________(stop it!). Encourage them to discuss the problem and to listen to each other. The goal is to help children learn to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems.

5. Teach the children “The Steps to Solving Problems” (see "Building Character in Students"), and prompt children to use them. Say, “Now that sounds like something you can sort out for yourself,” or “I am sure you will be able to work this out since you know how to solve problems.”

6. Use the "talk it out" method. (For details see "Solutions Through Peer Mediation.")

Have the two disputing children face each other.
Listen to each other tell what happened.
Wait for their turn to speak.
Be polite.
Discuss ways to work out the problem.
Agree on what to do.
Shake hands.

7. Ask the children to follow these steps if they feel they are being bullied: First, ignore the behavior and avoid the person. If that does not work try to talk with him or her. If that is not helpful, say, “Leave me alone!” If the behavior does not stop, report it to the teacher.

8. Use an old telephone minus the cord, stuffed animal, or picture of a president. If a child has something to tell you that sounds like tattling, have them talk into the phone, tell a stuffed animal or the president what happened.

9. Provide a box with a hole in the top and a large note pad beside it. Tell the child who is ready to tattle, “I am teaching right now, but you may write down your name, date and what happened on the note pad and put it in the box.” Younger children could print their name and draw a picture of what happened. Tell them that you will read their comments later and if necessary, take action. The complaints can be discussed at a designated time, perhaps the first few minutes of recess or at the end of the school day.

10. You could say,“I’m teaching now. You can work it out yourselves or we can talk about it after school.”Often the result is that they begin to work on a problem together without teacher assistance.

11. Have a rule that if a child clearly tattles to try to get another child in trouble, both children will experience a consequence like missing recess.

12. In some classrooms students are not allowed to report for someone else. The child who is telling needs to be the one with the problem. If a child is being constantly bullied, it is often difficult for him or her to tell an adult. If you sense that this is the case, pay attention to the child`s feelings (see Educator’s Guide To Active Listening), communicate understanding and take steps to remedy the situation.

13. Stress the importance of treating each other with respect. If there is teasing, bullying or tattling on others, hold a class meeting. Let the students know that insulting others will not be tolerated. Encourage the students to discuss openly the things that are bothering them. Then undertake solving a conflict as a class.

14. Have a class meeting at a designated time when children share their positive experiences and/or their concerns. If a child comes to you and wants to tattle, say,“Can it wait until the class meeting?” They usually say “yes” and often forget by the meeting time. If they do not forget, the meeting is an opportunity for them to discuss their problem and express their feelings.

15. One way to encourage positive student interaction is to make a big heart out of red construction paper. Talk with the students about hurting each other's feelings. Describe a day in the life of a child who experienced ridicule and rejection because he or she arrived late at school, wore clothes that were too small, forget his lunch, was called a loser, was not asked to play, was laughed at for tripping on the playground, etc. Every time the child’s feelings are hurt in the story, tear off a piece of the heart. By the end of the story the whole heart is in pieces. Have a student try to tape it back together again but accentuate that it will never be the same, just like children are never the same after being teased. Hang the heart on the wall as a remainder of the harm negative actions and comments can have on others.

Student learning time increases when children understand the difference between tattling and reporting. Yet, children’s observations can help teachers know what is happening when they are not present or when their attention is elsewhere. Allowing students an opportunity to share their serious concerns is a necessary component of a positive school environment.


Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com], 1/06.

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