If you have taught elementary, you surely have noticed that your youngest community members have a tendency to tell on one another, otherwise known as “tattling.”
I remember when I was a teacher, I always had at least a couple of 6-year-olds who tattled frequently, and I also clearly recall feeling some annoyance with this behavior. In fact, many elementary teachers I’ve talked to have experienced feelings of frustration with these young elementary children who have a strong desire to bring every grievance front and center. There is a high level of contact required when children are bringing various issues to their teacher’s attention, and this can at times contribute to feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm.
WHY DO CHILDREN TATTLE?
Children generally “tattle” on other children for these reasons:
- Learning: 6-year-old children are entering into the second plane of development, where they are learning to discern between information that is important to tell the adult and information they can take in and handle on their own. A child in this situation may tattle in order to get confirmation from trusted adults about an action or behavior the child isn’t sure is acceptable. Through repeated feedback from their teachers and peers, elementary children become increasingly more discerning about what situations need the attention of an adult, and what situations they can manage independently or with the help of their peers.
- Concern: The young second plane child is beginning a period of moral development. This is an important part of their Cosmic Task! The child may be truly concerned about a situation and feels it is unjust if another child is not doing his part in the community. Second plane children are developing a sense of fairness and justice and they become upset if they perceive that others are not acting in integrity. They want to ensure that the people around them will follow through on promises and agreements that have been made, and will be on the lookout to ensure that words and actions are consistent (though they may not always respond favorably when others point out their own infractions!).
- Power: Some children tattle to have a sense of power and control. Imagine how much power a child has if they can go over to a teacher, tell on a child, and have that teacher get up from whatever they were doing, walk across the room, and admonish the child who made the infraction? A lot!
HOW TO SUPPORT CHILDREN WHO TATTLE
Help them discern whether this situation needs adult intervention.
When children come to you to “tell” on someone, they are receiving some highly valuable information from you! You are helping them learn how to identify what kinds of situations need to be brought to the teacher, and what kinds of situations they can work through independently. Telling them “Don’t tattle,” isn’t helpful information, and will only leave the child feeling frustrated and unresolved. There are definitely times when children should come and tell you things! For example, when a child is hurting another child, you need to know about it.
One strategy you might want to employ is to have a class meeting and create a chart with one side listing examples of things that children can handle on their own, and the other side, a list of things children will need to report to a teacher for help. For example, when children are bleeding, crying, or if a child has repeatedly said hurtful things to another child, you will want to know about these things, which will go in the “let the teacher know” column. If a child is using too much tape, that can go under the “handle it yourself” column. Have the children help you brainstorm ideas for both columns! Through fruitful discussion and debate regarding which column each situation should be placed, it will likely be discovered that certain situations fall into grey areas. For example, if a child is using so much tape that the tape dispenser is regularly empty, the child has been spoken to by other children and the child continues the behavior, then that would move into a “let the teacher know” category. What a wonderful dialogue for elementary children to have!
Keep the chart available for a while so that the children can refer to it down the road when trying to decide what course of action to take. Also, when a child approaches you with something they can handle on their own that is outlined on the chart, you can suggest “Do you want to go check the chart we created the other day to see if the situation you are having is listed in one of the columns?” (You can even suggest that they invite a friend to look at the chart with them). Using this strategy will help children refine both their sense of discernment and their problem-solving skills.
Help them find the words to communicate.
When a child comes to you with things that you know they can handle on their own, empower them to use their own words to communicate their dissatisfaction. It is NOT helpful to simply say, “Use your words.” This commonly used phrase can come across as punitive when not combined with support, and it doesn’t provide any useful information to the child. Most children would use words if they knew the words to use that would be effective! Here is where the importance of modeling clear, specific, and actionable language comes into play.
For example, if a child reports to you that another child didn’t do their daily job, help them find the words by saying something like this: “Oh, it must feel frustrating when you do your daily job and you see that your friend is playing around. How about you remind him that it’s important for him to do his daily job so that everyone is working together as a team, and so that the environment is tidy for everyone when we come in the next morning? His job is sharpening pencils but he won’t sharpen them? Oh, let him know how hard it will be for his friends to do their work if they don’t have sharp pencils.”
By helping the child find words, you are also indirectly helping them to develop the communication skills needed in the elementary classroom for group work and collaboration.
If you have a child who is tattling as a means of having power over others, it is very easy to spot. When this child comes to you and tattles and you help them find words and encourage them to handle it on their own, the child who is seeking power will generally react with surprise and/or frustration. The outcome for this child was not to solve a problem, but to “get another child into trouble,” or to exert some power over the teacher. This child might be very disappointed that they were not able to get you to move from your chair, walk over to the opposite end of the classroom, and give another child a stern talking to! This child who is seeking power is now feeling powerless, and now you have the opportunity to help them find authentic power (a topic for another blog post!).
Through consistently helping them find the words they need to speak to the child who they believe is not following protocol, the child who is tattling to seek power will eventually realize that this is a maladaptive strategy for meeting this need. The child who is focused on solving problems will continue developing skills with your support, and the child who is focused on exerting power will see that their efforts are not making much headway, and the behavior will cease.
COMMUNICATION AND CONSISTENCY ARE THE KEYS TO SUPPORTING CHILDREN WITH TATTLING
With your steady patience and guidance, you will help children to become able to distinguish between what is important information to share with you, and what kinds of events and situations they can handle on their own, with you as a “guide on the side,” supporting them from the periphery.
Remember that these conversations are essential to the social aspect of the elementary classroom. Handling tattling and expressions of outrage and injustice from elementary children are as much a part of the curriculum as is history, science, and geography. The social experiences of the elementary years, which involve negotiation, collaboration, and problem-solving, aid the children in developing into social beings who work effectively with others as a part of a community. Helping children navigate the myriad of social experiences that arise within the elementary community is an essential component of Cosmic Education. Elementary children are social scientists at heart, and it is through their continuous experimentation with rules and norms within the classroom community that they become prepared for later on entering into society as adults.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years, including the LePort Schools. See More