by Jonathon Denholm November 16, 2021 6 min read
Any teacher that has spent even five minutes with young children knows that they are prone to tattle tongue.
Tattling is completely developmentally appropriate behavior that many children exhibit. However, adults often find it distracting or annoying since it happens countless times a day in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. In this blog we will cover a few methods for how to resopond to tattling, but first let's try and understand the motivation behind it.
First, it's essential to understand four fundamental reasons that kids tattle. Every child is different and might tell on their peers in a variety of circumstances.
Despite their young age, children are whole human beings who crave validation and visibility. The most common reason they will tell on their classmate is that they want their teacher to know what's happening. They want to have a witness to their conflict.
For example, let's say that two kids are playing in the block area together. One child continuously knocks down the tower and the second child gets increasingly upset each time it happens. After 10 minutes of asking them to stop knocking everything down, the second child reaches their limit. They go to the teacher to complain.
The goal is not always to get their peer in trouble. The child's primary goal is to express their frustrations with their classmate to the teacher. They might also want the teacher to solve their problem by telling the first child to stop knocking their tower over.
Testing limits and pushing boundaries are typical for the littlest learners. Teachers see numerous instances where their students will purposefully annoy or badger each other to see how long they can get away with it or if they can control any conflict by being the first to tattle.
Let's take the same example, the first child who was knocking over the blocks sees the second kid tell the teacher. The teacher comes over and gently asks the first child to "play nicely." They play together for a few minutes before the first child starts knocking the blocks over again. When they see the second child getting visibly upset, they might tell the teacher that the second child isn't letting them play the way they want.
In this situation, the first kid isn't tattling because they're frustrated or asking to help. They're getting out some aggression and trying to establish control over the manner of play.
Young children figure out how to socialize through their daily interactions and play. However, throughout the day, they will have minor disagreements with their peers. These small problems can quickly escalate because students have not yet developed conflict resolutions skills.
For example, let's say there are three children in the dramatic play center, but there are only two baby dolls. If all three want a doll, they may lack the social skills to find a reasonable compromise. The child left without a baby doll might run over to the teacher to say the other two aren't sharing.
In these instances, the children want to establish fairness and equality, but they haven't yet developed the skills to do it themselves.
Classrooms are busy and loud. Children who are shy or less accustomed to noise may get overwhelmed easily.
If a kid is coloring quietly at the art table, they could get disturbed if a small group is loudly playing with cars on the floor nearby. After a few minutes, they might tell their teacher that they're being too loud.
In this case, the child is trying to find calm and peace in a crowded space and wants to distance themselves from stimulation.
Teachers organize their daily activities around expectations and routines that are best established early in the school year.
Reducing tattling begins with a circle time or morning meeting where students learn the difference between tattling and telling.
Some examples of telling include situations when a student is:
Some examples of tattling include situations when a student is:
After you clarify the difference between tattling and telling, you can brainstorm ways that children and can resolve their conflicts and reach compromises. They can then role-play with each other to practice problem solving and student conflict resolution skills. Role-playing can explore boundaries and the natural consequences of overstepping them in a safe, low-risk environment.
There are several ways to try to limit tattletale behavior in the classroom. Two of the most effective strategies to implement are tattle phones and tattle toys. These give students an outlet when they are upset with their classmates and need to vent.
Using a tattle phone can be helpful for students who feel constant urges to report on the behavior of their classmates. When they observe someone who is "not doing the right thing," they can pick up the tattle phone and call it in.
It may take a bit of practice to establish the routine, but reinforcement and redirection will help students get the hang of using the phone.
Here is an example of a conversation where the teacher redirects a child to use it:
Student: Teacher! Teacher! She is-
Teacher: Friend, are you hurt? Are you sick?
Teacher: Ok, then you can go pick up the phone, call it in, and then play again if you want.
Student: *picks up the phone* Charlotte snatched my toy, and it's making me feel so angry! *puts down the phone and returns to playing* Charlotte, can you please give me the toy back?
By using the phone, students can vocalize their frustrations out loud. They are required to disengage from play to do so, which gives them a short (and often much needed) break from the situation. This can help them calm down and take time to figure out a solution. When they're finished, they can either practice their social skills and resolve the conflict or disengage entirely and go to a different area of the classroom.
Tattle phones give children a tangible way to voice their concerns and problems without directly informing the teacher.
A few things you can use as tattle phones are:
A tattle toy is a strategy that works best with shy students or those who get overwhelmed easily. These students tend to tattle when they don't think a situation is fair or are looking for empathy and compassion.
A tattle toy (or a tattle buddy or tattle monster) is a stuffed animal or other soft and cuddly toy that children can sit and snuggle with while they sort through their frustrations either verbally or internally. A tattle toy can be a great addition to your calm down corner.
If a child gets upset because their peer is leaving them out of a game or teasing them. They can step away from the situation and cuddle with the tattle toy. They might not be comfortable speaking to it right away, but they will get used to the practice over time. Eventually, they will find themselves telling their troubles to the tattle toy.
When introducing these tools in the classroom, it's essential to share these strategies with the parents. Preschool and kindergarten students are frequently told by their parents that "if anything happens to you, just tell the teacher."
However, they fail to realize that this advice only encourages more frivolous tattling behavior in the classroom. If every child in the classroom tells the teacher every time "something happens," then the teacher will spend all their time solving their problems. The children should be learning how to problem-solve instead.
When introducing a tattle toy or a tattle phone, explain the routine and purpose to the parents the same day as the children. You can do this via email, a newsletter, or even a video. Parents could also benefit from learning which situations are telling and which are tattling. You can also encourage families to implement their own version of the tattle toy or tattle phone in their homes to reinforce positive behavior.
Parents of young children are often quick to bring issues to the teacher. Because of this, they can sometimes interpret minor conflicts as bullying, which is rarely the case in the early years.
Knowing that the children are learning to resolve conflict on their own can help put anxious parents at ease.
Tattling can take up a great deal of time if left unchecked and unmonitored.
Giving students tools like a tattle phone or tattle toy can help them develop their social skills in a safe environment that allows them to practice setting boundaries and resolve conflicts independently.
Less tattling means more time for more positive classroom management.