Tattling can be annoying to all parties involved: the recipient, the person whose wrongdoing is being shared, and anyone within earshot.
Tattling is a quick way to get someone’s attention. Unfortunately, the reason tattling gets our attention is the same reason why we don’t often handle these moments with grace.
Those whining voices act just like an alarm, which causes us to enter the stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. This alarm communicates to us that we are in a dangerous situation.
And, just like a smoke detector ringing loudly to let you know you have burnt your toast, when the tattling alarm goes off, you immediately feel an urge to shut off the sound, throw the windows open, and grab all available towels to flap wildly and make the din stop.
Read on for solutions you can use to deal with tattling in the classroom.
First, turn off the tattling alarm
Begin with you.
There are some good, quick strategies you can use to get your prefrontal cortex back online, taking you out of fight, flight, or freeze, or what this article calls the “amygdala hijack,” and leaving you in a better position for handling tattling without any shame or harsh words.
While we can’t actually fan the tattler with a towel, I sometimes like to keep this image in my head. It helps me to bring joy and lightness in a tattling scenario. It also works as a good image for my brain to remind my body that I am not in a life-or-death situation.
Take a few deep, belly breaths. This has the effect of turning off the internal alarm because when we breathe deeply, we remind our bodies that we are in a safe place. You can also gently place your palm on your forehead or hug yourself.
You can also invite the tattler to do these practices with you, which may help them bring their prefrontal cortex back online as well. This only needs to last long enough to turn off the alarm so that you can step back into a place of partnership and attention.
For more about this, read the section “why brains are like trains,” in this post.
Next, figure out what caused the alarm
Next, you will want to figure out why the alarm went off in the first place. Why did they feel a need to tattle?
Knowing your students is the key to unlocking which path to take.
Tattling alarms are often signs that there is an unmet need. You can simply start by asking the tattler, “What is your reason for telling me this?”.
Often their answer will fall into one of two categories: they are trying to get someone in trouble, or they are afraid that someone will (or did) get hurt.
Obviously, if they are tattling due to an actual unsafe (emotional or physical) action, you will address this immediately by Setting Limits. Oftentimes though, tattling falls into the first category, or a situation the child perceived as unsafe. Once you know the reason for the alarm, you can then move on to how to address the specific situation.
Reframe the tattling, and often it stops
When kids realize that they are tattling just to get someone “into trouble” (when the action didn’t actually require a consequence), or they tattled as a way to get your attention, often just asking this question will stop their need to tattle. They will go back to what they were doing.
For a simple tattle that involves something like, “Jordan isn’t cleaning up her space”, a quick reframe often works.
“Wow, thank you, Kahlil, for noticing that she needs help. I’m glad we have your attention to detail and care for noticing when others need help. Thank you so much for helping her finish cleaning up her space so we can move on to the next task”.
These redirects often work for students who see issues and don’t feel empowered to make change. Often just reframing what they notice in this way helps them take action.
When tattling signals a child’s need to be in charge
Sometimes these tattlers want to be in charge or have more responsibility. You can preemptively address these moments by giving them specific tasks that allow them to step into a leadership role.
For instance, during the next clean-up time, you can ask this child to go around and help anyone they see that needs assistance. Make it a point to go up to them afterward and acknowledge any specific, helpful things you saw them do.
When a tattler repeatedly tattles about one specific child, it is often a sign that something more is going on.
Having a conversation with these students individually, and then together, will often get to the bottom of the issue so that you can address it. You can ask prompting questions like, “I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time with Francesca. Do you want to tell me more about it?”
Or you could try pairing them together on a group project if you have the support of another adult who could be there with them during the process. This might bring some sticky feelings to the surface.
It is helpful to have another adult present to listen and support children with their emotions. You can read more about this way of listening, which Hand in Hand Parenting calls Staylistening, here: Meet the Preschool Teachers Who Listen To Kids
What about when many kids are tattling about one child?
The reverse can happen too.
If you notice multiple tattlers tattling on one specific child, this can be a sign that the larger community doesn’t feel the child is being held accountable for their behavior. It may also reflect how you or other adults interact with this child.
Either way, this situation can be overwhelming and upsetting for the child being singled out. Be observant and non-judgmental about your own relationship and interactions with this child as well as any other adults within the community.
You may need to bring this issue to your Listening Partnership to express and release any stuck emotions you may be having around this issue. This will allow you to think more clearly and create solutions to ensure that this child is a valued member of your group. If the issue is with another adult, you can offer this same support and then be in partnership with them to brainstorm solutions.
When your tattler feels like a target
Sometimes the tattler tattles when they feel like they are “always” in trouble and other kids, who are doing the same things, aren’t. There is often truth to this claim, especially if coming from a kid who draws more attention than others.
You will need to reflect and be honest with yourself to figure out the validity of these claims. Be clear about which consequences are enforced consistently and ensure you highlight and acknowledge when you see this child acting in alignment with the rules and guidelines of your classroom as much as you redirect them.
When tattling signals injustice
Sometimes kids tattle to sound an alarm of injustice. Children are masters of calling out “that’s not fair!” One way you can minimize these alarms is by explicitly teaching the important differences between being fair and being equal.
There are concrete, simple examples you can use to help children understand the importance of these nuances and begin to understand this challenging topic.
For instance, you can discuss how we all need clothing. If we gave every single person one shirt, it would seem equal. It would be the same or alike.
However, what would happen if we gave a baby and a basketball player the same exact shirt to wear? How could a baby wear a shirt designed to fit a basketball player? How would a basketball player benefit from a baby shirt?
Although we have been equal in giving both a shirt, we have not really been fair, since true fairness means responding to a person’s unique and personal needs.
Each needs clothes, but the basketball player needs a different shirt than a baby.
Explain the difference between “fair,” and “equal.”
You can think about how equality and fairness looks in the classroom.
For instance, if some children have difficulty writing, would it be fair for them to have longer to complete a quiz? Or if some children have a harder time with math, is it fair for the teacher to spend more time with them compared to kids who have an easier time. What would be equal and what would be fair in these situations?
When you feel the class is ready for it, try having willing children share something specific that they need that may be different from their peers.
Helping them understand that individuals may need different support or resources to have a chance at achieving equal outcomes will help them develop a greater sense of compassion and understanding and will lead to less “fairness” tattling.
The more you can encourage your students to be open and honest about their struggles and challenges, the more their classmates can become empowered to help them through difficult tasks, instead of just sounding an alarm that something is amiss.
What to do when one child is always tattling
For repeat offenders who tattle across the board, tattling may be their way of getting attention. If you have a child who tattles about everyone and everything, work with this child to help them find more appropriate strategies for getting your attention.
You can make this fun by acting out different scenarios together and brainstorming other ways to get attention that do not require tattling. This might be a tap on the shoulder, a wink, a wave, a note, or even a drawing from a younger child.
I’ve found a good strategy is to make it a point to check in with these attention seekers before they come to you.
Spend a few extra minutes giving them Special Time to start the day. Remind them of a more appropriate attention strategy if they need more attention during the day.
Responding when tattling is a stress-response
Some children are hypervigilant about rule-following and when they notice any infractions, they will swiftly sound the tattling alarm. It is important to remember that this also causes a stress response in their system, and they often do not feel safe in these moments.
These children will also need explicit instruction around what is truly an unsafe situation, rules and guidelines set to help things run smoothly. This distinction will help them build flexibility and feel more secure in their space.
While they are learning the nuances of these skills, you can let them know that they can ask you (in a normal tone of voice) whether they should share what they are seeing. That way, you can provide them with specific feedback for future reference.
Final thoughts on tattling
Tattling is often jarring for us and understandably so!
Once we acknowledge the root cause behind what is happening, we can address it. Start first in your own body to enter a more balanced state, and then identify and apply the most appropriate strategy.
What ways do you find help to keep tattling in check?
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