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I’m Telling!

Tattle (verb): To reveal the plans or activities of another person. Usually refers to a report on non-important events.
Synonyms (nouns): gossip, tattler, snitch, informer, informant, tattletale, rat, talebearer, squealer, stool pigeon, telltale, sneak, grass

ulili or wandering tattler bird on beach "Wandering Tattler" (Migratory bird: Alaska/Hawaii)


It’s one of those behaviors that makes us consider calling in sick tomorrow... taking a “mental health day”. Formerly known, back-in-the-day, as “tittle-tattle”, tattling is reported on surveys of teachers as being one of our major irritants, but on the other hand, we want kids to be our second set of eyes and ears in noticing behaviors that are in need our intervention. I already posted two great readings on tattling on the BehaviorAdvisor site: A reprint of an article by one of my favorite authors, Mary Beth Hewitt, who “keeps it real(life”) when talking about how to address inappropriate behavior; and a short report by one of my former grad students on using “Bibliotherapy” with a class to reduce their tattling behavior. Links to those readings can be found at the end of this post.

What brought the issue back to my mind (besides raising a 3 year old and a 6 year old) was reading through the book I mentioned in my previous blog post on lying: “Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children”. (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, 2009, New York:12). These award-winning authors and parents who wanted to know everything about parenting, report some of the latest research on childraising, including tattling.



Here are some of the interesting findings:
Children start to tattle/report before they can talk! At about 14 months of age, little urchins will cry, point, or look at the sibling who took the cookie, stuffie, or other valued item. Because we, as parents, intervene and attempt to teach lessons, appealing to adults becomes habit.

However, around 4 years of age, they start hearing the grown-ups (or “grumps” as they were called in an old Star Trek TV episode) tell them “Don’t tattle.” The adults want them to resolve the issues themselves, and stop the attempts, often outright lies, to exert power over others by getting them in trouble. However, young children lack the social skills to handle the problematic situations unless adults have taught them how to do so (Remember: Telling is not teaching. Telling is one part of teaching; backed up by explanation, instruction, and practice).

The lying part takes us back to the previous blog post, but with regards to tittle-tattle, researchers who observed kids at play found that 9 out of 10 reports on the actions of others are truthful (Even though the Encarta World Dictionary lists the antonym of "Tattle" as being "Fact"). And while the tattling may seem to be incessant to parents, the observers found that for every report made to a parent, there were 14 other times when the child was wronged by another, but did not make a report to the parent. Finally, fed up with the actions of the other, the offended child seeks the assistance of the parent. The parental response? ...Parents are 10 times more likely to chastise a reporter than a kid who told a lie to them!

It doesn’t take long for kids to discover the power of “Don’t tell” …that one can prevent another from reporting on one’s aberrant actions by giving the potential reporter the threat of being known as a “tattle-tale” (or “tattle-tell). By 3rd or 4th grade, it’s the worst label that a kid can wear. It brings peer rejection, and the adult mantra of “Solve the problem.”


"Cindy, you know by tattling on your friends, you're really just tattling on yourself.

By tattling on your friends, you're just telling them that you're a tattletale.

Now, is that the tale you want to tell?"

From: A Brady Bunch Movie


As kids move up in the grades, they witness schoolhouse crimes that have expanded exponentially: Vandalism, bullying, cheating, etc. In the neighborhood, they see shoplifting, inappropriate words and touch, property damage, theft, experimentation with smoking and drugs, and so forth. These are issues that need to be addressed, ...but now tattling is viewed as being the domain of “little kids”, something with which an aspiring “mature” (pre)teen would never want to be associated. How sad when they remain silent while an attack on another is planned, or a friend threatens to commit suicide.

Kids keep their mouths shut …something taught to them early by parents and reinforced by the now dominant peer-group culture. Unless parents and teachers have developed strong, positive relationships with youngsters, and taught the difference between valid and important reports versus “snitching”, no reports of any sort will be heard. Kids who are anxious and concerned about valid issues avoid the support of those who are most qualified to help.

snitches get stitches t-shirts"Snitches get stitches." (Old saying believed to have originated in prisons.)
"Tattletales get nasty e-mails." (Future saying believed to have originated in this blog. Ha!)


So what should we do?

Rather than repeat it here, let me suggest that you take a look at the great direction provided in the writings referenced below …Ones found right here on BehaviorAdvisor.com

1. Mary Beth Hewitt's page on Tattling (It's below this article):

2. Amy Gerard's report on her use of books to address classroom tattling: www.behavioradvisor.com/TattletaleBibioExample.html


So, I guess the question is: Did I just tattle on tattling?


Great book! Fascinating content and fun reading. (Click on image to order)



Self-Help Books for Kids About Tattling

(Click on the images to order or find out more)




P.P.P.S. Carolyn McGown and I have hooked up the final wires to offer you her top-notch, everything-you-need-to-know-about-teaching-that-they-didn't-teach-you-in-college book.(see information on it inside the "Shop is open" button on the BehaviorAdvisor home page)

McGown Book Cover

String tied around finger to rememberRemember to visit the BehaviorAdvisor store for other materials to further improve your parenting and teaching skills.

P.S.Heres another article on Tattling from my colleague, Mary Beth Hewitt. Tattling

To Tell Or Not To Tell:
 The Dynamics Of "Tattling"

by Mary Beth Hewitt
This article is reprinted here with the permission of Mary Beth Hewitt.  Originally published in Choices (volume 1 - see the bottom of this page)

"Jerry budged in line."
"Kate isn't doing her share of the work."
"Jill cheated on the test."
"She's picking her nose."
        (Dr. Mac's note: You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but never pick your friend's nose.)
"He's looking at me funny."
"David has a knife in his backpack."
"John is setting fire to the bathroom."
"Sarah skipped class yesterday."
"Julie says she's going to commit suicide."
"He hit me."
"David is kicking my chair."
"Kyle won't share."
"They were teasing Shannon."

    I am often asked, "How do I stop my students from tattling?"  Tattling is defined in the dictionary as idle (unfounded) talk or as revealing others' secrets by gossiping.  Unfortunately, this term is often over-generalized to include any time a student reports to an authority on the behavior of others.

    As a young teacher, I felt overwhelmed by the number of students who would bring their complaints to me.  It seemed like there was a constant stream of comments like:  "Miss Hewitt, he's....looking at me funny...shaking the table...got his feet up on my chair...teasing me...hitting me", ad infinitum.  For awhile I would respond to all reports by saying, "Thank you for telling me, I'll handle it."  After all, hadn't I told my students that if someone was bothering them they should tell a grown-up rather than "take the law into their own hands"?  It seemed like the more I automatically accepted and handled their problems, the more problems they gave me.  What I didn't realize, at the time, was that I was hampering the development of their own problems solving skills and making them dependent on me.  Furthermore, since I wasn't discriminating between problems that required my attention and those that didn't, I was not teaching them how to make that differentiation.

So the pendulum started to swing the other way and I found myself saying things like, "Don't tell me."; "What do you want me to do about it?"; "Mind your own business."; "I didn't see it so I can't do anything about it"; "Just ignore him."  What a contradictory message I was sending!  Tell me--but don't tell me.

I worked with a teacher, at that time, who had made it very clear to her students that she didn't want to hear any tattling.  Whenever a child started a sentence with "Miss Smith, John is..." she immediately said, "I don't want to hear any tattling."  One day, after an assembly, my class was lined up across the hall from hers.  I saw a little girl from her room approach and say, "Miss Smith, John is..."."I don't want to hear it!" the teacher said curtly.  As the little girl turned, she looked right at me and quietly said, "I just thought she'd want to know that John is setting a fire in the bathroom."  It was at that point, I recognized that we need to teach both ourselves and our students about the intricacies of reporting on the behavior of others.

Let's look at the possible motivations students might have for telling an adult that something is wrong.

Someone is hurting me or others physically or psychologically and:
1) I need help because I don't know how to handle it.
2) I already tried to handle it and it didn't work.
3) I might get hurt (or others might get hurt) more if I try to handle it myself.

Someone is doing something they're not supposed to and:
4) I want to know if the rules have changed.
5) I want to get them into trouble.
6) I want to shift the focus off of me.
7) I want attention.

    The first three reasons listed are legitimate reasons for reporting on the behavior of others and should not be included under the term "tattling".  I am often dismayed by the labels that society sometimes puts on the act of "telling on" another (stoolie, rat, whistle blower, narc, fink, song bird, stooge, blabbermouth, etc.).  Just recently, I heard a news reporter ask a family member of the accused Unabomber what it felt like to "snitch" on his brother.  We need to teach that there is a difference between tattling and telling an authority when others' behavior is infringing on our rights.  Many children have been exploited or intimidated by both peers and adults who fall into the "don't tell" mentality with admonishments such as:  "It's none of anyone else's business."; "Don't tell anyone."; "They won't believe you anyway."; "It'll be your word against mine."  Individuals are often viewed as disloyal, are ostracized and even terrorized for reporting harmful behaviors.  Witness the repercussions of public expositions of wrong-doing by police officers, members of the military, and students who report on cheating.  The message "Keep your mouth shut" comes across loud and clear.

    Therefore, the first thing we need to establish with our students is the difference between tattling and a legitimate complaint.  We defined a legitimate complaint as something that affects the physical or psychological safety of self/others with the intent to protect.  Of course, even this definition is open to interpretation.  What I may deem as affecting someone's physical or psychological safety may be quite different than what someone else may judge as being harmful, but at least we have a beginning.  The addition of "with the intent to protect" helps individuals look at their motivation for reporting.

    It is at this point that we talk about the motivations previously listed.  Students are taught to ask themselves, "Am I telling because I want to keep myself, another person, or the environment safe or am I telling because I'm angry with the person and want to get them into trouble?"

    The third thing that needs to be taught is the difference between an emergency and something that can wait.  We defined an emergency as a situation which requires immediate attention as danger is imminent.  In the example where the little girl was telling that John was setting a fire in the bathroom, danger was indeed imminent.  We also discussed how in these types of situations we need to be assertive; prefacing statements so that adults and authority will listen (i.e., "This is an emergency.  John is setting a fire in the bathroom.").  It is also at this point that we start looking at the judgment of is this something I can/should handle or is this something an authority should handle?  In the above instance, trying to stop John from setting a fire or trying to put the fire out yourself could injure you or others.  Since our intent is to protect, we should be cognizant of the dangers inherent in  handling situations above our abilities.  Vigilantism and "dead heroes" help no one.

    Once the students have a handle on the preceding questions, they are now ready to begin discussing ways that they can try to initially handle situations on their own.  There are generally two groups of students; those that are used to "taking the law into their own hands" by verbally or physically fighting and those that are used to either walking away from a situation and leaving it unresolved or reporting everything to an authority.  Each group has a different set of belief systems and requires a different set of skill trainings.

    For the first group, skills such as ignoring, walking away, and benign confrontation need to be developed.  It is important that adults reinforce even their "clumsy" first attempts at trying new skills.  One day I observed an aggressive student, David, trying to handle a situation on his own.  A boy sitting at the table with him (Joey) was humming loudly.  David shouted, "STOP HUMMING.  YOU'RE BOTHERING ME!"  The staff member turned to David and said, "I'll handle it.  You mind your own business."  I suspect the teacher was reacting to the fact that David shouted.  His attempt at addressing a bothersome situation was clumsy, but he was trying to make a complaint on his own and used words instead of actions. Instead of appreciating his attempt, the teacher sent the message that she should be the only one to handle things.  What David was lacking was the appropriate voice volume.

    Unwittingly, we often encourage tattling behavior by jumping in and taking over when the students make rather inept first attempts at addressing it directly. For many students, since they have either been chastised for their fumbling attempts, or their attempts lacked critical attributes necessary to help them achieve the desired result, they incorrectly assume that "talking doesn't work".  What the staff member should have said was, "David, I'm really glad you used words to tell Joey what was bothering you.  Could you say it softer?"  It is imperative that we teach the subtleties such as voice volume, timing, setting and tone when teaching new social skills.  Just as importantly, we also need to teach the nuances involved in the skill of "planned ignoring". Many aggressive students can tell you they should ignore, but they have never done it in their lives.  They have no conception of what true ignoring looks like. One little boy told me that ignoring meant not hitting.  They also need to be prepared for the possibility that ignoring may initially lead to an escalation of the bothersome behavior before the behavior ceases.  These students need pro-social skills training such as:  Dealing With Group Pressure, Staying Out of Fights, Responding To Teaching, Problem Solving, Expressing Your Feelings etc..
(Dr. Mac's note: You can find more information on teaching these skills in the home page link titled "social skills training".)

    With this group of kids we want to encourage them to talk rather than act.  Of course, if we can teach them how to talk in such a way that they can appropriately affect the behavior of their peers on their own that is optimal.  However, we may have to put up with an initial increase in reporting behavior from this group.  And, unfortunately, their attempts to involve us may also be very inappropriate.  When I was principal, a student burst into my office and screamed, "I GOTTA TALK TO YOU, HE....."  (For those of you who may have seen the movie "Dangerous Minds", you will recall that the aggressive student didn't follow the social niceties when he approached the principal for help with his problem and was rejected with serious ramifications.)  But do not despair.  The very fact that they are involving us gives us the opportunity, not to "take over", but rather to use the "crisis" as an opportunity to teach, model, and/or reinforce pro-social skills.  With the student who so rudely entered my office, we did discuss how to appropriately ask for help, but only AFTER I had reinforced his effort to seek help with a problem.

    These students are the most susceptible to the notion that "telling a grown up doesn't work". And often, since their reportings are met with responses like, "I didn't see it so I can't do anything about it", they get more satisfaction out of belting the kid that is bothering them rather than telling an adult.  (Also, the perpetrators, upon hearing this type of response from an adult, just vow to do it again when no authority figure is watching.)  I suspect that the "I didn't see it, therefore, I can't do anything about it" response, on the part of the teacher, is born of frustration that taking time to investigate each and every complaint would leave little time for teaching.  Imagine what it would feel like, however, if you were being bothered and went to the police, and they told you that they couldn't do anything because they didn't see it and promptly dismissed you.  At minimum, a little empathy, a sense that your "pain" is being taken seriously and referral to a future time to investigate or discuss would serve to at least make you feel validated. And feeling validated is critical if one is to tolerate any delay in the resolution of the matter.  Questions such as:   Are you hurt?  Where did it happen?  and reflections like:  It sounds like that really makes you angry, and problem solving statements such as:  What can you do?  You could try... or We can talk about it during recess, could help the student to feel like the option of telling was an acceptable short term alternative to "taking the law into his own hands."  I have found that students who were making legitimate complaints would be eager to discuss the situation during recess and those who were motivated by either attention seeking or trying to get the focus off of themselves were equally eager to get to recess and didn't want to discuss the matter further.

The time it took me to empathize was minimal and generally de-escalated what could have been an explosive situation.

In summary, with aggressive students:
1) recognize their attempts to use words to solve problems
2) reinforce positive facets of their attempts ("I like the way you used words...")
3) help them refine their attempts ("Could you say the same thing without swearing?"; "Another way to say that might be...")
4) empathize with their feelings (Are you hurt?  That makes you really boiling mad, doesn't it?)
5) ask what they have tried or what they could try
6) offer alternatives
7) set time to discuss it further on "their" time

    This group is usually either highly skilled at walking away or ignoring or they constantly bring every little problem to the attention of an authority figure.  When I was teaching kindergarten a little girl named Mary used to constantly tell me about what John was doing wrong. "Miss Hewitt, John is shaking the table."  One day I said, "That seems to bother you.  Did you tell John that and ask him to stop?"  Mary looked surprised by my question and shook her head 'no'.  I said, "Try it and let me know what happens."  Mary came back a few minutes later to report that John had stopped shaking the table.

I am constantly amazed by the incredulous looks I receive from some students when I ask them, "Well did you tell him/her you didn't like what they did?"  For many students the idea of confronting anyone is totally foreign.  Whatever their belief system ("If I told them I didn't like it they would get mad at me."; "They wouldn't listen anyway."; "It'll just make it worse."), they feel that they are powerless to stand up for their rights. These students need to learn assertiveness skills.  Although walking away and ignoring may be viable short term solutions, these students' lack of skill in standing up for their rights often leads to feelings of low self-esteem, a victim type mentality, repressed anger/hostility or an overdependence on authority figures.

    The Spring 1996 issue of Reclaiming Children and Youth:  The Journal of Emotional and Behavior Problems is dedicated to the problem of bullying. In the article "Bully/Victim Problems at School:  Facts and Effective Intervention", Dan Olweaus, describes passive/submissive victims.  The typical victims are more anxious and insecure than students in general.  Further, they often are cautious, sensitive, and quiet.  When attacked by other students, they commonly react by crying (at least in the lower grades) and withdrawal...The behavior and attitude of the passive/submissive victims signal to others that they are insecure and worthless individuals who will not retaliate if they are attacked or insulted." (Olweus, 1996)

Nearly all of the articles in this issue spoke of two things; the need for assertiveness training for the passive student and the need for adults and peers to confront actions which infringe on the physical and psychological safety of others.  Looking the other way, abdicating our responsibility to protect because we're too busy, or believing that kids will be kids and this stage will pass, are not acceptable options.  When a student has a legitimate complaint, they are coming to us for help.  There are several programs mentioned in this issue of RCY-JEB P that have been developed to help school personnel teach students how to address the problem of verbal and physical harassment.

What I tried to teach my students is that they have a right to express their displeasure over a behavior and that going to the source first gives the offending party an opportunity to correct the behavior before a higher authority gets involved.  Almost all of my students could relate that if someone had a problem with them, they would prefer the person let them know first before involving an authority figure.  While most of my aggressive students were comfortable with direct confrontation, most of my passive students were frightened by the idea that the other person might get angry with them. When I was able to help them see that the level of anger might rise if they didn't go directly to the individual with their complaint first, they were more willing to entertain this as an option.

    Since fear was a primary reason for opting out of direct confrontation, we discussed options like:  taking a friend with you, meeting with someone in a neutral place with a mediator, writing a letter or calling on the phone, etc..  These individuals' pro-social skills needs include:  Making A Complaint, Responding To Teasing, Expressing Your Feelings, Dealing With Fear, Dealing With Someone Else's Anger, Standing Up For A Friend, Standing Up For Your Rights.
(Dr. Mac's note:  You can find more on teaching these skills inside the home page link titled "social skills training)

    In summary, with passive students:
1) recognize that they are coming to you for help
2) let them know that they have a right to express their feelings and feel safe
3) teach them assertiveness skills
4) empathize with their feelings
5) encourage direct confrontation (although ignoring and walking away are viable short term options, the research shows that even the use of these strategies does not dissuade many bullies even over time)
6) respect their fear and create a safe environment for direct confrontation to occur (mediation centers, etc.)

    When someone is confronted with a complaint, it is a very human response to deny wrong-doing.  Any defense mechanism (denial, rationalization, projection, minimization) is designed to protect the individual against feeling guilty.  It is the rare individual who falls to his/her knees, thanks you for pointing out his/her inadequacies, and profusely apologizes.  Therefore, it is important to prepare students for the strong possibility that when they confront, the person will deny any wrong-doing.  We want to teach the student that IT'S ENOUGH THAT YOU'VE EXPRESSED YOUR DISPLEASURE.  THE OTHER PERSON DOES NOT HAVE TO ADMIT TO DOING ANYTHING, SAY THEY'RE SORRY, OR AGREE WITH YOU.  SAY WHAT YOU NEED TO, DON'T ARGUE, LEAVE, WATCH THE RESULTING BEHAVIOR.

    Frequently, people deny with words what they know in their heart of hearts to be true.  The key to seeing whether or not a benign confrontation is successful is not whether or not the person admits to wrong-doing, but whether or not there is a change in the behavior.

    So far, we have talked about legitimate complaints involving physical or psychological harm.  Another group of complaints stems from observing someone doing something they are not supposed to and reporting on that behavior.

Have the rules changed?

    Sometimes, the motivation behind this type of reporting is to check to see what the rules really are.  Years ago, before New York State adopted the right on red law, I was driving in Florida and observed several people going through red lights.  I can remember turning to my mother after about the third time I witnessed this and saying, "Look at that, another one just ran a red light!".  It was then I found out that Florida had different rules than NY did.  Children can often become confused by changing rules too.  A little boy who had just returned from a special class and entered an on-going activity told me, "John isn't raising his hand."  The boy had missed the instructions that this was a brainstorming activity and the kids could shout out answers.  His statement gave me the opportunity to explain the temporary rule change.

    The need to have rules fairly and consistently enforced is particularly strong among adolescents and they can become easily confused by rule changes or when adults are temporarily ignoring the inappropriate behavior of their classmates.  "Carl is wearing his hat."; "Kathy is writing in pencil."; "Anthony is listening to his walkman."  Rather than saying, "Mind your own business", what I have learned to say when reportings seem to be motivated by confusion is, "You're wondering if the rules have changed.  They have....or they haven't."  (How can you tell if a reporting is motivated by confusion?  Generally, the statement is not preceded by any wrong-doing on the part of the questioner.)

"Carl is wearing his hat."
"You are wondering if the rules have changed; they haven't.  He's choosing to break the rule and he's choosing the consequences."

"Kathy is writing in pencil."
"You're wondering if that's OK.  Yes, for this assignment you can use pencil."

"Anthony is listening to his walkman."
"You're confused because what's usually against the rules.  I changed them today.  If you have your work done and handed in you can listen to walkmans or read a book."

    In our earlier discussion about motivations for reporting on the behavior of others, I tried to teach the students that it was OK to check to see if a rule had changed, but it was most effectively done when it was phrased as a question, not as an accusation and did not involve names.  So, Carl is wearing his hat would become "Is it OK to wear hats?"  Kathy is writing in pencil would be, "Can I write in pencil?"; Anthony is listening to his walkman would be, "Can I listen to my walkman?".  We also discussed that since these things are not an emergency and do not involve the physical or psychological safety of self or others, that asking these questions can wait and are probably most effectively done in private.

    A very common defense mechanism when someone is in trouble is to shift the focus or blame to someone else.  This form of reporting generally happens when a student is accused of doing something inappropriate and then tries to justify his/her behavior by immediately pointing out the wrong-doings of others.  A typical exchange might go like this:  Staff:  "Where does your walkman belong?"  Student:  "Anthony is listening to his walkman."

    My suggestion is to respond to these types of reportings by either ignoring them and benignly stating the expectation i.e. "Walkmans belong in lockers" or with:  "You'd like it to be someone else's fault that you are choosing to break the rule."  Keep the focus on the student.  In our discussions about motivations we talked about how when we feel compelled to point the finger at someone else, we should ask ourselves, "Am I doing something wrong and trying to get out of trouble by pointing out what others are doing wrong?"  If the answer to that question is yes, then we should keep our comments to ourselves.

I want to get them into trouble
    Perhaps one of the hardest motivations for reporting to combat is when a child is angry.  When an individual is angry, with him/herself, a specific person, or the circumstances in his/her life, there seems to be a tendency to strike out at others.  It's an old cliché', but unfortunately a true one, that misery loves company.  Aggressive students seem to have little difficulty being up front with their anger.  They either hit or tell the person, "You're really ticking me off."  Actually, telling on the behavior of others for the sole purpose of getting them into trouble, is a very passive aggressive way of expressing anger.

    Although it is not always the case, most of these types of reportings concern rather trivial matters and are usually delivered in a seemingly innocent way, often under the guise of being helpful (i.e.  I just thought you'd like to know...).  Frequently, the reporter will "drop back" and watch the "explosion" with a smile on his/her face.  The best responses I found have been either to say:  "It sounds like that is bothering you.  Have you talked to him/her about it?"  or "I wonder why you are telling me this?"  These responses force the reporter to look at his/her own motivation and rather effectively put the complaint back in his/her own lap.  A great deal of this type of reporting behavior occurs in peer groups (i.e.  "Did you hear what Darlene said about your hair?"); the goal being to align and divide.  Since "tattling" is not limited to the student-staff arena, but extends to student-student contacts as well, it is important to teach the receivers of information the same key sentences bolded above.

    At the beginning of this article I wrote about teaching the students to make the distinction between what is a legitimate complaint and what is tattling by asking themselves the question  "Am I telling because I want to keep myself, another person, or the environment safe or am I telling because I'm angry and want to get someone else into trouble?"  We discussed that if the answer is because they are angry, there are three ways to handle it:  1) By behaving aggressively (i.e. hitting or yelling); 2) By behaving passive aggressively (i.e. gossiping) or 3) By telling the other person how they feel (i.e., "I am angry because...") using words to express the feeling.  We discuss the question, "If someone were angry with something you did how would you prefer they handle it, by hitting/yelling, getting you into trouble by telling on you, or coming to you directly and telling you how they feel?"  Most kids will agree that they would rather be told directly.  Believe it or not, many are able to make the connection to trying to treat others as they would like to be treated, especially when the environment ceases to support attempts to align and divide.

    The final motivation for reporting on the behavior of others is driven by a need for attention.  Early on, some students learned that when they told on the behavior of others they were given attention.  Generally, a characteristic of more passive students, who wouldn't dream of misbehaving themselves and faced with the prospect of fading into the woodwork when they minded their own business, they discovered that they could have someone's undivided attention when they became the town crier or school gossip.  The motivating factor here is not a need to protect, get back at, or shift the focus, but rather to be paid attention to.  Like a soap opera star or scandal sheet columnist, they want to occupy center stage.

    The good news about this type of behavior is that the student does want to connect with their peers or the adults, they just don't know how to go about it. Pro-social skills training in areas like "Friendship Making Skills"; teaching the students how to ask for attention when they need it ("I'm really feeling the need to have a pat on the back today, I've been working hard and I'm feeling like no one is noticing."); teaching students how to self-reward; and recognizing students' when they are behaving are ways to combat this type of reporting behavior.

    With some of my more serious cases of reporting for attention, we developed a self-evaluation tally.  Since the student is generally the only accurate source of information for his/her motives, the instructions were to put a tally mark on the sheet whenever he/she wanted to "mind someone else's' business", but chose not to.  These instructions had to be further refined as I had a student who, when she first started using this system, kept loudly announcing, "Ms. Hewitt I'm minding my own business.".  It was then we added the condition, "and don't tell me when you're doing it". At the end of a class period (or other regularly scheduled time) we would go over the sheet which provided the individual attention the student so desperately craved.  Of course, there is a possibility that the students may exaggerate the number of times they exercised self-control, but it really didn't seem to matter.  The mere fact that they were developing a level of awareness regarding the frequency of their behavior and were keeping quiet about it was sufficient.

    Merely admonishing students not to "tattle" is not the answer to the complex issue of reporting on the behavior of others.  We must teach a problem solving process which enables individuals to: help protect themselves and others, discover the expectations in a changing and often confusing world; and teaches them how to handle their feelings and get their needs met in a healthy way.  Posting the list on the following page can help to keep the questions involved in the decision making process in the forefront. I found that when a student reported something to me I could now say things like: "How have you tried to handle it?", "Is this an emergency?"; "Did you check your motivation?" and we had a common understanding and vocabulary .

 Questions to Teach Students to Ask and Answer.

Does this effect the physical or psychological safety of myself/others?
Is my intention to protect?
What is my motivation?
    Am I confused about the rules?
            Ask a question without involving names.
    Am I in trouble?
            Remember, two wrongs don't make a right.
    Do I want attention?
        Ask for attention or pat myself on the back.
    Am I angry with someone?
        Tell the person I'm angry.
Is this an emergency?
    If it's not an emergency when would be a good time to handle it?
    Is this something I can/should handle or is this something an authority should handle?
    If it's something I can handle what can I try?
          Tell the person directly what I think/feel.
          Walk away
Did the person's BEHAVIOR change?
    If it did, then it worked.
    If what I tried doesn't work, can I try something else?
    If I've tried again and there isn't a change, who can I ask for help and when would be
            a good time to ask for help?

Click here to read how a teacher used "bibliotherapy" to reduce tattling in her classroom



Self-Help Books for Kids About Tattling

(Click on the images to order or find out more)




More Resources

See Dr. Mac's Blog Post on Tattling at www.BehaviorAdvisor.com/blog

Dr. Mac's Interview on Tattling(NBC-TV) can be found inside the home page button titled "Free Podcasts & Videos" (then scroll down)

See the video interview with Dr. Mac about tattling: It's inside the "Free podcasts & videos" button on the BehaviorAdisor.com home page.

Mary Beth Hewitt is an independent educational consultant who gives great presentations on behavior management and other topics. If you like contact her about presenting, or purchase one or both volumes of CHOICES (about 25-30 of her practical articles in each volume), contact her at: mbhewitt@att.net and 315-729-0490 (phone). 

Fetch Dr. Mac's Home Page
Dr. Mac... Sky doggy won't fetch your home page!

Thanks Mary Beth!