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Classroom Management, Uncategorized   |   Sep 12, 2009

Tattling, telling, bossing, and helping

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

I think one of the most annoying things elementary-aged students do is complain about each other. Especially in the primary grades, students may tattle-tell dozens of times each day…and many of those instances occur during instruction, interrupting the flow of the lesson and interfering with learning.

This is a developmental issue, and there’s no quick-fix answer. You’ve probably heard the old adage for helping kids discern whether or not going to a teacher with a problem is necessary: Tattling is when you’re trying to get someone in trouble. Telling is when you’re trying to help someone. This is a worthwhile explanation that can be modeled and practiced with kids. But I’ve found that little ones aren’t very good at examining their own motives, especially when in the emotional throes of an unjust situation. And more importantly, I dislike having the teacher serve the central role in a problem’s resolution.

What if a different type of classroom community was created, one in which students were shown how to help each other instead of how to tell a teacher to help? The following thoughts on the subject are excerpted from my book, The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable:

When children know how to effectively problem solve on their own, they won’t become frustrated and resort to telling the teacher. Sometimes it seems as though children could handle a situation independently, but tell on each other for the enjoyment of getting a peer in trouble. However, students often tattle because they are unsure about which situations concern them and which don’t. One minute teachers say, “Don’t just sit there, help her pick those crayons up!” and the next we say, “Do your work and let her take care of herself!” We say, “You knew he was writing those rude things on the cover of that book and you didn’t do anything?!” and then an hour later snap, “Worry about yourself—that doesn’t concern you!”


We must have clear expectations about how we want children to respond to rule and procedural infractions. I teach my kids to tell the person who’s breaking the rule BEFORE they tell me. For example, if a student says, “Jason’s on a game website instead of using the reading software,” I reply, “Did you tell him that’s against the rules?” If the child says no, I say, “Okay, go tell him. I’ll watch.” This almost always resolves the situation because the offending child is aware that I’m looking and responds appropriately. If the tattler says yes, she did tell the offender, then I say, “Okay, you’ve handled it the right way! Thank you!” and that’s the end of it. Sometimes the tattler will insist that the offender didn’t listen to her, so I say, “Go tell him again, and this time I’ll watch.” If that doesn’t resolve the situation, I call the offender over myself and talk with him.

Teaching kids how to respond to one another’s corrections is also important. Children have a tendency to say things like, “Leave me alone” or “Mind your own business” if the teacher has sent mixed messages about listening to peers. I decided several years ago that I would send a consistent message to my students that they are in fact responsible for one another, because that’s the type of classroom community I want to create. “Worry about yourself” is a phrase that I try very hard not to use, and I expect the kids not to say those types of things, either. Instead, we talk about the difference between being bossy and being helpful:

“Being bossy is telling someone what YOU want them to do. Being helpful is telling them what the TEACHER needs them to do. Being bossy is saying, ‘You have to play the math game my way.’ Being helpful is saying, ‘We have to take turns rolling the dice the way Ms. Powell showed us.’

“When someone is trying to be helpful and remind you about a class rule, you need to say, ‘Okay’ or ‘Thanks.’ You should not get mad or argue with someone who tells you not to push in line, or that you shouldn’t be playing with a toy in your desk. Your friend is being helpful, because everyone in our room is responsible for following the rules. Remember: when you make good decisions and follow the rules, people won’t HAVE to tell you what to do, so if you want to be left alone, then do the right thing! If someone is trying to be bossy and tell you what THEY want you to do, then you need to say, ‘That’s not helpful’. The person should stop bothering you right away, and if they don’t, you can let me know.

“If you have a problem with someone not listening to you, you can tell me. I will watch you go back and talk to that person. If that doesn’t work, I will facilitate your problem solving. But you need to talk to each other before you talk to me.”

If you teach students how to help one another without being bossy, and how to respond appropriately when another child reminds them of a rule or tries to do social problem solving, you will encounter far less incidents of tattle-telling and see major breakthroughs in the level of self-sufficiency demonstrated in your classroom.

I just had this conversation with my new class a few days ago and had them do some role-playing (which they enjoyed almost too much: I think we’re going to have to incorporate some Reader’s Theater and other acting into the curriculum this year!). It really works in my classroom. How about you–what’s your response to tattling? How do you help your students solve their problems independently?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Thanks! This is great! I'm going to think through this and figure out better ways to manage tattling in our classroom. 🙂

  2. I love this idea. Last year I recognized this problem in my classroom and unfortunately was very inconsistent in my response. When they would come to tattle I would tell them I believed they could solve the problem on their own, but most of the time they just went back to their desks frustrated that I didn't appear to do anything to "help." I want them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers not only with the 3rd grade content, but also in their own social lives. I think this strategy will let them know that I do believe they can solve their own problems, but that I will also be be there to watch them them follow through.

  3. Being bossy is saying, ‘You have to play the math game my way.’ Being helpful is saying, ‘We have to take turns rolling the dice the way Ms. Powell showed us.’

    I think that is such an important distinction to make for children. It's a simple distinction, almost an obvious one for adults, but less so for children, so it really gives them the tools they need.

    I do a lot in my classroom as well to empower children to help each other and solve problems on their own. We have a conflict area (last year it was called the Frog Carpet. It was a frog carpet. Ahh, we are clever titlers!) where the children can go to solve the little problems that happen in the Kid Underground and not have to involve a teacher or take away from learning time. It's awesome.

  4. I try to have many of the same discussions with my students. I discussed tattling a lot more with my primary students, but the intermediate kids need the discussion as well. I use the story, "A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue" which gives a cute, fun, memorable story and some really great "rules" for tattling that help students understand what a tattle is and what helping is.

  5. I really enjoyed this blog entry. I think that striving to help children become self suffient problem solvers is a wonderful goal. The tips included sound like they are really helpful and work well.

  6. @Anon: You're very welcome! If you come up with any great ideas, please come back and share!

    @Anon: I agree that inconsistency is such a huge part of the problem. If kids are going to solev their problems independently, they need to know in advance how we're going to respond. Let me know how this goes when you try it in your classroom…

    @Kirsten: Kid underground! I love it! I have heard of teachers having a problem-solving space like the frog carpet in their rooms but never tried it. I should!

    @SmWonder00: "Bad Case of the Tattle Tongue"…ooh, I'm gonna check that out!

    @Kristi: Thanks! Please follow up and let me know how it goes!

    @Angela: I totally agree! Community is so important, but it takes time and effort to build. Worth the effort.

    @Miss Chevious: I'm glad to know this helpful! If you have ideas of your own to share, please feel free…and if you have problems, bring them here and we'll help! 🙂

  7. Loved loved this–I pinned it so I don’t forget it later! I’m also a first year teacher and really struggling with finding a balance between problem solving and using “I-messages,” and informing the teacher when there’s a real problem. And of course, a second-grader’s biggest concern is fairness!

  8. Back when I was a student teacher, I was told at the start that the biggest problem with our fourth graders that year would be the drama and tattling from all the girls. I didn’t believe my cooperating teacher, but sure enough, what he said was true. After two weeks of playing referee between them for real and imagined slights, I explained that from now on, they first had to talk it through and try to fix things; if they couldn’t or if one student refused to, only then could they come to me and I’d be happy to help. So anytime one of the kids would start to tattle, I’d stop them and ask, “Did you talk to [the other student] about it?” Most of the time they said, “no,” and went to talk it out…and most of the time they never needed to bring the problem back to me for help. It took about three weeks of reminding them to talk it out, and the problem of tattling then disappeared for us.

    1. I have found the same thing to be true, Christina. Kids will keep tattling as long as the teacher keeps doing all the problem solving. Put the ball back in the kids’ court (with guidance and support) and the issue goes away.

  9. I use the Tattle Tongue book and a great book called “If it’s Not a Big Deal…Don’t Squeal!” It cleverly teaches the point using a class full of pigs! In my class, we have shoulder partners. I teach thrm to gently knock on their partners desk if they need to refocus. The student usually self-corrects. If they don’t, their partner may remind them of what they should be doing. I teach them to say thank you back in sign language.

  10. Hello Ms. Watson,
    thanks so much for your awesome insight. I agree with you completely when you say the teacher needs to be clear as far as expectations are concerned. my school focuses on character traits of a leader. That is what i use when I am dealing with situations. I would ask if this is what a leader would do. Communication between students and teacher is also key. I also remind them constantly that each day is a new chance to do the right thing. We confer at the beginning of the day, set expectations. Then, at the end of the day we reflect together and see how our community is doing. Fostering a sense of belonging to a team is also helpful. This team has to take care of its members. You would find students volunteering to escort another student to the bathroom because he is still working on being responsible. You would literally see the community coming together. The tattling of course does not go away, but with consistency, it becomes less frequent.

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