RefinED Character is an educational consulting company specializing in social emotional development for preK-12 and collegiate communities.


A Twist on Tattletales

Posted by Scott Heydt on Monday, March 3, 2014 Under: Classroom Strategies

RefinED Friends,

Several days ago, I sat in an elementary school office waiting for a meeting.  It was bus arrival, so the office hummed with teacher, parent, and student activity, all facilitated by a lone, kind administrative assistant. At one point, nearing the morning bell, two girls, likely fourth or fifth grade, came into the office looking very concerned.

"What can I do for you girls?" the administrative assistant asked.

"We have a problem on the bus," the girls replied.

"What's the problem?"

"This morning, a boy started singing, and then the whole bus started singing, and it got really annoying."

At this point, several parents and I exchanged smirks.  "Tattletales," our smiles said.

Then the administrative assistant said something incredible. "Thank you for letting me know, girls."

The girls smiled joyfully and left the office. Their voice was heard.

Adults often attempt to explain the subtle nuances of the words 'tattling' and 'telling' to our children, especially during their early years. "Tattling is when you just want to get someone in trouble," is an often heard definition. "Telling is when you believe someone is in trouble or will be hurt." Main message: Only tell, never tattle.

For years I discussed these nuances with my fourth and fifth graders, specifically to those whose job it seemed was classroom tattletale. Recently, though, I purchased the Youth Voice Projecta publication including the results of an innovative, youth-centered peer mistreatment study. Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, the study coordinators, found students that were told, "Only come to me for telling, not for tattling," question their motives before bringing an issue to a teacher and fear that teacher's response. The distinction creates a perceived wall between child and adult and communicates "we don't want to hear about your concerns (Nixon & Davis, 2014, p. 102)". This is likely because younger students' brains are not yet biologically prepared to understand that level of categorization. The result: when something really is important, students may not come to you.

Put this situation in adult terms (this is Davis and Nixon's analogy, so all credit to them), if you see a car driving recklessly down the road and you call 911, are you questioned about your motives for calling? 

Okay, so many adults, myself included, are guilty as charged. We have stifled child communication by dissecting telling and tattling. But what is the alternative?

The alternative is that simple phrase uttered by the administrative assistant: "Thank you for letting me know." When you believe a child is tattling, utilize this phrase in a sincere, caring tone, then change the subject. This is not a cop out, rather a way the child knows he/she has been heard and a way for the adult to mentally catalog the incident and move on.

Finally, Davis and Nixon suggest furthering the conversation by asking students their opinion regarding what student issues should be handled by adults versus what student issues should be handled on a peer-to-peer level. The specific examples students create can provide a much stronger foundation for student decision-making.

If you decide to try this in your home or classroom, please contact me. I would love to hear the results. 

I promise my response will be more than, "Thank you for letting me know." 


Image credit: giulia.forsythe/flickr

In : Classroom Strategies 

Tags: "refined character" "scott heydt" tattling telling tattletale students children adults teachers "youth voice project" "stan davis" "charisse nixon" "thank you for letting me know" communication