Tackling tattling

Manaswini Sridhar
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Teaching young students is sometimes demanding enough. But when you are overwhelmed by tattlers, it becomes even more stressful because children are judging ‘Whose side is the teacher on?’ How does one handle tattling effectively?
“Miss, she won’t show me her notebook!”
“Sir, he is calling me names!”
“Ma’am, Ashok is crying! Amit hit him!”

You probably groan every time you hear tattlers. On some days, it is likely that you only ‘hear’ them and not ‘listen’ to them!

What is tattling and when does it start?

Tattling starts very early in life, occasionally taking the class (and the teacher) by storm. Children who tattle or ‘tell on others’ do so to inform the adult that someone is doing something wrong. They are also very clear in proclaiming that they have had no role to play in the state of affairs other than that of being a disinterested informer. What they expect in return is appreciation, attention or sometimes a solution to the problem.

However, dealing with a chronic tattletale can be tricky. The child probably has a low self-esteem and hence is ‘telling’ on someone; she is also trying to prove her importance by showing that she is in possession of vital information. Tattling makes some children think that they are in control. In such cases, the child must be given importance at other times, like when she is doing her class work. Special mention must be made of the person:

Do you see how quickly Arpita is able to complete her task?

Good job, Sharan. Keep it up!

Give such children an opportunity to display their leadership qualities in class by assigning them work such as collecting homework notebooks, helping you make charts with the help of other volunteers, putting up charts, etc. Leadership skills have to be channelised in a positive manner.

For example, Arun may complain, “Meena won’t let me play on the swing.” Some teachers may consider this a nuisance because this is reporting something that has happened on the playground. According to the teacher, it is not an emergency because no one has been physically harmed. Yet, Arun probably suffers from a mental scar. He does not fight with Meena because he does not deem it right. Instead, he wants the teacher ‘to set things right’ for him.

The best solution here is to have Arun and Meena talk to each other on the issue, but alone. They need to come to a mutual consensus on how to resolve the problem in a friendly manner. Once the discussion is over, the teacher can ask them if they have come to some kind of understanding. If they have, then they shake hands. Otherwise they continue their discussion, perhaps this time in the presence of the teacher. This is a way of developing good interpersonal relationship, something that we rely on very much in adulthood.

Sometimes the tattling is meant to get others into trouble:
Martha didn’t do her homework!
Maink hasn’t brought his textbook!

Tell the student that while you appreciate his power of observation and reporting, you would rather that he takes note of the good things done by a person. This should be done seriously but gently. This gentle reprimand will teach children the fine art of giving feedback as they grow older. This will enable them to think before they pass harsh judgments like That wasn’t a very good presentation as soon as someone does their job.

Discuss with students the fact that there are two kinds of tattling: one is meant to help those in danger; the other is meant to get someone in trouble!

Encourage children to see the effect of tattling. Have an enjoyable game with the fairly smaller students. You need to be playful here and become a child yourself. Tell the children that you are a child now and ask them to categorise the tattling into Reporting/emergency or Just telling on someone. Now whine like a child, move around and say:
Ravi is not giving me the ball!

Children will be delighted as they shout out, “Telling on someone!”
Next, whine:
Megha has fallen down from the slide!

Children ought to identify this one as an emergency.

Here are other situations that you could call out:
Neeraja has fallen down from the swing.
Danny won’t let me play.
James tripped me.
Rahul has a knife.
Sangita jumped the line.

You will find your class roaring with laughter while at the same time they will be able to differentiate between what can be reported to someone and what they can deal with themselves.

For example, you explain that if Danny won’t let you play, then you tell Danny how bad it makes you feel and also ask him why he isn’t letting you play.

By exposing children constantly to such learning, older children will then be able to handle situations of telling their partners not to copy, instead of complaining to the teacher. By managing these tattlers, teachers are actually helping children improve their interpersonal relationships and negotiation skills.

Astute teachers have used this negative trait to get students to improve their writing/handwriting skills. Teachers have experimented with a tattle box. Students who have complaints are expected to write their complaints on a piece of paper and drop it into the box. The result is that many children have given up tattling when it is about inconsequential things! Children think twice before they take the trouble of writing!

Students stop tattling early on when teachers talk about the negative impact it has on the victim. Talk about the hurt and the harm that the victim experiences and get children to relate to that hurt in situations when they have been the victims themselves.

The right kind of tattling (reporting) may be encouraged because teachers are laying the foundation for team building skills.
What should be avoided is to bring in an element of ambiguity. Many of us do this by acknowledging the information given by the child to correct another child, but we also inform the informant not to be a tattletale. This confuses children!

For many, tattling begins as developing the distinction between the right and the wrong action. Use your adult judgment to comfort the ‘tattler’ when there is a serious issue. Don’t dismiss tattlers all the time!

The author is a teacher educator and language trainer based in Chennai. She can be reached at manaswinisridhar@gmail.com.