Why Students Tattle And How To End It

Smart Classroom Management: Why Students Tattle And How To End ItTattling is annoying.

It’s disruptive.

It’s petty.

It wastes time and gets on your nerves.

We think of it as something students do to gain attention or get others in trouble.

So we wave them off. We send them back to their seat.

We tell them to worry about themselves and to mind their own business.

We discourage it and even go so far as to forbid it in our classroom.

But doing so is a mistake.

It’s a mistake because tattling—especially if it’s frequent—is a sign of poor classroom management.

Here’s why:

It reveals inconsistency.

Students tattle when they feel their right to learn and enjoy school is being trampled on. They become frustrated with disruptions or with classmates who don’t follow rules like they do.

They become frustrated with their teacher who promises to hold misbehaving students accountable but doesn’t always follow through.

So instead of taking matters into their own hands, they try to do the right thing.

They approach you to see if you’ll take care of the problem for them. They approach you to hold you accountable for enforcing the rules of the class.

It reveals inattention.

Tattling is a byproduct of a teacher who doesn’t pay close attention. It’s the result of a busy, scrambling teacher who doesn’t have time to observe.

Observation is a characteristic of exceptional teaching—not only because it allows you to learn in-depth about your students and adjust instruction, but it enables you to enforce your classroom management plan consistently.

It also sends the message that you’re watching, that you’re not asleep at the wheel, and that rules and procedures that save time and protect learning are expected to be followed.

It reveals confusion.

If students are unclear about what is expected, if they’re unsure what behavior or behaviors constitute breaking which part of your classroom management plan, then tattling will the result.

When students approach the teacher to tattle, it’s often their way of asking, “Is this behavior against the rules? (Or shouldn’t this behavior be against the rules?) And if so, why aren’t you doing something about it?”

This underscores the importance of teaching and modeling your classroom management plan in detail, so there are no doubts or misunderstandings.

It’s Not Them, It’s You

Teachers tend to chalk tattling up to neediness.

And while it’s true that some students are more apt to tattle than others, most tattling is the result of frustration with you.

They’re exposing a weakness in your teaching and offering you a clear sign that you need to shore up one or more of the three areas above.

Your best response when a student tattles is simply, “Thanks for letting me know. I promise I’ll take care of it.”

Then do it.

Do what you promised on the first day of school and hold your students accountable every time they stray outside the boundaries you established during the first week of school.

Follow through on your commitment to safeguard them from disruption, interruption, bullying, and the like.

Clarify through detailed modeling what is and isn’t okay.

Be observant and vigilant and defend the love of learning and being a member of your classroom.

And you’ll eliminate tattling from your classroom.

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46 Responses to Why Students Tattle And How To End It

  1. A teacher May 21, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    I usually agree with you, but in this case, no. It is impossible to keep your eyes on 30 young students at all times (I’m thinking bathroom breaks, trips to reading groups, etc.). “Taking care of it” every time someone tattles is opening up the door for others to tattle and lie to get someone in trouble. Also, if I didn’t see it, taking care of it requires a lot of time to get to the bottom of what happened with witnesses, etc. for something that IS petty. However, if I enforce a consequence and the student really is innocent, I consider that a big deal. I think better advice to new teachers would be to teach students how to worry about themselves. Another student being open to the wrong page in their book or coloring something the wrong color is NOT their problem and not something that should bother them or be brought to a teacher.

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 10:09 am #

      Hi A teacher,

      When you get a chance, please check out the third reason again. Also, your other concerns point to other areas that need shoring up—all of which we’ve covered in previous articles (and will revisit in the future). 🙂


    • Deb Attas May 22, 2016 at 10:03 am #

      After 34 years of teaching this article didn’t sit right with me. I agree with you and not Michael. You have made valid points that are very relevant to teaching. Needy children is a product of society and helicopter parenting though certainly not exclusive. Tattling is also a stage in development for the young child testing their world and the adults in it. However, over exposure to media has created a platform for everyone’s business to be my business. Clear expectations are valid but certainly not the root of tattling.

    • Kim May 23, 2016 at 4:07 am #

      I disagree with you on this subject. I teach ESE students, and have children at all levels. While one my sit at circle time and not have a problem doing so. I have some that are not able to do circle time yet. In ESE you need to meet each child at their level. I have children that tell on others because they don’t want to do what they are suppose to be doing. What is right for one is not right for all.

  2. Brian Smith May 21, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    I’ve been reading these weekly letters for a year which has been a free additional college course for me that actually helps! And now that I have just graduated I feel even more prepared to start my new teaching career. Thank you, and keep them coming!
    Mr. Smith

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 10:06 am #

      You’re welcome, Mr. Smith.


    • Rose May 22, 2016 at 5:39 am #

      I agree, Brian, and I tell every new teacher I know to read these weekly posts! Better yet, buy the books!

  3. Emily May 21, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    If a student does think something should be against the rules that isn’t covered in class rules, what’s the best way to handle this?

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 10:06 am #

      Hi Emily,

      You tell them that it isn’t against the rules.


  4. M May 21, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    I have been teaching for over 20 years and I could not disagree more.
    There are a few students who tattle because it just really bothers them to see other students not following the rules. The vast majority of students are doing it because they want to see others get in trouble.
    Students do not tattle because they are confused. They know very well that what the rules are and that is why they are tattling.
    Generally, tattling happens for things like “Jill was running in the hall”. The teacher is not supposed to be in the hall, so the problem is not “teacher inattention”.
    If you say “Thank you for telling me”, your students will feel like they are doing you a favor and the tattling will increase. I know this from experience, because when I was a beginning teacher I handled the problem as you are advising.
    With experience, I have learned that the correct response is: “Was anyone hurt? Was anyone being bullied? Is it an emergency? Was anything damaged? Was someone making it hard for someone to think and learn? If not, you are just telling me because you want someone to get in trouble, and that is not nice. Please do not tattle.”
    Tattling, and responding to tattling, takes away from instructional time. It needs to be kept to a minimum, not encouraged.

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 10:05 am #

      Hi M.,

      If you get a chance, please read the third point again. I knew before posting the article that (particularly) new readers of SCM might voice your same concerns. It might seem jarring or that I’m blaming teachers. But hang in there. Keep reading through the archive and maybe check out our books. The goal of this website, and all of the advice we provide, isn’t to just improve classroom management. Nor is it to just get through the day. It’s to be an exceptional teacher. It’s to empower teachers. You really can eliminate tattling using the steps/strategies above. You really can create the teaching experience you want. However, there are certain principles we believe strongly in here at SCM that support and allow these goals to be realized. A single article rarely operates in a vacuum. I should have acknowledged that in the article.


    • Suzanne May 30, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

      M when one of my students tells me another student was running in the hall, I don’t view it as tattling, but as telling. Telling me things like this is helpful and allows me to address the student who was running in the hall and impose a consequence since my students know that running in the hall is not allowed.

  5. L May 21, 2016 at 11:28 am #

    I, too, disagree with most of this article. Tattling is often from students who don’t have the maturity or knowledge to evaluate or handle the situation on their own. It’s most common from about age 5-7 or 8. I can be 100% observant (which is impossible as I can’t be in the bathroom, hallway, classroom, or out on the school yard, nor keep my eye on all 25 (or more) students all at the same time) and still have some students tattling. I have learned through 22 years of teaching that I should not jump like the building is on fire every time someone tattles. It just encourages more tattling. It sucks instructional time and saps teacher energy. I will acknowledge that I’ve heard them, I will coach them on how to manage the situation themselves, and if necessary I will intervene in situations. “I hear what you’re saying. Is anyone hurt? What did you try/do to help solve this problem?” I will try to be as consistent as possible and teach expectations and routines as thoroughly as possible… but some students will still tattle. Some students learn this habit and have it reinforced at home.

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

      Hi L,

      If you get a chance, please read the third reason again. Although some students do tattle more than others, it isn’t lack of maturity. It’s confusion over where the boundaries are or whether or not they or you are responsible for “handling the situation.” (It’s you.) Try detailed modeling of your rules, routines, expectations, etc. Be sure your students know precisely what constitutes breaking your rules and what doesn’t and what happens if they do. Let your students know that if a classmate picks on them, belittles them, or otherwise interferes with their right to learn and enjoy school that you must know about it, that it’s your job and sacred promise to handle it. Then follow through. I promise you’ll rid yourself of tattling.


  6. a thankful teacher May 21, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    Hello Michael,
    The first article I read from you was about how caring too much can actually hurt your students. It absolutely revolutionized my approach with students and helped me to begin, after a year of teaching 4th grade, to create the classroom I dreamed of when I was in college.
    I have been reading your consistently empowering articles for 5 years now. When I assimilate your timely advice into my classroom, I always get positive results and a balance of appropriate responsibility between my first graders and myself to protect learning.
    I absolutely agree that saying thanks for letting me know works-I don’t give it a lot of attention I just make a note and take care of it at recess. I have also explained that once they tell me I will take care of it so they don’t need to worry with it any further. If they do, then they come see me at recess as well…
    The 3 reasons you listed absolutely contribute to tattling and shoring those things up always makes a difference and lets our students to see us learning to and respecting the learning process.

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad to hear of your success. Way to go!


  7. Jen May 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    I’m not a teacher, but as a leader of an organization, I find this site invaluable. I have dealt with tattling in the workplace – and I remember the day it dawned on me that the tattling was not about the person being tattled on, it was me. I asked the tattler – “Is your problem with her, or with me?” She got very quiet, her face turned red, and she said “Well, I guess, it’s with you.” We didn’t resolve it that day – to be honest, we never resolved it. Long story! But, I understood she was confused. Something I think leaders, myself included, can do a better job of is being clear about their leadership style – akin to being clear about the classroom management plan. I believe in the modeling aspect as well, but haven’t quite figured out how to do it in a workplace setting, except with a lot of conversations. In the workplace, not everyone is going to agree with everything you do, and there will always be leeway, I think. In this case, I believe in a strengths-based leadership style, and the person being tattled on was very valuable to me for things other than what was in her job description. But, although I thought I had, I didn’t make that clear to the others, who felt I was letting her slide by not holding her to her job description. This situation is different from a classroom situation, but I still struggle with this, and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this article for helping me see this so clearly. Thank you! I recommend this site to other leaders – it is a regular part of my leadership toolkit.

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

      Thanks Jen! And thanks for sharing your insight.


  8. Emily May 21, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    How do you respond if the tattleing is about something outside established class rules?

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

      Hi Emily,

      This is unlikely given that your rules and consistency protect students from the need to tattle. However, if it happens, honesty is best. “Karla may laugh at my jokes if she wants. It isn’t against the class rules. Now, get back to work.”


  9. Maggie May 21, 2016 at 2:41 pm #


    I generally like your philosophy and I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt in this situation as I usually see the value of your strategies. However, I agree with the problems others have brought up concerning tattling on someone who is clearly breaking an established rule, but in a situation where you can not, or should not, observe it, such as in the hallway/restroom, behind you when walking in line, or out of earshot at recess.
    If you have addressed this, could you point me to your previous article?

    • Michael Linsin May 21, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

      Hi Maggie,

      I made a mistake in not including how this strategy (particularly as it relates to point #3) applies to this valid concern, and how to handle it when if it does happen, but it begs for its own article—which I’ll be sure to write in the future.

      As for what do to if you don’t see the misbehavior, you have to get to the bottom of it. Here’s an article to help find the truth when a student isn’t forthcoming: http://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/2010/11/13/how-to-get-the-truth-from-untruthful-students/


  10. Teaching Rocks May 21, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    I am preparing to student teach in the fall and graduate to be an elementary school teacher. My university requires 164 hours of observation and so I have been in a school setting for two semesters now. I am not an expert and I only speak from the experiences I’ve had. My concern is and always has been since I saw a teacher turn a student away because of tattling, what happens when the student is in real trouble and we as educators have already brain washed them into thinking tattling is bad? Most of the time the teacher turned a student away I knew the student was doing something good and if the teacher had paid attention to what she was trying to say the other student might have learned a valuable lesson.

  11. Betsy May 21, 2016 at 11:57 pm #

    Most of the tattling I hear is from PE or recess when the students are with other certified teachers. Tattling includes everything from telling me the other teacher “is unfair” to “so and so wouldn’t follow directions”. What do you suggest in these cases?

    • Michael Linsin May 22, 2016 at 8:23 am #

      Hi Betsy,

      I’ll be sure to cover this topic in a future article.


      • T May 22, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

        Hi Michael,
        Regarding Betsy’s comment – this is the tattling I find the most difficult – the endless,”It isn’t fair!” when my students return from PE class or recess under the supervision of other teachers. I always ask if they had spoken to the teacher in charge and the response is often that the teacher told them, “I make the rules,” or “Did you speak to (the offending student)?” It is such a waste of precious class time. I would love to read an article addressing this topic – I find it so frustrating.

      • Jess May 22, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

        Hi Michael,

        I too would love to hear your advice on how to address behavior problems that occur on another teacher’s time but are now causing trouble in my room. I see myself as the lead teacher and I feel it is part of my job to make sure my second graders feel safe and ready to learn all day. More and more of my class time is being taken up by conversations about things that I wasn’t present for and the other adult didn’t have the time to handle. Thanks for your help! Love your posts!

  12. Jared May 22, 2016 at 4:12 am #

    Michael, while it is hard to swallow sometimes, I do appreciate how you want us to take responsibility for everything that happens in the classroom, as the goal is to be exceptional teachers, not just manage a classroom. I was thinking about tattling instances in my class, and you are right, the times that students tattled are the times I wasn’t being vigilant. That gives me something to work on to always get better. Thanks for support.

    • Michael Linsin May 22, 2016 at 8:23 am #

      You’re welcome, Jared. Thanks for your comments.


  13. Jo May 22, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    I agree with this article that tattling is mostly about students verifying what are appropriate and inappropriate responses to classroom rules. Most of the improvements in my classroom behavior, as I’ve moved from chaos to order, have come from me initiating change in my behavior with the students following me and this web site has had a lot to do with that.

    One response that I’ve been using successfully is, “Did you ask them to stop?” If the student answers ‘yes’, I ask, “Did the other student stop?” If the answer is still ‘yes’ I tell them, “Good, then you handled it!” It’s amazing how often they walk away with an astonished grin on their face as they realize they’ve had a successful impact on the situation. If the original answer is, “No, [I didn’t ask the other student to stop]”, I tell them they need to try that first before they come to tell me. This builds up their repertoire of responses and teaches them they can have their own impact on the situation but still allows me to be there for back-up. I learned this from from another excellent site that has a similar philosophy to this one that includes teaching how to bully-proof kids.

    However, Michael’s article has shown me that, even with these good responses, my work is not quite done. The fact that the student felt that they had to say anything at all means I still need to do more group teaching and reinforcing.

  14. Lindsay May 22, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Every morning, like many teachers, I stand in my doorway and greet my students. We say a quick hello and I scoot the students in to get their day started. I used to have trouble after recess breaks because instead of a positive interaction, meeting students at the door seemed to mean that they all wanted to tattle about problems that had occurred at recess.

    I have now started waiting for kids to join me at the carpet and as soon as I have 5 I start to read, or after lunch, I am modelling silent reading and the students know to come in and start reading. If they still feel like they need to “tattle” or if they have a problem that they need my help with, they can talk to me about it after these activities. Most of the time they have forgotten about it.

  15. Pam May 22, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    When I read this, my response was, “I need to be a better observer of the class.” No one likes to be corrected, but I feel that this correction is justified and necessary. I could bristle and feel defensive, but, let’s be honest, I too need occasional tweeking in my teaching habits.
    As an art teacher, my classes are less structured than the typical classroom setup, but using your tips has helped me enormously to run a fun, vibrant, yet efficient class (most of the time).
    I rarely have tattling, but when I do it seems to be one kind. The tattling I’m concerned with is when a student is quietly mean and denies it or accuses the other student of similar behavior. I don’t want either disrespectful behavior to occur or continue. My students trust me and I want to make them both respect each other. Should I model the good behavior right then? Give them both warnings? I trust your advice because it works.
    By the way, Jared, I’ve often thought businesses could use Michael’s methods!

  16. T. May 22, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    I have close ties with a church school and am around a lot, so I know which children come from neglectful homes, which children are helicoptered and coddled, and which children come from stable homes. I sub, so when there’s tattling that starts right off the bat at the beginning of the day (and I can tell very quickly who the “needy” are), it doesn’t have anything to do with my lack of a plan or inconsistency. By FAR, the children who tattle most are the ones who don’t receive enough loving, appropriate attention at home. So they come to me to test the waters, looking for attention good, bad, … whatever. Anything. Because NO attention is the worst possible scenario for them. More often than not, I discover they were the instigator in the FIRST place. A “soggy potato chip” is better than “no potato chip at all”. When I tell them “thank you for letting me know,” it doesn’t mean I’m going to DO something about it, necessarily, it just means I listened. That seems to satisfy, often–it’s all they really wanted anyway.

  17. Mark Eichenlaub May 23, 2016 at 3:59 am #

    Hey Mike,
    I got your newest email this weekend and wanted to come post a comment about WHY I think your site is so important and popular.

    Teachers got into teaching to TEACH, not to discipline and the more time they deal with discipline the more drained they become. Dealing with discipline is a negative thing and it’s just draining. Your site provides tools for teachers to limit this necessary but negative part of teaching.

    Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin May 23, 2016 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks Mark!


  18. Hilary May 23, 2016 at 5:12 am #

    I feel like I read another article of yours on tattling that said to not put up with it. I remember it saying something about teaching them the difference between ratting out and reporting. This seems to be saying to cater to the tattling.

  19. Ramiro May 24, 2016 at 8:28 pm #

    How would you handle tattling about something that happened at recess or lunch? Is that a sign of poor classroom management ?

    • Michael Linsin May 25, 2016 at 7:31 am #

      Hi Ramiro,

      No, not necessarily. As for how to handle it, I’ve written extensively on this topic in the past, but will do so again in the future.


  20. Ramzan May 25, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    Hi Michael,
    A very comprehensive, reasonable and to the point solution of the problem indeed. Hope it will be beneficial at the moment as and when the situation demands.

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