How To Handle Students Who Tattle, Complain, And Need Your Frequent Attention

Oh no, not again.

At the worst possible moment, just as you’re homing in on your lesson objective, you notice a desperate hand waving at you from the edge your peripheral vision. Your first instinct is to ignore it and plow ahead, but then come the impatient grunts and throat-clears.

The student is one of several who frequently need your attention—to tell on a classmate, voice a complaint, or ask why he gets to do this or she gets to do that. Regardless of what it is, you’d be willing to bet it has nothing to do with your lesson.

For some students it seems that every waking moment is spent looking for what is wrong or unjust in their world, and when they find it, they want you to fix it right now.

So they interrupt the flow of your classroom. They break your train of thought. They become so fixated on their perceived problem or issue that nothing else matters to them—least of all their academic work.

With all of your responsibilities and single-minded focus on learning, you have precious little time or patience for it, especially when the matter seems so petty and their urgency so unjustified. You want what? Who are you talking about? Why does that even concern you?

It’s normal to question their motives and intentions, cut them off mid-sentence, or discard their concerns with a clipped phrase and a wave of your hand.

But in the long run, an exasperated response will only cause their complaining and tattling to worsen. It will only cause them to be more anxious, less focused, and tenfold as likely to interrupt you again and again.

What follows is a simple three-step strategy for handling this common situation in a way that both calms and satisfies the student, while at the same time limiting future interruptions.

Step 1: Enforce

Effective teaching requires you to never let the whole of your class suffer because of a small few. So your first order of business is to remind yourself not to respond to or call on anyone who isn’t following your hand-raising routine. Once you prove that this is always the case, the disruptive behavior will stop.

Furthermore, as part of your first-week-of-school focus on routines and procedures, your students will learn that just because their hand is up doesn’t mean that you’ll call on them right away. They may have to wait patiently and trust that you’ll get to them as soon as you’re able.

Finally, because they’ve proven, through detailed practice and role-play, that they understand what is expected of them, if they stray from the routine—by waving, calling out, or making noises to get your attention—you will follow your classroom management plan as promised and enforce a consequence.

Step 2: Listen

Only after you’ve completed your thought, reached your objective, or finished your explanation, will you answer questions or address concerns. Part of what makes this strategy so effective is that you’ll only call on students when you have the time to give them your full attention.

You’ll only call on them when there is a natural break in the action and you have a moment to look them in the eye, nod your head, and show interest, regardless of how trivial the question, complaint, or contention may seem. This is key.

By showing that you care, by validating their concerns and perturbations, your students will be free to let them go, focus on their academic responsibilities, and relax in knowing that when they have a problem, you’ll address it.

Step 3: Fix

It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to curb the intensity and frequency of tattling is to take it seriously. So after listening to the student’s concern, address the problem assertively and as quickly as you’re able.

Thanks for letting me know, Jesse. You’re right, no one may put their hands on you. I’ll take care of it. And if he bothers you again, I want to know about it.”

Then let the student see you handling the problem. If, however, he (or she) ends up not having a valid concern, then without showing frustration or anger, just be straight with him.

Jackie has every right to voice her opinion about the book, no matter how much you may disagree with it. Now go back and rejoin your group.”

Free To Focus

When students are discouraged from tattling or voicing their apprehensions, when they don’t have confidence that you’ll stop the bully from making fun of them or their table-mate from distracting them, they grow frustrated.

They complain louder and more vociferously. They become less focused on their work and more focused on themselves and their grievances. They begin taking matters into their own hands.

And the more you wave them away, the more you tell them you don’t want to hear it, and that tattling isn’t allowed, the worse it gets.

But when they know they can count on you to safeguard their right to learn and enjoy school without interference, they’ll lay down their sword. They’ll let go of their vigilance. They’ll be free, finally, to focus on the academic challenges you place before them.

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21 Responses to How To Handle Students Who Tattle, Complain, And Need Your Frequent Attention

  1. Derrick July 15, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    As a new teacher, I must say these articles are a joy to read and they are so right on time. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin July 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      My pleasure, Derek! You’re welcome.


  2. Zoe August 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    With 25 year of teaching experience, their articles still offer some great strategies for solving difficult students. It reminds me not to rush with classroom management if I want a peaceful classroom

  3. Karen Fitzpatrick February 14, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    Hi Michael,
    I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this website. I’ve had many “aha” moments since reading these articles! Excellent advice. My question is this: What if student 1 complains about student 2 and you say that you will take care of it, but the student 2 denies doing that action and then blames the student 1? If I didn’t see what happened, what step to I take to “fix” the problem without creating resentment? This is a frequent problem for me.

    • Michael Linsin February 14, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      You have to get to the truth, which depends on the two students you’re referring to and their history of misbehavior. In most circumstances, you should have a good idea which of the two students is being untruthful. Some of this comes from experience and some through awareness and observation. Further, the level of respect your students have for you and your reputation for follow through also has impact. I’ll be sure and write about this in greater detail in the future. In the meantime, I recommend the article, How To Get The Truth From Untruthful Students.


  4. karen February 14, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Excuse my typos!

  5. Karen Fitzpatrick February 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Thank you so much. I love this website. I’ve read all of the articles and I just purchased both of your books. This advice even helps when handling my own children- especially following through every single time with a routine or consequence and never making excuses for not following through. I also realized how much I repeat my directions. This website is a godsend. Excellent advice!!!! Thank you so much.

    • Michael Linsin February 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

      You’re welcome, Karen! Glad you’re a regular reader.


  6. Emily Morris April 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Tattling is my biggest hurdle right now! After four years out of the teaching game, I just accepted a contract for the last quarter of a second grade classroom. I’ve been doing steps 1 and 2, but I will focus on step 3 and see if that helps!

    I’m also loving this blog. Classroom management has always been my weak spot and apparently the old teacher had none. So it’s something I and the kids are really focusing upon. I’ve been browsing your articles for most days of the past two weeks. You’re so wonderfully obvious and simple. Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin April 7, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      You’re welcome, Emily! I’m glad you found us.


  7. Caroline October 31, 2014 at 3:43 am #


    I wanted to say I love this website, how your strategies all make perfect sense, and that you respond to your readers.

    I graduated with an early childhood degree this year and I have been subbing in a district since August. I have found that subbing can be extremely stressful at times. Some students try and get away with what they know is not right. I know it is stressful for some students to have a substitute – their teacher is gone and it is like their whole day is thrown off. I really try and be likeable. But I feel like some classes take advantage of my kindness. They’ll talk when I clearly explained the activity they are working on is not a talking activity. I don’t exactly have the option to make lessons fun and engaging when the teachers usually leave behind worksheets and I am left with the misbehavior and oftentimes tattling. How can I improve on being a substitute?

    • Michael Linsin October 31, 2014 at 6:28 am #

      Hi Caroline,

      I’m glad you enjoy the website! The question you ask is a big one that requires more time and space than I can devote here. Although many of our readers are substitute teachers, I’m not sure we have enough to justify specific weekly articles. However, I have a long list of topics for subs/visiting teachers that I’m hoping to turn into an ebook or guidebook. Stay tuned!


  8. Liuda April 5, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

    Hi Michael!
    What advice do you have, if students raise their hands to add something to our topic (I hope so), but when I allow them to speak out, they say something like “You know, today I was in the park with my mummy”. How do you handle such comments that have nothing to do with a lesson?

    • Michael Linsin April 6, 2016 at 6:51 am #

      Hi Liuda,

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


  9. Avigail August 31, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    What about students who are always complaining about minor aches and pains? Every day they have a headache, or their stomach is hurting, or their throat is hurting or they have a mosquito bite or there is an invisible booboo on their finger…etc. etc. etc. Sometimes it seems genuine, but mild, and sometimes you get the feeling that it’s completely fabricated. In my experience, treating these concerns as valid only encourages students to voice them more and more (hey, if it gets them out of class to go relax in the nurse’s office, or if it means I’ll let them put their head down and rest while everyone else is working…)

    What would you say?

    • Michael Linsin September 1, 2016 at 7:43 am #

      Hi Avigail,

      I’ll put this topic on the list of future articles.


  10. Merlene September 11, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I am really thankful for the ideas for better classroom management. I have started using them last week and already I have seen differences in the way my students behave. I have been teaching for many years and I love teaching. Many of my students have done well but every year I get some very disruptive boys. I was just about ready to” throw in the towel ” when I came across your website

    • Michael Linsin September 11, 2016 at 12:06 pm #

      Excellent! Good to hear, Merlene. I’m glad you found us.


  11. Jess September 12, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Thank you so much for this!
    I am a college professor, female, quite young-looking, and each semester (for six semesters!) I have one student, male or female, who sits right up front and critiques the lecture. In very different ways, and for very different reasons. This semester, I have two challenging cases.

    I think one is a class clown, and I’ll be trying out some techniques this week. But the other, in a different class, is a puzzle. He’s very interested in the material, and loves to raise his hand- and wave his hand about!- and nod very enthusiastically, or shake his head with vigor- at the content, and usually well before I’ve made any point at all. His behavior is most intense at the beginning- the very beginning!- of the lesson.

    I’ve spoken w him privately and asked him to sit to the side or back a few rows, and he’s done so. However at each tiny question, or even without a question, he raises his hand very, very high- and when I inevitably call on him, he gives a long, rambling question that asks about very obscure data. It throws everything off, and leads into topics that we just can’t focus on right now.

    I’m thinking of a ‘parking lot’, but the topics he brings up are very far away- they’re end-of-class discussion topics. He also brings in personal anecdotes, which is great (I want the rest of the students to do this!), but they’re often difficult to understand and relate to- I have a hard time following them, let alone his classmates. I’m really struggling with which direction to take this. I don’t want to make rules only for him, surely? And at the same time, I don’t want to model for the other students that sharing isn’t welcome- when, to the contrary, it’s what I want from all of them- but after I’ve finished demonstrating the lesson, and relevant to the topic at-hand.

    I’d be grateful for any advice you might have- or if you can point me in one direction or the other?
    Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin September 13, 2016 at 8:09 am #

      Hi Jess,

      You have to steer this student on topic and sometimes even cut him short. There is a lot of subtlety in this, and you have to do it such a way that it doesn’t discourage him or stifle discussion. I don’t think I can do anymore explanation justice in this format. It’s the kind of advice I can only give accurately if I spoke to you personally. Hope the little advice I’m able to give is helpful.


  12. Samantha October 30, 2016 at 8:34 am #

    I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t like interruptions during an input of a lesson, especially when the subject is not a topic discussion. Amazing how 99% of times students ask questions which are totally irrelevant to the subject, oftentimes to make a complaint about a classmate they had provoked earlier on, or to ask why the hair of the woman shown in the PowerPoint is red.