As adults, a level of trust is built with young children where they can communicate their needs and concerns, especially as it relates to their safety. Helpful adults encourage young children to tell someone if they feel they are being bullied, mistreated, or their safety is at risk. It is also important to help young children understand how to identify when there is indeed an issue that needs to be addressed with the help of an adult.
In the early years, children may find any situation that is less favorable to them as an issue which can lead to tattling. On the other hand, some may be hesitant of telling with the fear of being seen as a “tattletale” which can be harmful when there is an issue of safety present. With the prevalence of bullying and other safety concerns today, this aspect of Safe2Help is very important because young children need to be comfortable telling an adult if they feel they or their peer are unsafe. Educating young children about the difference will help them feel empowered to tell vs tattle.
The line between telling and tattling can be blurred in the minds of young children. What is the difference? According to Jamie M. Howard, PhD of Child Mind Institute, tattling is the reporting of a peer’s wrongdoing when the situation is safe and able to be handled by the child themselves. Whereas telling is defined as alerting adults of a situation that is not safe and the child is unable to manage or solve on their own.
Gundersen Health System provides the following examples as a means of differentiating the two.
▪ The child telling wants to keep themselves or others safe.
▪ The child telling is concerned about safety.
▪ The problem is important and urgent.
▪ Someone may be hurt or in danger.
▪ An adult is needed to help solve the problem.
▪ The child tattling wants to get someone else in trouble or avoid blame.
▪ The child tattling may have something to gain, such as attention or popularity.
▪ No one is hurt or in danger.
▪ It is not an important problem and can be solved without an adult.
▪ The child threatens to tell on another in order to control the other child.
Best Practices and Implications for Professional Practice
Understanding Why Children Tattle: In addition to knowing the difference between telling and tattling, understanding why children do tattle is also helpful. Responsive Classroom explains common reasons children tend to tattle:
- Legitimate concerns: Students may have good reasons for concern about others’ behavior and its effects on them and their friends. We need to fully embrace this truth.
- Need for information: Some children may be testing the limits or trying to figure out whether you’ll enforce rules. When we respond with a disapproving “Remember— no tattling,” or a pointed
question such as, “Do I need to know that?” they become confused.
- Wish for attention or recognition. Some children want us to notice them or to acknowledge their efforts at following the rules.
- Limited problem-solving skills: Adults often tell students to handle problems themselves, but students may lack the skills to do so. Tattling may be their only problem-solving strategy.
Addressing Tattling in the Classroom:
To reduce tattling, establish classroom rules around the topic. Once children understand the difference between telling and tattling, they will know when to seek the help of an adult. Provide children with tools and words to help with their decision making. Child Mind Institute notes that children can solve problems on their own if they are able to identify the problem and use words that best express their frustrations.
Helping children talk through a moment of frustration equips them with tools that will help them approach a similar situation in the future.
To help combat tattling in the classroom, Responsive Classroom offers these suggestions:
• Be ready with respectful responses to tattlers.
• Let students report to you privately.
• Reinforce students who report serious incidents.
• Help parents understand and support your approach.
• Give students positive ways to get your attention.
• Teach conflict resolution.
Safe2Help Illinois Website Resources:
• Kids Resources- Tattling and Telling Videos
• Child Mind Institute Is It Tattling or Telling?
• Gundersen Health System Together Against Bullying: Telling vs. Tattling
• Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International Tattling and Telling: What’s the
• Monique Burr Foundation Discussing Sensitive Topics with Children
• Creating Safe and Respectful Environment in our Nation's Classrooms
• Responsive Classroom What to Do About Tattling
• Safe2tell Colorado Telling vs. Tattling/Snitching
• Sesame Street in Communities Reporting Bullying
Sample Classroom Strategies
IL SEL Standards:
• Goal 3: Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.
These activities can be used to address the Illinois SEL Standards.
• Pre-K – Kindergarten Activities
a. Use books to teach tattling vs telling. (A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue by Julia Cook and Don’t Squeal Unless It’s a Big Deal by Jeanie Franz Ransom are two examples.)
b. Use picture cards to differentiate between tattling and telling.
c. Teach students steps to a problem-solving process (i.e., 1st Step: What is the problem; 2nd Step: What are some solutions, 3rd Step: Which solution is better; and 4th Step: Pick the best
d. Teach and practice problem solving steps implicitly during carpet time/morning meeting and especially during teachable moments when a problem arises organically in the classroom.
• 1ˢᵗ – 2ⁿᵈ Grade Activities
a. Set clear expectations for classroom behavior.
b. Develop a class T-Chart of examples and non-examples for Telling vs. Reporting. Post the T-Chart prominently in classroom.
c. Implement classroom meetings and discuss tattling vs telling.
d. Use examples from literature to discuss when a character is tattling vs when a character should tell a trusted adult.
e. Use videos to initiate discussion about tattling vs telling.
• 3ʳᵈ – 4ᵗʰ Grade
a. Implement Class Meetings and discuss Tattling vs. Telling (Second Step Template)
b. Have students work together to develop a list of specific situations they may encounter at school (i.e., name calling, taking another child’s belongings, not participating in class, using inappropriate language, etc.)Trade lists with other students and have them decide which should be handled by the student and which should be taken to a trusted adult.
c. Develop a paper and pencil incident process. If the student believes they have something important to share about someone else, the student will write down the details of the issue and give to teacher following an established procedure. Teacher will monitor and provide feedback to student, as needed. Examples received can be used by the teacher to paraphrase appropriately during classroom meetings to differentiate between tattling and telling.