Students steal for a variety of reasons. Some steal simply because they want an item and haven't developed the impulse control to curb their behavior. Others steal to express unhappiness or distress, or to get back at someone they believe has wronged them. Still others steal to gain status with their peers or to get attention from their teachers.
Whatever the motivation for stealing, when responding to a theft, you have three goals: to return the item to its owner, to identify the guilty student, and to respond to him with a mixture of firmness and understanding. If there have been a number of incidents of stealing in your classroom, you also will want to consider how to prevent their recurrence. Because these incidents can create conflict and distrust among students, you need to deal with the situation promptly and sensitively.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Ask for the missing item to be returned. Tell students that an item is missing and ask if anyone knows where it is, without referring to it as "stolen." Let students know that if the item was taken without permission, it is important that it be returned immediately. Designate an unmonitored area where the student can return the item unobserved.
Ask students to do the "write" thing. If you hope to find out who took the missing item, you might have each student write on a piece of paper either "I did not take the (name of item)" or "I took the (name of item) and am sorry." Then have each student sign the paper, fold it in half, and hand it to you. You might be surprised at your students' willingness to acknowledge responsibility. If a student owns up to taking the item, keep the information confidential, but help him understand the consequences of his behavior.
If you know who stole the item, arrange for its return. If you are certain you know who stole the item, confront the student directly. Do not ask him if he stole the item; that will only invite him to lie. Instead, let him know you are aware that he took the item, and that you expect him to return it and to apologize to the owner of the item. If the student no longer has the item, tell him you expect him to replace it or pay for it.
Educate the guilty student about stealing and its consequences. If the student is a kindergartner or first grader, he may have only a limited understanding of property rights, and he might need help understanding that stealing is wrong. An older student is more likely to understand that his actions are wrong, but he still might need help grasping the consequences of stealing, both for himself and for the person he stole the item from.
Consider informing the principal and parents. If one of your students has taken an item of value, or stolen on more than one occasion, inform the principal and also talk with the student's parents. If the student no longer has the item and must replace or pay for it, suggest to the parents that they have the child do extra chores as a way of earning the money.
Make sure the student is not shunned by his classmates. If you know who stole the item, keep the information to yourself. Certainly do not reprimand the student publicly. If the other students find out through other sources, take steps to avoid the student being rejected by peers. Other students likely will take their cue from you in terms of how they treat the student.
Discourage students from bringing valuable or popular items to school. That will help prevent future incidents of stealing. Inform parents of your rule during Back to School Night or in a letter home. Ask parents to put their children's names on any items they bring to school.