Elementary students, especially those in the primary grades, are quick to tattle. Resolving those kinds of student conflicts can make you feel more like a referee than an instructor. If you don't find a way to contain the tattling problem, moreover, you might find that you have a tattling epidemic on your hands as you constantly deal with a steady stream of students eager to turn in their classmates.
The dilemma for a teacher is how to respond to tattletales. Dealing with every report you receive would seriously impinge on your teaching obligations, but you do want to make sure that you're told if a student is in danger of being physically or emotionally harmed. The following strategies will help you spend most of your time teaching while still safeguarding your students.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Teach students the difference between "tattling" and "telling." Discuss the issue of tattling with your students. Ask them how they feel when someone tattles on them; make sure to elicit the point that students are likely to be upset with classmates who tattle. Tell your class that the only time they are allowed to report a classmate's behavior is when a student is doing something that is hurtful, destructive, or dangerous. Explain what you mean by these terms, and inform students that when they report hurtful, destructive, or dangerous incidents to you, they are not tattling, they are giving important information. Provide students with some hypothetical situations and ask them to identify whether each is an example of tattling (and therefore not allowed), or of telling (which is not only allowed, but encouraged).
Encourage students to ignore behavior that does not affect them. When a student complains about behavior that is not destructive or dangerous and does not affect her, let her know that it is not her concern. You might say, "I'm happy to see that you know how to behave, but I would prefer that you not tell me about behavior that does not concern you." Some teachers use the phrase M.Y.O.B. to give a student the message to "mind your own business."
Encourage students to settle problems on their own. If a student complains about something a classmate has done that does affect her, encourage her to solve the problem without your help. You might give her some ideas about how to respond. If you find that a number of your students have difficulty asserting themselves in disputes with classmates, consider some role-playing to help them gain the confidence and skills to deal with such situations.
Don't automatically dismiss a student's concern. Be especially attentive to reports that suggest that a student is being bullied, especially if you get similar reports from more than one student. Studies of bullying indicate that teachers sometimes fail to respond to reports of students being taunted, threatened, or harassed. If you conclude that bullying is taking place, you will want to intervene rather than encourage the victim to stand up to the bully. In bullying situations, an imbalance of power often exists that makes it difficult for a weaker, smaller student to confront a stronger, bigger classmate.
Stop a student before she gets a chance to tattle. If you sense that a student is about to tattle on a classmate, stop the student before she completes her thought and ask, "Are you about to tattle, or are you going to tell me important information about a student who is doing something harmful or dangerous?" If she tells you the latter, let her finish her thought.
Set up a situation box. Put on your desk a covered shoebox with a slit in the top. Place a note pad next to the box. Let students know that if they have a concern about a classmate and need your help dealing with it, they can write a note and leave it in the box. Tell them that you will read the notes before the end of the day and follow up with the student who wrote the note if you think help is needed. Reassure them that they can still see you without leaving a note to report a student doing something harmful or dangerous.
Do not put students in charge of their classmates. Putting a student in a position of authority over her classmates often will give rise to the student telling you about students who have been non-compliant, which will engender student conflict. You can give students responsibilities in the classroom; just make sure that being in charge of their classmates is not one of those responsibilities.