Most children lie sometimes. Although an occasional lie is not a reason for serious concern, teachers should be concerned about a student who lies frequently. Students who lie can become skilled at the behavior; the lying then might become habitual to the point that they lie with little concern for the consequences, which can be considerable. Frequent lying can cause classmate distrust, and lead to peer rejection, which can give rise to additional behavioral or academic problems.
Some instances of lying are of greater concern than others. (A child who lies to avoid hurting a classmate's feelings or who occasionally embellishes a story poses little cause for concern, for example.) When determining whether lying warrants your involvement, consider how frequently the student lies, the nature and context of the lies, the reactions of classmates, and any other behaviors the child displays. Avoid disciplining a student for lying unless you are certain that she has lied.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Respond to mistakes constructively. If a student expects you to react to mistakes by getting angry, she will be more inclined to lie to hide those mistakes. If you react to mistakes in a calm, constructive, solution-focused manner, she will be more likely to be truthful.
Acknowledge student honesty. If a student admits a mistake, let her know you are pleased she had the courage to speak the truth. Although you might want to give the student a consequence for the misdeed, consider going easy because of her honesty. Let the student know you are lessening the consequence for the misdeed because of her truthfulness. Giving her a harsh punishment might encourage her to be dishonest about future mistakes.
Do not treat a young child's fantasies as lies. Some kindergartners or first graders fabricate stories because they have not completely learned to distinguish fantasy from reality. Although you might need to help those student learn to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, do not treat their fantasies as lies.
Address the lie. If you observe a child lying, even occasionally, don't ignore the behavior. Lies that go unchallenged give students the impression that they can get away with lying and encourage them to tell bigger lies. A student whose lies go unchallenged also might become a more skilled, and even compulsive, liar. Intervening quickly also is important because lying can cause social problems for the student.
React calmly. Although confronting lying as soon as you observe it is important, do not to overreact to. Let the student know that you are disappointed in her behavior, but reacting in an angry, critical manner, will only encourage her to lie more skillfully in the future. Similarly, avoid conducting an inquisition to determine conclusively whether the student has told a lie. In doing so, you give the issue more attention than it is worth, and could encourage the student to add to her lie.
Meet with the student in private. In responding to a lie, focus on the behavior rather than on the student. Let the student know that she has made a mistake and hopefully will act differently next time, but do not call her a liar or otherwise make her feel like a bad person for having lied. Help her understand the consequences of lying, and let her know that if she lies frequently you and her classmates won't know when she is telling the truth. Help her understand that lying does not make a problem go away and, in fact, usually makes it worse.
Attend to what underlies the lying. The nature of a student's lies might offer clues about an underlying emotional need, which might suggest ways of intervening. For example, if you observe a student frequently lying to classmates about her achievements, it is likely that she feels insecure and is trying to gain status with her peers. Look for ways for the child to gain peer attention by highlighting her actual accomplishments. If a student tells a classmate that she has a lot of friends in another class when you know that isn't true, the student might be conveying feelings of social isolation, suggesting another avenue for teacher intervention.
Use punishment sparingly. A gentle talk with a student can be more effective than a punitive approach; however, situations might arise in which you feel punishment is warranted. If so, accompany the punishment with an explanation of why lying is wrong and a discussion of what the consequences of lying are.