Why Is “Telling” A Problem?

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with my teaching partner, which I mentioned to her that I would like to bring to this blog. The conversation stemmed from an experience a couple of days before. I happened to be on duty during the First Nutrition Break, and when I came back to class after duty, I saw Paula crouched down over the eating table comforting a child that was obviously upset. I heard her talking with both this child and the one sitting beside him. As I moved over to another group of students, I caught some snippets of the conversation at the eating table, but everything seemed to be resolved quickly, and we didn’t really re-look at what happened until a couple of days later: when another discussion prompted Paula to mention this situation.

It turns out that Paula got involved in the problem when she saw and heard the little boy crying. He was visibly upset, and looked for a hug and some soothing words to calm down. When he was feeling better, she asked him what made him so sad, and he replied, “_______ [a child sitting beside him] was going to tell on me.” Paula found it really interesting that there would be such a huge, emotional reaction to knowing that a child was going to “tell on him.” She said that she’s seen this before with other students — as have I — and she always wondered why “telling” made children so upset. Her thinking was,

  • We always look to find out more about what happened. Paula taught me the importance of this. Even if a child says to me, “[Name] slapped me,” I’ll follow-up with, “What was happening at the time? What were you doing? What was [Name] doing? Let’s go talk to him/her.” Until I worked with Paula, I never realized how often I passed judgement before following up with everybody on a problem. It’s amazing though that when we really listen to kids, often there are no issues that are as clear-cut as we may think. Hits, kicks, punches, etc., are rarely unmotivated, and usually happen as part of more physical games, such as tag games, Star Wars reenactments,  Power Rangers/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/superheros play, or Zombie activities. If you’re playing a game where everybody is “fighting bad guys,” it’s not surprising that things get physical quickly.
  • We don’t seek to punish. We work hard on “understanding” versus “punishing.” Maybe this has something to also do with the age group, as so many of these problems are also learning experiences for kids. Often times, we might suggest a different activity or ask questions to get children to think of their own solutions to the problem. It’s amazing what you hear from even your youngest learners when you say, “What might you be able to do to make your friend feel better?”
  • We rarely solve problems for kids. Some children need some more support in problem solving than others, and sometimes we need to ask some more specific questions to really get children to resolve problems independently, but we try hard to not be the ones dictating solutions. We want our students to think about problems and think about solutions. I keep thinking back to a duty experience I had about a month ago. Children were playing soccer outside, and a child came to me to say that another child pushed him. I called the other child over, and he explained what happened and why he pushed him. I looked at the student that came to me initially and I said, “What would you like the solution to be?” He said, “I think I should get a foul shot.” I looked at the other child. “What do you think?” He agreed, so the children went off, and the child got his foul shot. I could have imposed a punishment or pulled the child from the game, but giving the children ownership over the problem and the solution, also helped decrease the stress and lead to a very reasonable solution.
  • We don’t give up on kids! Even when there is a problem and we have to get involved, we make sure to reconnect with all parties throughout the day. We spend some quiet time together with the children: playing together, asking questions, or maybe even just sitting down and conversing over lunch. We want children to know that we still care about them, no matter what may have happened throughout the day. Relationships matter, and kids need to know how valuable these relationships are to us!

Talking this “telling experience” through with Paula made us wonder, 

  • When do children become so scared of “telling?”
  • What do they think is going to happen?
  • How can we help children see “telling” as less of a threat? 

If there is a real problem, we want to know about it, but not at the expense of a child’s well-being. Imagine if children so young are fearing what happens when an adult finds out about a problem. What impact might this then have when they grow older? Kids need to know that adults are there for them — that they support and believe in them — and seeing the eating table experience from last week, I wonder how quickly they sometimes forget that this is true.



8 thoughts on “Why Is “Telling” A Problem?

  1. Aviva, I enjoyed your reflection. I have found that many children fear being told on because the “telling” is a manipulation used by a strong personality, an older child, or a popular child. This happens as early as four years old. I teach my class that if they threaten to tell- they must tell. Once this is established the manipulating ends. And so far, so does the fear.
    First Grade

    • Thanks Julie for sharing your thinking and experiences! I find this really interesting. If we believe what Ross Greene says — “Children do well if they can!” — then why would they choose to manipulate in this way? How do we change this? While your solution that they must tell if they threaten to tell seems to have worked, I wish we could get rid of this threat. Why does telling have to be scary, and how do we help kids fear less?


  2. Such a powerful thing to notice. Even though the school may be a self-reg haven these kids have clearly picked this idea up from outside sources. I just keep thinking of the line “wait till your father gets home.” But telling can be a stress in every domain for the child told on and may be a limbic response for the child doing the telling… so much to reframe!

    • Thanks for the comment! A great reminder that “telling” can cause stress in so many domains, and we really need to reconsider the response from the children that we see.


  3. Telling is scary at any age. If I found out that another teacher was going to “tell” (something negative) about me to somebody where it would make a difference (like to a principal), I would probably be really upset too. The action of “telling” involves a person going over your head with an intent to punish, rather than working it out with you face-to-face. It can feel like an overwhelming betrayal, even if the person being told to is somebody you trust and who will be fair in handling it. People, children included, don’t usually get upset by positive telling like “look at this awesome thing that ______ made!” Nobody likes to feel like somebody they care about feels poorly about them, maybe even especially children.

    I think that you and Paula and your approach probably helps them a lot in being less afraid of telling, but even if it isn’t scary, it can still hurt. Perhaps the person doing the telling may need some more proactive ways to handle conflict. It’s definitely a complicated issue and one with so many different angles that I never feel as though I’m doing the whole situation justice. It’s a really great question!

    • Excellent point, Melanie! I think it’s the intent behind the telling that’s scary. That said, if people always responded to telling in a way where we heard all sides and worked through solutions together, would the fear of telling start to change? I think of our young learners. Is telling in this way developmentally appropriate behaviour? Is it what kids do? Can we change this, or do we change it based on our response to this telling? You’re giving me more to think about.


      • You’re giving me more to think about! I think the fear might start to mitigate, but I think the hurtful element might remain. That said, the telling might be what is developmentally normal for small children. They haven’t yet learned other ways to handle things. I think it’s the work you start in kindergarten that helps them move beyond telling to solving things on their own. By the time I get them, it’s rare that they will tell, and sometimes they try to handle things on their own when they really should be seeking help. It’s a tough line to balance for sure.

        • Melanie, I think that there could be a “developmental appropriateness” to telling. That said, I also think it’s important for kids to learn ways to solve problems on their own. It’s funny, as I think that problem solving often becomes a pendulum swing: from only seeking help to not seeking it when it might be important. How do we help kids figure out the difference? Even as adults, sometimes we need to ask for help, but how often do we choose not to? You’ve given me even more to think about … thank you!


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