End the Tattletale Trauma

We have all heard the phrase “don’t be a tattletale”.  It was likely muttered by an adult trying to gain some sort of control over continual interruptions in a classroom setting. Although well intended, the phrase sends a mixed message to children on how to deal with peer conflict.

I have significantly cut back on unnecessary “reporting” in my classroom using the “Need to Know” technique. While I secretly appreciate when inappropriate behavior is reported, many times the information is just not something I need to know.

The student reporting can be divided into two simple categories: “need to know” and “don’t need to know”.

Need to know:

  • If someone is hurt (sick, bleeding, crying, etc.)
  • If behavior of someone is dangerous (someone is standing on a chair, someone poked with a pencil, tripped, pinched, hit, etc.)
  • Have a problem that you have tried to solve, but cannot on own.

Don’t need to know:

  • If a another student is not following the exact directions. (These are actions I might be aware of, or will catch on to shortly.)
  • Feelings were hurt or student is accidentally touched/bumped. (Try to allow child to solve problem on their own for 1st offense.)

Once you have discussed your expectations and role play “need to know” scenarios, consistency in action will determine success.

Example scenarios:

  • Donna reports that Brad is holding a couple markers in his hand. While Brad isn’t supposed to have anything in his hand, it is not worth stopping instruction to address it. In this case I would ask Donna “Is this a need to know?” Upon reflection her answer would likely be “No” and we could continue instruction while reinforcing understanding of the technique.
  • Danell reports that Bill said something mean to him. Ask, “Is this a need to know?” Danell says yes, because he told Bill to stop and he did it again. At this point, since the child tried to handle it himself and it didn’t work, this has become a bully situation and it needs to be addressed by an adult.

While we want to help students solve their problems, often empowering them to solve it on their own is the best for the child, teacher, and classroom environment. Situations where I encourage students to solve their own problems and use their own words are: someone . . . colored on my paper, copied my idea, won’t share, is humming, made a face, didn’t clean up (see Clean-up map to address this problem).

Thank you to Gail Edgerton for inspiring “Need to Know”.

Theresa McGee

Hello! My name is Theresa McGee and I am a National Board Certified Art Teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator teaching in Hinsdale, Illinois. My curriculum is structured around creative thinking and technology integration into the learning process. I have authored eighteen articles for the Tech4ArtEd Column in SchoolArts Magazine and several iTunes U courses for professional development. I've presented at the state and national levels including several online webinars for art educators. In 2010, I was awarded Illinois Elementary Art Educator of the Year and in 2011 I was awarded the national PBS Teacher Innovator award. I love to share ideas that contribute to the art education profession!


  • March 7, 2009

    Daniel Ludvigson

    I have instructed elementry art classes before and this is very true. You can’t stop instruction every time someone did something wrong. And if you feed into the need to tattletell you create someone who is always going to be tellin you everything that everyone else does in the classroom, at the exact time they know about it. A very frusting prospect

  • February 24, 2010


    I like to use Barbara Coloroso’s line “Are you trying to get someone into trouble or out of trouble?” It’s similar to this idea and the kids should be briefed on what that means.

  • March 5, 2011


    At our school we distinguish between ‘telling’ and ‘tattling’. Telling is when someone is in danger or hurt/bleeding. Tattling is when you are reporting something to get someone in trouble.

  • […] Teach them the “need to know” rule otherwise known as the Tattletale Trauma. […]

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