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Setting Boundaries Around Tattling with Insights from Research-ages 1-4

It's a scary season for early childhood educators this year. If you're a professional, I don't have to tell you what's going on. It's ever so important that we keep our integrity and stand by our standards of quality.

It's a scary season for parents, too. We have to band together and demand parental leave as well as access to high-quality, not just affordable child care. All children and parents deserve high-quality care It only makes sense for them and for everyone else in society too.

Click to see s short video from Havard that illustrates the point well.

What can we do?

We can focus on quality and focus on research to guide that quality. And we can never forget to focus on quality during the first few years.

And we can focus on ourselves for a change. We are trained and wired to focus on others but our mental and physical health matters to the children we care for. Even when we have to resort to radical self-care.

In thinking about what might be helpful to you this week, I'm adding this link to my fall activity post.

And here's an excerpt from an article I wrote a couple of years ago about dealing with tattling.

3 Reasons Preschoolers Tattle and 4 Ideas to Make It Stop

Tattling can be annoying or it can become a big problem in your childcare or your home setting. And it's not necessarily easy to deal with, especially when you're caring for multiple children and you have other things to do.

I've heard a lot of tattles in my 45+ years of teaching and studying about our youngest. And I've had a lot of time to think about it and the best ways to deal when it comes up suddenly and I'm busy.

I've also spent time thinking about how to deal with it preventively. That's because I work with birth-3 currently after a lot of years with 3's, 4's and 5's. I remember feeling frustrated with it many times. My ideas about how to deal with it have changed over the years.

Imagine you're starting a brand new job and feeling a little bit nervous. Your boss has a reputation for high expectations and you're just getting to know her. The co-worker on your right lets the boss know when you make a mistake so she can deal with it right away. The co-worker on your left asks you if you want to go over things together when she notices something the boss might not like. The co-worker behind you ignores the entire process and sticks to their own business. Which co-worker is the most helpful to you? To your boss?

Let's start with why kids tattle.

Do they want to be know-it-alls? Make others feel bad? Look better than others? Get someone else in trouble?

Sometimes it might feel like that and unchecked tattling could certainly turn into one of these things eventually but, it doesn't have to.

That's because tattling starts from a noble place. They're probably just trying to be helpful and point out a problem. After all, our brains are wired to solve problems. They notice, they tell.

And here's another reason. Young children who've just figured out how to comply with a rule can't understand it when another child doesn't comply.

And they can't tell when it's important to tell or not due to lack of experience.

So saying, "Only tell when you see blood", probably isn't the best line to use with very young children but if you have said it, don't worry, it is only a joke that illustrates a point.

Like the Dad who told his daughter that if she stuck her lower lip out any farther, a bird would land on it. He had to deal with her being afraid to go outside for a month because she thought it would really happen. Brain science tells us that young children take things literally.

Here's how I see it now.

Young children tattle often and they really want us to take action. It can be annoying but our response is important. Is it ever too early to develop good emotional habits in the place of tattling? In my opinion, no, and here's why:

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

So what's the best way to deal with tattling in toddlers and preschoolers? It's important to look at the child's emotional development to see why it's happening.

When they come to you with a problem, seek first to understand. This is obviously important to them. If you don't think so just try to brush them off by saying, "Go talk to them about it". They will most probably just say it louder!

If you really want to help someone, you have to see the problem from their perspective.

Here are 3 common reasons young children tattle.

  1. They don’t know what else to do. They know they’ve been wronged in some way but they also know that it’s not right to simply do it back.

  2. They may want to gain respect in our eyes for knowing that the action is wrong.

  3. They may want to get attention and possibly sympathy from us.

My preferred response is to show the tattler empathy. We don’t want to side with them or punish the other child immediately. We want to help them solve their problem with the least amount of intervention possible in order for them to be successful. In early childhood, we call that scaffolding. (Vygotsky 1896-1934) Here are my top 3 ideas for dealing with tattling

  1. In order to acknowledge the child’s power, listen to them. If you can sit down and talk with them or hold their hand and get down to their level. Remember, this is the child who knows limits and is willing to comply. We don’t want them to feel victimized in any way.

  2. Try saying, “Oh they did? And you already learned not to do that, didn’t you? Hmmm.."

  3. Ask a question that counts. “How do you think we could help them learn that?", or "What did you want to tell them?"

  4. Together, you can decide what’s best and act on it. You might ask the tattler if they already talked to the doer. But don't leave it at that. Remember they asked you for help.

Many years ago I worked with a teacher who responded quickly to any tattling with, “Well, did you talk to them about it?” It seemed like a pretty good answer but it became routine and lost its meaning after a while.

So maybe we need to listen to tattling a little bit harder to understand what's really going on.

Help them to feel like they matter because they really do!

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.

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