When Kids Are Afraid to Tell Teachers About Bullying—That Is a Problem

In this op-ed, a first-grade teacher shares why teachers must create environments where kids aren't afraid to report bullying.

Bullied kids need to know that their teachers are not going to ignore what is happening. (Photo: Ray Pietro)
is a first grade teacher and was the 2008 Delaware Teacher of the Year.

When I first started teaching, I wasn’t exactly sure how I should respond to tattling. I wanted children to tell me what was going on, but I didn’t want to hear everything, did I?  After all, how did I know if a child was tattling to get someone in trouble, or telling me information that would help another child?

Then I started hearing and reading about children who were saying their teachers weren’t doing anything about bullying. Or, when they told their teachers about acts of meanness, they were getting scolded...for tattling.

This was my “a-ha” moment: Was the “no tattling rule” really more important than stopping mean behavior? I realized that whether explicitly stated or conveyed nonverbally, children were learning not to tell teachers or other adults in school about anything.

This really shocked me, and it caused me to think about my role in this. I became determined to change what I taught children about reporting mean behavior and how I responded to them. And I started by getting rid of that troublesome word: tattling. Instead, I replaced it with a word free of negative connotations: reporting.

Learning when and how to “tattle”—I mean when and how to report incidents—is extremely important to preventing bullying and building a safe and caring learning community in the classroom.

When acts of meanness, small or large, go unchecked, disrespectful and mean behavior becomes the norm. Over time, this creates a culture of meanness that eventually can grow to permeate the entire classroom or school.

Parents and educators should redefine tattling as reporting and teach children why it’s important to report hurtful behavior to an adult in order to help keep someone else safe. Teaching young children how to “report” may have lasting effects, and help prevent some of the awful incidents of violence that have occurred in our high schools. 

As a more experienced, and hopefully wiser, teacher now, I listen carefully first and then determine what to do with the information children share with me. On the first day of school, I tell my students, “My most important job at school is to keep you safe.” I also make sure parents know it’s a message I take very seriously.

I go on to tell my students, “If someone is being mean to you—hurting you on the outside or on the inside—I need you to tell me.” They learn quickly that kindness is valued and meanness is not allowed. As a community, we learn better ways to take care of each other. We spend lots of time strengthening our skills of cooperation and problem-solving.

But, even with all of this proactive work, children will still test limits and experiment with how to treat each other. Because I know this, we model, we practice, and we role-play what to do when someone is unkind to someone else.

We get really good at identifying when we need to tell an adult and what we should say. A dilemma we face is that much of the meanness and bullying goes on when teachers aren’t around—at lunchtime, recess, in the hallways, and just before and after school.

Teachers can’t be everywhere and even if we could, we can’t see everything. We need to prepare our students to get help outside the safety of our classrooms.   

When children tell us about bullying behavior, we adults need to intervene and send the message that we will not let this continue. Children need to know we are going to help them.

As teachers, we need to think carefully about our responses when children come to us and share information.

As teachers, we need to think carefully about our responses when children come to us and share information. When they tell us that something is happening to them or to someone else, they should know that we will help them.

We need to show them that the information they shared with us will not be ignored and that the adults in the school will help them.

When it comes to tattling reporting, we need children to have the skills and courage to tell us about problems they’re noticing. Because we teachers can’t stop what we don’t see or hear—or know about.

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