A Tattle Tale

Nineteen kindergarten bodies sat listlessly in a circle on a dark rug near the blackboard in the back of their small classroom. They were away from their desks.

heads of two puppetsJames Collins

Some of the children fidgeted. Some of the children looked around at each other. Then Kelly Borneman, their student teacher, wearing her welcoming smile, walked onto the scene. The children peered toward the stage out of the corners of their eyes. They were not yet convinced that anything interesting or out of the ordinary was about to occur in Room 16.

"Gabby and Joey are going to join the circle," Borneman said, her tone gently warning. Some of the children tilted their heads up. Borneman plucked Gabby and Joey from their watchful perch in the corner of the room. Gabby was wearing a pink polka-dot dress with clean, bright white shoes. Her expression was cheerful. Short, wild, curly blond hair framed her face. Joey was meticulously dressed in green sweat pants and a gray football sweatshirt. His black hair was combed perfectly in place. Gabby and Joey were barely smaller than the rest of the children in the circle. The 19 pairs of eyes were not wandering anymore. The children leaned forward as Gabby and Joey were brought to life.

Gabby (yelling): Mrs. Bonner! Mrs. Bonner! Andy took the block that I was using, and I want it back! He just took it! I want it! Mrs. Bonner?!

Joey: Gabby, you're hurting my ears! Stop it!

Gabby: Oh . . . sorry, Joey. I was just trying to get Mrs. Bonner to come over here and make Andy give me my block back.

Joey: You mean you tried asking him and he wouldn't?

Gabby: Well . . . no, but I know he wouldn't! I mean, he took it from me when I was getting ready to use it.

Joey: Wait, so you weren't even using the block when he took it?

Gabby: Well . . . no, but that doesn't matter 'cause I was going to use it! Why won't Mrs. Bonner listen to me?

Gabby's voice was that of Mary Yahner, the State College Area kindergarten teacher for whom Borneman is student teaching. Yahner's right hand was inside Gabby's round head. Her left hand controlled the gestures of Gabby's small left hand. Borneman was beside Yahner, her right hand nestled in Joey's head. She was sitting in a tiny chair certainly not designed for her, but she didn't appear uncomfortable.

Since coming to student teach with Yahner in September 2001, Borneman saw that as kindergarten children learn new social skills, they are also learning how to control their behavior. Each day, she and Yahner dealt with tattling, whining, and the ubiquitous "you're-not-my-friend-anymore" threats typical to kindergarten classrooms. Simple time-outs—where the child is asked to sit in a certain chair and think about what he or she has done—or scolding a child with "don't do that," were not significantly changing their behavior.

In October, Borneman and Yahner, along with the other kindergarten teachers in the State College Area School District, attended a conference called "Using Puppets to Teach Conflict Resolution in Kindergarten." The school district had decided to purchase two puppets for each kindergarten classroom and to train teachers to use them to resolve conflicts. Yahner has used puppets in the classroom before for such purposes as "community building" (to promote classroom unity), as well as for teaching lessons. Sally Spider was a favorite with Yahner's children as she taught them vocabulary and spelling with her "word web." Puppets in general have been a popular teaching tool for centuries. More recently, Jim Henson's Sesame Street, on the air since 1969, has taught children counting, the alphabet, Spanish, and sign-language, as well as social skills, using lovable monster puppets like Elmo and the Cookie Monster. Yet the idea of using puppets specifically to resolve conflicts is new, and little academic research has been done on it. After attending the conference, Borneman and Yahner began using Gabby and Joey to illustrate conflict resolution for the children, and Borneman decided to focus her senior thesis project at Penn State, where she is getting a degree in elementary education, on the topic.

curly haired puppetJames Collins

Borneman writes the scripts for the puppet shows that are performed once or twice a week in the classroom. She also generates questions for a discussion following the show. Gabby and Joey are also used in a more casual, impromptu setting. When a conflict arises in the classroom, the puppets will often be used to start a discussion. Borneman believes that it helps the children to "have someone else to talk to other than their teachers." Also, the children have "sharing time" with Gabby and Joey at the end of the day when they are able to "get to know" the puppets better and learn to trust them, Borneman says, "by sharing with them and telling them things they liked during the day. In this way, they become familiar with Joey and Gabby and come to look at them as friends," explains Borneman. "They learn to trust them."

The children do not realize that Joey and Gabby's classroom is a parallel for their own, or that the name "Mrs. Bonner" is just a creative way to combine the names Borneman and Yahner, their own teachers. For this reason, Borneman and Yahner chose to wait to do the puppet show on tattling until the children had viewed a few other puppet shows. Borneman believes that once the children trust Gabby and Joey and consider them their friends, they are "able to handle shows like the tattling one, in which they take the puppets seriously and do not mistake the message as a humorous one."

Tattling is a tough problem for young children to comprehend because it is not an inherently wrong behavior. Tattling in Borneman's classroom is "when something minor happens, not necessarily to the student who does the tattling, and the student comes running up to the teacher to report it. Also, tattling is when something minor happens and a child doesn't attempt to work it out on his or her own before running to the teacher," for instance, when one child accidentally knocks over another's block tower or bumps another's arm when he or she is coloring. Oftentimes, Borneman explains, the children do not even know that they are tattling. With Gabby and Joey, she has the ability to illustrate tattling to the children, rather than just defining it for them.

Gabby: Well, Mrs. Bonner told us tattling meant coming to the teacher about our problems without trying to handle them ourselves first.

Joey: Uh-huh . . .

Gabby: So . . . (realizing what she did) . . . oh . . . but, he just made me so upset and I just wanted Mrs. Bonner to make him give it back!

Joey: I know, I bet Andy didn't even realize you were using that block.

Gabby: Maybe . . . oh, Joey! Not tattling is tough!

black haired puppetJames Collins

The 19 small faces were attentive to the scene occurring in front of them. The children were sitting straight up and rather than staring across the circle or up at the ceiling, their eyes were fixed on Gabby and Joey. They were eager to help Gabby stop her tattling. They were thinking through her problem, guided by the script of the puppet show. Through the script, Borneman gave them a solution: how she would like them to handle such a conflict.

Gabby: How do you remember not to tattle?

Joey: Well, whenever I get angry, I take a deep breath and tell the other person how they made me feel. A lot of the time, whoever it is didn't know they were being mean, and then they say they're sorry, and then we just keep playing.

Gabby: Does that usually work?

The children listened as Joey reassured Gabby that it does. Joey then turned to the children in the circle and asked "what the Room 16 Team has to say about tattling." Using Joey, Borneman asked the children what she calls "reflective questions," designed to make the children think, much like a time-out, but instead with a chance to think aloud and to listen to others.

"Have you ever tattled on someone?" Joey asked. Shyly, a few hands went up. "How does tattling make you feel?" More hands shot up. "Bad!" "Sad!" Then something changed in the conversation. Borneman's "reflective questions" had created an open forum for discussion in her kindergarten classroom.

One young girl, "Jane," told the class how she feels when someone tattles on her. She explained, voice quavering, how her brother and sister always tattle on her when she has done nothing wrong, and then she ends up getting in trouble for it. The teachers and puppets nodded empathetically. Other children seemed to relate to Jane's comment, as more hands went up. One girl suggested that Jane could tell her mother that she's not doing anything wrong, and explain why it makes her upset. Borneman concurred, agreeing with the idea to give her mother what she calls "a good 'I feel' message." Borneman has taught the children to talk about their feelings when someone has hurt them, and to let the person know how they feel. Through the "I feel" method of problem solving she is teaching, Borneman has not so much seen their behavior change outwardly as she has noticed the children being more reflective in their problem solving.

Although problems do still arise in the classroom, the children "stop and think before they react in most cases," she says, "and I often hear them tell each other, 'That's not something Gabby or Joey would do.'" That reflection is what Borneman is striving for by showing the children these puppet shows and encouraging them to interact with Gabby and Joey. She wants the children to be able to understand the feelings of others as well as their own feelings. Through this understanding, they will be able to relate better to others.

Borneman wants the children to know that it's okay for Gabby to believe someone like Andy, when he takes her block and says he didn't know she was going to use it. It's okay to believe it was an accident when one of the children's magnificent block towers gets knocked over. She wants the children to know that they can actually resolve their own problems without her having to intercede right away. The puppet shows bring such problems to life, and most importantly, provide a solution. "The puppet shows generate a dialogue among the children," Borneman says. They work together as a team to solve these "practice problems" for life.

Borneman feels that by "swapping places with the teachers," lessons from Gabby and Joey will be more understandable and memorable because there is someone new for the children to talk to, someone who is their friend, someone who is their own age. The puppets are on the same level as the children, struggling with the same problems, asking them for help.

When the reflective discussion that follows the puppet show concludes, Gabby and Joey are left in the corner of the room, their four watchful eyes aimed toward the center of the classroom. Often, when a conflict arises, Borneman will remind the children, "Gabby and Joey are watching, what would they do?"

For example, a few hours after the puppet show on tattling, Borneman heard one of the children coming up toward her, apparently wanting to report a tragedy with his blocks. Then, she heard another child yell, "No, you can't tattle!" Immediately, the first child turned around and found some other way to resolve his problem. Borneman smiled. The child had taken a moment to stop and think when his friend helped him remember that tattling was wrong.

two women hold puppets in class in front of sitting childrenJames Collins

Puppets give kindergartners someone their own size to confide in. Teacher Mary Yahner and student teacher Kelly Borneman use them to resolve conflicts and explain such concepts as tattling."

Kelly Borneman graduated in May 2002 with a B.A. and honors in elementary education from the College of Education and the Schreyer Honors College. Her adviser is Jim Nolan, Ph.D., professor of education in the College of Education, 148 Chambers Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2243; Mary Yahner is a kindergarten teacher at Radio Park Elementary School in State College, PA.

Last Updated January 10, 2014