Linda Warden had been aware of a pupil's tendency to tell "stories" for some time, but never saw it as a major issue. The fibs he told were usually obvious to everyone involved. It seemed as though it was nothing more than a passing phase.
"I occasionally prompted him gently to tell the truth, but the boy was only 11 at the time and I was convinced the behaviour would dwindle," she says. "Until one afternoon he approached me in tears, saying his father had died the previous morning."
After speaking to the head of year, Mrs Warden decided that she would have to contact the child's parents. "The boy's mother calmly informed me that her husband was alive and well," she says. "I think she was aware of her son's tendency to lie."
Persistent lying of this type is a sensitive issue and must be handled accordingly. Primarily, teachers should try to understand the reasons behind the child displaying this behaviour. "Children may feel they need to compensate for other things in their day-to-day existence and so choose to embellish certain aspects of their lives," says David Allaway, educational content director at consultancy Behaviour UK Ltd. "A child whose father works in a warehouse may "embellish" the father's work and say he works with celebrities in a media post."
This kind of behaviour is most common with children who have a history of peer relationship difficulties and are struggling to establish their place or value in the peer group, suggests clinical psychologist Susan Krasner. "The examples of the lies this boy is telling may suggest desperate attempts to establish credentials that will prompt others to look up to him in some way or mark him out as 'worthy' of discussion and interest from his peers," she says.
At other times, the child may wish to elicit pity and attention from teachers and peers. "This young boy may be lying because the reality of home life is too painful to contemplate," says Dr Krasner. "Parental stresses such as marital disharmony, family illness, unemployment and financial stresses can have an impact on a child and trigger inappropriate behaviours."
Lying of this nature can similarly be indicative of low self-esteem and this may be caused not only by difficulties with peer relationships, but also by academic difficulties. "If the child is struggling to perceive himself as able to keep up with his peers academically, then this too may be a factor," says Dr Krasner.
In the first instance, the teacher might be able to explore some of these areas gently with the pupil to try to establish why the lying is occurring. "From my experience it is better not to use the word 'lying' in front of the pupil," says Mrs Warden. "It is preferable to use phrases such as 'You need to be more up-front with me' or 'You need to be honest with me'. I think this relaxes the encounter and makes it more likely that you will get to the bottom of the situation."
"Try to explain to the child that they don't need to resort to lying about their life and that they are respected and liked as they are," suggests Mr Allaway. "This will build the child's confidence and self-esteem."
As a further preventive measure, the teacher may need to get parents involved. "Together they can deal with the issue and the child may feel less willing to proffer a lie if he knows that the school and the family communicate, as the lie will then soon be detected," says Mr Allaway.
In addition, the teacher may want to initiate interventions ranging from school-based help with establishing friends, through to supporting a family's referral to child and family psychological services.
The issue may also need to be addressed in class. Mr Allaway says: "The teacher could present a lesson about trust and honesty in relationships and why it is important."
Next week Teacher's Bribery
- Try to establish why the lying is occurring.
- Get the parents involved.
- Remember that lying is purposeful behaviour that can be minimized by appropriate monitoring, sensitivity and understanding.
- Monitor the pupil's behaviour without over-involvement, to see if the behaviour persists.
- Confront the child in front of other pupils.
- Use the word "lie". Use different terminology.