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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What to Do When Students Lie

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

When I was school age, I never told a lie, but I bet many of you readers have lied in your youth. Okay, so maybe I did lie a few times . . . All of us have encountered students who've told us lies during our professional careers. One of the best I heard recently was when a teacher confronted a student for copying, word for word, from Wikipedia. The student responded, "I can't help it if Wikipedia copied my paper!"

Last week I asked graduate students in my behavior management class if any of them lied in school and why they did so. All students raised their hands, and the reasons filled an entire white board. Realizing the universality and difficulty of this issue, I determined the most common categories of student lying that teachers face.

For the purposes of this post, I chose not to include those issues -- like compulsive lying -- that required interventions beyond the scope of teachers and might even require a psychologist. And due to space constraints, I left out categories that I had no valuable answer worth sharing beyond the obvious, such as lying because of a threat of harm if the truth were told. Some of the categories are very similar to others with only a hair's breadth between them. I offer to you the most significant types of lying, along with some suggestions for dealing with the students who see the truth differently than you do. In all sample dialogues, assume the student is lying.

The Student Who Truly Believes the Lie

This is one of the most difficult situations: when the student truly believes that his lie is the truth. One reason that a student might not realize that he is lying is simply that he sees things differently than you. Even when dealing with facts, different people select facts differently. That's why we debate gun safety, immigration and so many other issues. All sides have facts, but those facts are selective. I'm reminded of the Talking Heads song, “Crosseyed and Painless," which includes the line, "Facts don't do what I want them to." One solution is for both you and the student to reframe the discussion into one where you both can find common ground. (See my post about how to see things in a new way.) Here is an example:

Student: "I never hit Rachael."
Teacher: "Sometimes what you call hitting is different than what I call hitting. Let's find a way to agree on what hitting is."

A more difficult issue is that humans tend to think a lie is true once they say it three or more times. Thus, sometimes students lie but truly believe that they are telling the truth. The best way to handle this case is similar to reframing. Ask the student if other possibilities exist, and how possible these alternatives are.

Student: "My mother says I need to have my cell phone on in case she needs to call me."
Teacher: "She might have said that, but there are other things she might have said. Let's think of all the things your mother might say about cell phones and see which are the ones she might have said about you having your phone on right now."

The Student Who Lies to Improve Self-Concept

Students who need to feel better about themselves often lie to look better. The long-term solution is to help the student build on her strengths and take pride in what she is good at, while simultaneously learning that no one is good at everything. The short-term solution is to redirect the conversation to something real that the student can feel real pride in.

Student: "I am the best baseball player in the school."
Teacher: "I know you are real good at throwing a ball, and with practice I bet you can become a very good ballplayer. I'm glad that you want to improve enough to be very good."

The Student Who Lies to Avoid Punishment or Gain a Reward

My feeling on this issue is well known to most readers of my posts. I believe that rewards and punishments are ineffective interventions that are best used in a small amount of individual cases. However, if students do lie because of fear of punishment or wanting a reward, the first step is to lower the stakes so that neither is so important. Secondly focus what the child did or didn't do in terms of specific behavior, not generalities.

Student: "I don't fight anymore, so can I have a doughnut?"
Teacher: "Tell me what you do when you get angry, and show me how you did it."

The Student Who Lies to Protect Others

As a child, there is nothing worse than losing the trust of your friends. The highest value in gangs is loyalty. In general, the only way to overcome this is to develop a loyalty equal to the loyalty of peers, so that betraying you, the teacher, by lying goes against the same value. If presented with a lie, nothing short of an interrogation can change the student's response. Accept it and move on.

Student: "Jose didn't take those books. I know."
Teacher: "Thank you for your input. Can you think of a way that no one will steal anything else in class?"

The Student Who Lies for Fun

Sometimes students lie just for fun or to get attention. Often, in this case, students want to see if they can get over on you. One way to play it is to up the ante by playing along and increasing the story line.

Student: "Yesterday I climbed Mount Hood. It was great."
Teacher: “I once climbed Mount Hood and Mount Rainier in one day. It was great, too."

This changes a lie into a fun game and removes the reason for the lie by making it ineffective as a way to fool you.

The Student Who Lies to Hurt Others or Get Even

Sometimes if a student is angry with another student or teacher, that student might act passively aggressive by making false negative claims against them. When these accusations appear in social media, they can be very damaging, but that issue is big enough to require a post of its own. Respond such claims by determining or making an informed guess if the student is telling you that he is in some kind of danger, possibly by a bully. If that is the case, then an intervention with the bully is in order. If not, then explain that you don't gossip; that, for confidentiality reasons, it is against the law for you to talk about other students; and that there is nothing else to discuss. Use the same strategy when a student talks negatively about another teacher. Thus the lie has no traction and stops reinforcing lying as a way to hurt others. It is also a good idea to talk with the whole class about gossip and your unwillingness to participate in it.

Student: "Mr. Raymond is a mean teacher and always picks on me."
Teacher: "You know that talking about others is called gossip, and that we don't gossip in this class."

The Student Who Lies to be Accepted in a Group or to be Popular

Teach the child the social skills required to make friends, so the need to lie is reduced. Not everyone knows these skills, and others know them but don't use them. Help the student by practicing these skills the same way that a coach practices a football play.

Teacher: "Others will like you better if you don't interrupt them. Let me show you what I mean, and we can practice until you are better at it."

Obviously, a direct confrontation accusing the student of lying is always an option. Sometimes it is the best option. There are students who need to be directly called out for lying and told it will not be accepted. Mostly, this strategy is best saved for malicious or sociopathic students. But if you are wrong, you will lose that student forever, and even if you are right, the outcome might worsen your ability of reaching that student.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. And, should you decide to leave a comment below, please tell the truth!

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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