Classroom Management

What Does Stealing Look Like and How Do You Address It?

There is an act that almost always falls outside the teacher’s gaze: when a child takes something from the classroom that doesn't belong to them.  One girl in my class has recently developed this habit. She wraps pencils, markers, pens, in her sweatshirt, coils up her sweatshirt, and carries it around like an oversized baby.  Often a part of the writing utensil will jab out, and I notice what she is hiding.  

Recently other kids have been noticing it as well.  The first time it happened, I addressed it with the whole class.  When I first solicited their thoughts on why it is important to leave materials in the classroom, they responded with the stock reasoning of “so you won’t get in trouble.”  I dread when they say that, similar to when they say “so the teacher won’t get mad at you.”

First of all, I dread these responses because I want students to develop a deeper understanding of consequences, and interconnectedness, than being othered in trouble.  Furthermore, it is uncomfortable for me to hear them refer to me in an anonymous third person when I am sitting with them: “the teacher”? I still sometimes have to remind myself that I am “the teacher” - with that singular article. 

The girl kept taking things from the classroom, even after our first whole class meeting. (Or is it stealing? I hesitate to use this word because of the stigma, and identity that goes with it. It also feels disproportional. At the same time, I worry that I am being too soft and not conveying the severity of the act, especially if extrapolated. Perhaps I should refer to it as stealing?)

On Friday, one boy noticed that our sticky fingered community member had put a black Crayola marker in her backpack. He called out in the middle of the class to point it out. We had a class wide meeting ( the act was already made public because he called out) and I asked them how they felt about her was taking stuff from the class. One girl said angry, another said sad, another said frustrated. I was excited that opening the meeting with the question of their emotions diverted their attention to the concept that she was in trouble by me.

However my excitement was short-lived. As I pushed them to explain why they were feeling mad, one of my most expressive students said “ I feel mad because you are taking stuff that belongs to Ms. Sadr-Kiani.” Once again, I was the center of their classroom-universe, and they weren’t understanding how her actions were hurting them. I quickly jumped in and explained that it wasn’t my crayola marker. I showed them my untouchable set of scented markers that I use to make my posters, or mark their work with, and pointed out that the people who use the Crayola markers are them, trying to direct their attention towards themselves again, and realize that she was taking a marker from them. At an age where sharing is so difficult, I was surprised how quickly they were able to lose possession of a marker which they often tug over.

By the end of our discussion, I turned to the girl who was responsible for taking the marker, and in a calm tone told her that she was not in ‘trouble’ the way students were first worried.  I said that she keeps making the same mistake, and hopefully she hears how she is making her classmates feel. I felt that sitting and hearing how everyone feels angry with you was trouble enough.  

She said the robotic “sorry” to the class, that they have been taught to say when they do something to hurt the community. I’m not sure how much she felt sorry, and how ‘mad’ the other students actually felt. There is no way to measure authenticity or magnitude of emotions. 10 minutes later, when she was having difficulty spelling the word “ cheese”, the boy who felt ‘frustrated’ with her, was the first to offer to help her out.  We’ll see if she continues to take things from the classroom, and how students respond.  

I myself have little patience for it at this point, as I have provided her with numerous strategies, including asking if she wants something, and I’ll be curious if the kids next time are less likely to be forgiving.  The good news is that I don’t think I have to worry that the habit will spread.  There is the fear that if she takes from the classroom, other kids will as well, but I think I’m safe to say that there are enough buffers in the class, amongst students, to make sure this won’t spread.  

I’d love ideas on how to frame the act of taking things from the classroom with the students, how to prevent it from spreading, and overall, remove my wrath from their notion of consequences.  I’m happy to stay in the picture if they are able to supplement it with the disappointment of their fellow classmates as well, but this will take more than a semantic insertion.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.