George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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

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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 post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

It sounds like you are doing a great job with helping the students see that they are a part of a special community and that they need to respect the property so that it will be there for all of them. I'm worried about the little girl, though. Her behavior doesn't sound at all typical for the age. Is it possible that she is taking things because of some more serious issues she is facing? And if that is the case, it seems like she needs some one-on-one attention, safe from the frustrated eyes of her peers. I know that in my own classroom, I would make contact with the parents if I saw behavior that was so outside of the norm. Is that something you can do for her?

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Love this post and your approach with the kids.

Seems to me (though I'm no Kindergarten expert) that you could frame the act of missing supplies in the context of an interruption of a lesson or project. What would happen if you decided to make a PB&J sandwich and the jelly went missing? Or the knife? By focusing on the impact, you take the focus off the act that removed the object from the classroom. Would it be bad if the lesson were interrupted, or if someone couldn't finish a project because something was missing? Surely. Seems that building support around the idea of ensuring everyone has what they need to be successful would help prevent the behavior from spreading, assuming everyone is invested in that outcome.

Just my $0.02!


Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I love your gentle, yet thoughtful approach. One approach that came to my mind was to create a teachable moment using stealing's opposite -- giving. Perhaps read a book like The Giving Tree to the students so that you can discuss ways in which the tree gives and how it is an act of love. Let students share examples of when they gave something to someone else in a selfless way. Foster that connection, that giving is a sign of love.
You might be able to leave it at that, or you might want to go one step further and ask them to consider what it means when we take without permission. I wouldn't use the word steal, because like you said the stigma that goes along with it, but show them that there is a difference between giving and taking.

Aida Sadr-Kiani's picture
Aida Sadr-Kiani
Former 3rd grade and current K teacher

thanks so much Laura, for reading and your help. I agree, it's (always) time to get the parents on board. I called today and left a message. She was having a great day until I saw that she had taken wheat seeds that were part of our activity on how to make dough and was hiding them in her fist under the table. I'm not that concerned about her. She is a very very young 4 year old and she loves collecting things.. acorns, leaves, pencils, the tops of chapsticks. I think she is just fascinated with trinkets. We'll see what becomes of parent communication!

Aida Sadr-Kiani's picture
Aida Sadr-Kiani
Former 3rd grade and current K teacher

Kevin, fantastic. Thank you. I think the metaphor is a great way to help them see the way removing objects from the class has an affect on them. I think the kids are very invested in the success of the group as a whole, so I think this approach, of making sure we have what we need to do our work, will be sticky with my crowd. I appreciate your thoughts very much

Aida Sadr-Kiani's picture
Aida Sadr-Kiani
Former 3rd grade and current K teacher

Brilliant, Brian. Thank you. I love the classic, but powerful spin of focusing what to do, instead of what not to do. So helpful always. I also like the framing of what it means to take something without permission, because I think that is more accurate to describe what is going on, and what will have more of an impact on their lives, and also yes, I agree the word steal is way to loaded and complicated. This is incredibly helpful. Thank you for reading and sharing

Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Laura's thought was my thought as well. The kids I've had in the past who stole repeatedly were invariably troubled kids. Hope this one is truly just collecting trinkets.

Lots of other good thoughts here as well.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Cenny, I think what I have been doing lately with my daughter is that I try to let her know what she can do int he case that it happened to her. For our case, it wasn't stealing, but hitting. Someone hit her in the playground and she told me about it. So I suggested to her that she needs to tell them 'Don't hit/touch me' very firmly and if they continue to do it, she needs to tell the teacher. Perhaps the same thing can be done for stealing, if your kid sees someone take their stuff, they can speak out and say "don't take it, it's mine" and if the child continues to take the thing, then it's time to get the teacher involved.

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