Gossip in early childhood education programs

“Did you hear about…?” Directors can have a lot of influence over how much gossip goes on in a program.

The essence of gossip is that it is destructive and, in many cases, false information.

The essence of gossip is that it is destructive and, in many cases, false information.

In discussions with early childhood educators and students, many have mentioned that gossiping is a problem in their workplace. Early care and education programs find this destructive practice not only affects employees, but children and families as well. In a business where reputation and image in the community is so important, most programs cannot afford to let negative gossip about people or the program continue unchecked. But, how do we reduce it?

First, let’s establish what we mean by “gossip.” Paraphrasing a definition offered by early childhood education expert Holly Elissa Bruno in her YouTube video, “Voices: Insights from the Field Clip,” gossiping is the act of sharing private information about a person or organization in order to do harm or bring about negative results. In this definition, there is no such thing as “positive gossip.” Another concept that is often associated with gossip is that the information shared is not necessarily true or reliable in any way. So, the essence of gossip is that it is destructive and, in many cases, false information.

We have to ask ourselves why does nearly everyone get involved with gossiping at one time or another. After all, it is destructive in terms of feelings of trust, security and the sense of well-being. It seems to tear groups apart rather than build cohesion. Why do we do it?

There are several reasons people participate in gossiping that are connected with human nature.

  • It is human nature to be curious. If someone offers you some “valuable” information that sounds interesting, you may be very tempted to listen.
  • It is about power. Some people like to have and use power over others. When you are the possessor of valuable information, you seem more powerful to others. Some people feel like they must cut others down in terms of esteem in order to make themselves appear better. Gossiping can relieve feelings of self-doubt or insecurity.
  • It’s human nature to think about other people’s behavior, especially to gain knowledge to protect yourself. You want to know if there are threats to you at your workplace.

Michigan State University Extension has the following examples that may seem familiar to those of us who work in early childhood education and how directors can deal with it:

  1. “Did you hear that the director is excusing Tracy and Angela from having to come into the work day on Saturday like the rest of us? I’ll bet it’s because they are her nieces.” Gossip often seems to focus around an issue of fair treatment such as people getting special privileges from an administrator. There is an attitude of feeling left out of the loop or not getting enough attention. When people feel they don’t get enough information, they will often fill in the blanks with erroneous information. An administrator can reduce this type of gossip by treating all employees fairly and sharing information openly.
  2. This center never gets any new equipment. No wonder parents don’t want to bring their children here.” Staff also complain about the program as a whole, which can be very bad for a program’s reputation. By making unsubstantiated generalizations and unjust projections about family enrollment, a staff member can spread false information about a program. Others may readily believe the gossip because it comes from an “insider.” A director should manage this type of gossip quickly and thoroughly. Again, openness, this time in regard to long-term plans for purchases, can help reduce the spread of misinformation. Directors also should track down such gossip and make it clear to the instigator that it will not be tolerated. General comments about rumors and gossip at a staff meeting or in a newsletter will not be enough to halt most dedicated gossipers, and staff need to be held accountable for their actions as individuals.
  3. “What kind of parent is she? Her child’s hair is always greasy and dirty.” Disparaging and critical remarks about family members are also very destructive. If overheard by other parents, it destroys the trust that is necessary between a family and the teachers. If the gossip engages other staff members, it gives the impression that it’s OK to be judgmental about children or parents. If overheard by children, it causes loss of self-esteem and shame. This type of gossip should also be handled swiftly and decisively. Administrators must insist staff members show respect for children and their family members at all times. Again, staff members who are heard to be gossiping about parents or children must face an individual reprimand, whether the information shared is confidential or not. Some programs adopt a “no-gossip” policy.

Bruno goes on to say that the director can have a lot of influence over how much gossiping goes on in a program. In addition to confronting individual staff members who are gossiping and talking about the destructiveness of gossip in a general way, directors can help reduce staff gossip by following these suggestions:

  • Don’t engage in gossip yourself.
  • Suggest to staff members that if they hear gossip, avoid getting involved by changing the subject or saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.”
  • Let staff members know they can come to an administrator if gossip is causing a problem.

The following resources address gossiping and offer more ways of reducing gossip:

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