Chronic Lying: Addressing This Difficult Behavior

Lying is a form of self protection. Getty/Banksphotos

Special educators will undoubtedly meet and teach students who seem to have difficulty telling the truth. Some of them may blame others to avoid getting in trouble, and others may embroider elaborate stories as a means to join conversations. For some, it may be part of an emotional or behavioral disorder.

Behaviors and Coping Mechanisms

The child who exaggerates, tells lies or distorts the truth does so for a variety of reasons.

A behavioral (ABA) approach will always focus on the function of the behavior, which in this case, is the lying.   Behaviorists identify four basic functions for behavior: avoidance or escape, to acquire something they want, to get attention, or to acquire power or control. The same is true of lying.

Often, children have learned a specific set of coping mechanisms. These are learned to avoid bringing attention to their disability or inability to perform academically. They also may come from families that have poor coping mechanisms, mental health issues, or addiction problems.

The 4 Basic Functions of Behavior

  • Avoidance or escape.
    Students will often lie to avoid or escape a task they don't want to do or to avoid consequences that go with not completing an assignment or homework. If a student comes from a punitive home or has only experienced school as a punitive environment, it is common for students to lie. They do this to avoid the kind of punishment or shaming they have experienced at home or in a general education classroom, such as a teacher screaming.
  • Acquire something they want.
    Everyone sometimes shades the truth to get something they want. Children from homes that cannot or will not provide coveted items often will steal and then lie in order to get items that they would not generally have access to. This may include bright pencils, fun erasers in fun shapes, or highly desirable toys or games, such as Pokemon cards or electronic games. 
  • Attention.
    Chronic lying often falls in this category, though what a child may exhibit is, in fact, poor social skills and the desire to command the attention of other students. They may create elaborate or fantastical stories that have no basis in truth but are in response to something the teacher or another student has said. Whether the purpose is to get attention by making extraordinary claims, like "My uncle is a movie star," or fantasy, "I went to Paris with my cousins," positive attention for real accomplishments will reinforce the correct and truthful behavior. 
  • Power.
    Students who feel powerless or out of control may use lying in order to control the teacher, his or her peers, or another significant adult. Students may want to get their classmates in trouble, sometimes breaking or ruining something in the classroom on purpose.

Chronic or habitual liars rarely feel good about themselves. It is recommended to look for patterns in the child's lying. Consider if the lying only occurs at specific times or in specific situations. When one has identified the function or purpose of the behavior, they can plan appropriate interventions. 

12 Interventions and Tips

  1. Always model telling the truth and avoiding little white lies.
  1. In small groups, role-play with students on the value of telling the truth. This will take time and some patience. Identify telling the truth as a classroom value.
  2. Role-play the potentially devastating consequences of lying.
  3. Do not accept excuses for lying, as lying is not acceptable.
  4. Children should understand the hurtful consequences of lying and whenever possible, they should apologize for lying.
  5. Logical consequences need to be in place for the child who lies.
  6. Children will lie to protect themselves from the punishment of scolding. Avoid scolding but maintain a calm demeanor. Thank children for telling the truth. Apply a lesser consequence for a student who takes responsibility for their actions.
  7. Do not punish students for accidents. Cleaning up or apologizing should be the most appropriate consequence.
  1. Children need to be part of the solution and consequences. Ask them what they are prepared to give or do as a result of the lie.
  2. Teachers can remind the child that they are upset with what he/she did. They should reinforce that it's not the child but what he/she did that is upsetting and let him/her know why the disappointment is there.
  3. Teachers can also catch the chronic liar telling the truth at a time when they know he/she would excuse or lie about an accident/misbehavior.  
  4. Avoid lectures and quick irrational threats. For example, avoid, "If you lie again, you'll lose your recess for the rest of the year."
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Your Citation
Watson, Sue. "Chronic Lying: Addressing This Difficult Behavior." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2017, Watson, Sue. (2017, October 7). Chronic Lying: Addressing This Difficult Behavior. Retrieved from Watson, Sue. "Chronic Lying: Addressing This Difficult Behavior." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 18, 2018).