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Debra Matell Cohen, Ed.D.

John Winthrop Wright Director of Ethical Education


Approximately 66% of adults who acknowledge stealing during their lifetime reported beginning before age 15, including stealing in school. This number does not include the common example of students who realize in July that they didn’t return a book to the school library before the end of the school year. Stealing in schools is intentionally taking what belongs to someone else without permission. This could be theft of property from another student, a faculty member, or from the school itself. And although plagiarism is technically the theft of another’s work, I’ll discuss student plagiarism in our next series on cheating.

So, what can teachers do when they encounter students stealing? Here’s what I recommend:

1. Remain calm. You can’t help the student if your emotions are controlling you. Keep your emotions in check. Leah Davies, M.Ed. reminds educators it’s important to show your disapproval in a straightforward manner.

2. Ask the student why. Find the opportunity to speak privately with the student. Find out why she decided to steal. Ask open-ended questions. Hear her out. Dr. Kenneth Shore points out it’s important to keep the information confidential in order to maintain the student’s privacy and prevent her from being shunned by fellow students.

3. Create the teaching moment. In a developmentally-appropriate way, talk to the students about why stealing is wrong. I also encourage you to weave into your conversation how stealing conflicts with the core values of the school. 

4. Discuss consequences, including restitution. Involve the student in figuring out how he can best return the item without being watched or shamed. You should also share with the student that you will do everything you can to ensure that his fellow students do not find out that he has stolen something. Your discussion of consequences should be specific without lecturing or shaming.

5. Involve others if the behavior persists. You should speak to the school principal (and parents) if the student is repeatedly stealing. 

So, what can teachers do to help prevent stealing in schools? The most important step is to ensure that the entire school reinforces the importance of honesty and why taking someone else’s property is wrong. Teachers should reinforce this message not only in their classrooms but also during Open House and Back to School Nights. Teachers can also suggest to parents that they discourage their children from bringing a valuable item to school (or at least the item should have the child’s name on it). Guidance counselors and other school leaders should also emphasize why stealing is wrong. Some schools enlist the help of a local police officer to help students better understand why stealing is a crime. Finally, many schools find ways to recognize students for their honest behavior (especially when no one was watching).

Teachers have a special role in helping students develop habits of honesty that will last a lifetime. Our goal is not simply to explain to students the negative consequences of stealing, but to inspire students to be honest as part of their character – no matter where they go or what they do in life.

Read the previous part of this series, Why Do Kids Lie? and sign up to receive the “Ethics in Action” blog and webinar series in your Inbox. Be sure to subscribe to receive Parts 4 and 5 in the Why Do Kids Steal? series:

Part 4: What Workplace Leaders Can Do When Their Employees are Stealing
Part 5: Webinar: An Interview with an Expert on Why People Steal

Following this part of our series, we will also explore Why Do Kids Cheat?


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