Bullying: Why Zero-Tolerance Doesn’t Work

Anti-bullying programs are well-intentioned. But only real skills work.

Anti-bullying programs are well-intentioned. But only real skills work.

When grown-ups realized bullying was a big, bad problem, they did what they usually do: they banned it. Zero-tolerance. Automatic suspension. Kids forced to sign contracts to report bullies.

Now the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, an independent government advisory group, reports that zero-tolerance policies in schools don’t work. That’s no surprise.

You can’t solve a problem by wishing it away. Or banning it. Or expressing zero-tolerance. But you can change a bullying kid and a bullying culture. Yes, it’s completely possible, but it takes hard work.

When stories of zero-tolerance for bullies began reaching my ears a few years ago, I knew the programs would fail. Why? Because changing human behavior means confronting difficult feelings and teaching new skills. Just saying “no” to bullying does not work. Kids need skills to deal with the conflict. So do the adults around them.

As one of the report’s authors said, zero-tolerance programs don’t work because they don’t provide “skill training or replacement behaviors.”

Bullying is one type – and a common type – of conflict. Confronting and reducing bullying requires first and foremost a willingness to confront conflict both by the kids and the adults around them. It can’t be conveniently outlawed (think alcohol and Prohibition). It can’t be removed by singing peace and friendship songs. People need actual training in the art of conflict mediation. This training can begin as young as age two. It’s also never too late. Teens and adults can learn.

To tackle bullying we need different tools: Courage. Honesty. Time. New skills. An effective anti-bullying program involves deep feelings, conflict confrontation and opening minds to new ideas. These take time, and can be somewhat messy, but together children and the adults who support them will emerge stronger and kinder for the effort.

Has your school got it right? How is bullying handled where you live? What stories do you have to share? Have you seen zero-tolerance being phased out and replaced with more effective training?

Be courageous. Take the first steps towards anti-bullying. Dive into the wonderful world of conflict mediation. It starts by kids standing up for themselves. It starts by kids expressing emotions — even big, scary ones – appropriately.

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3 Responses to Bullying: Why Zero-Tolerance Doesn’t Work

  1. Makes sense to me.

  2. “You can’t solve a problem by wishing it away. Or banning it. Or expressing zero-tolerance.”

    That quote should be sent to every lawmaker, legislator, policy maker, school official, and rule maker in the country. Too often, well-intentioned, but misguided and/ or lazy adults believe that simply passing a law will fix any problem that comes up.

    Our local school district has typical anti-bullying policies that are as ineffectual as most.


  3. Jan Waters says:

    Great Heather! As usual, you are right on! Kids have to learn what to do not just what not to do. Jan Waters