Misdirection in Bullying Prevention

Before embarking on a bullying prevention path, schools should take stock of what is already in place and reflect on how effective these efforts have been. This is especially important, as some of the traditional ways of approaching bullying prevention result in more damage to the school culture and to students themselves.

For example, zero tolerance, the rigid and inflexible approach to enforcing school policy, was listed in 2016 by the National Academies of Science as a non-approach to bullying prevention. Zero tolerance damages a school culture with its emphasis on control and an absence of growth and support. It also becomes interconnected with disproportionality, as students of color are suspended and/or expelled at higher rates than white students. Reports of bullying incidents decrease, not only because of the harsh penalties imposed, but also because of the fear of retaliation. The stakes are just too high.

Some adults believe that bullying is best resolved by the children and young adults and engage in another misdirection: giving advice only.  Giving advice without any other assistance and support may be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Adults are the first line of defense, as they are responsible for providing the safe and supportive environments that deter bullying behavior. Because they are also the ones who establish and enforce policy that address bullying behavior, adults should be the ones to intervene in a bullying situation. In a study from Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, students reported that traditional advice from adults, such as demanding the behavior to stop or sharing with the aggressor how it makes the targeted young person feel, is perceived as making an already bad situation worse. The NAS Panel concluded that one particular ineffective piece of advice, fighting back, translated into action may “escalate the level of violence” and bring more harm to those involved. 

The most effective bullying prevention efforts are a part of a systemic and comprehensive school culture initiative. When we engage in practices such as zero tolerance and giving advice only, we are doing more harm than good.

As Maya Angelou has taught us, "Do the best you can until you know better. 
Then, when you know better, do better.


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