Many efforts towards bullying prevention fail because they’re organized around all the wrong principles. If you want to make actual strides in addressing this problem, it’s important to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to bullying prevention.

What DOES NOT Work in Bullying Prevention?

1. Get-tough initiatives DO NOT work

Whenever a problem rises to the level of social awareness, the knee-jerk response is to always “get tough” on it, as if the problem were a stuck valve that would be miraculously fixed by putting a little more muscle into it. No matter what the problem, this approach absolutely, unequivocally, never, ever works. No, not ever! Not even once in all of history. Decades of research in psychology and sociology point to the folly of this approach. Yet we continue to turn to it as a hail-Mary pass for our complicated social problems.

“If making an example out of a teenager would successfully change behavior,” says Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist, “we’d have a pretty well-behaved country of adolescents.” (Week, 11-12-2010) Carrots and sticks (especially the sticks part) will only work to a limited degree, and in certain ways. Threat of punishment may nudge certain behaviors, but it will never overcome them when other powerful forces are pushing in the other direction. We have some of the harshest punishments in the world, yet tens of millions of Americans use illicit drugs, tens of millions more drink and drive, hundreds of millions speed or ignore traffic laws despite the threat of a harsh fine. If getting tough worked, these problems should have long been fixed. Yet they remain just as prevalent as ever, and many are getting worse.

Bullying is even more resistant to this type of approach. For starters, it’s difficult to define. It’s also widespread and often arises spontaneously out of complex social situations. Those who bully are also frequently victims, and vice versa. Should we save and punish them at the same time? But most of all, those who bully are not evil monsters; but usually insecure, inexperienced youth. Even in the worst of cases where the perpetrators seem so cold-hearted and unapologetic, these are kids who have learned (from somewhere) destructive ways of trying to establish themselves in the social realm. They need correction and guidance, not punishment. I find it amusing that many of the same hypocrites who pretend to care about kids in one circumstance will then turn around and advocate for policies that harm or destroy them on the other. We do not need another excuse to flush more young lives down the drain of a broken and barbaric penal system. Get tough policies will do nothing but make examples out of certain unlucky youth, disproportionately punishing them while potentially destroying their future in the process, while doing nothing to address the underlying causes which create bullying in the first place.

2. Zero-tolerance policies DO NOT work

Zero-tolerance policies are another thing that sound great in the heat of anger but fail miserably in practice. Zero-tolerance essentially says, “We’re going to take away the ability to reason and act rationally on a case by case basis,” which is why zero-tolerance policies lead to things like 7-year-old girls being hauled away in handcuffs because she brought a kitchen knife to school to cut her birthday cake with. When it comes to bullying, zero-tolerance policies result in arbitrary punishments, meting out the same discipline to a student who might utter a mean remark in anger that the teacher overhears as a regular bully who constantly harasses other children.

Schools and teachers need the discretion to act in each case according to its own unique merits, and zero-tolerance rules only complicate the situation. Like get-tough policies, they also focus more around punishment than correction, and can lead to unnecessary suspensions or expulsions that start a chain reaction, impeding a child’s future and creating bigger problems for society down the road.

3. Quick fixes DO NOT work to prevent bullying

There are many school bullying prevention programs that pretend as though watching this particular video series or completing a 12-week, 20 minute a day bullying curriculum will suddenly make children see the light, thus curing a school of their ills. While such programs can’t hurt, they’re unlikely to do much to help in the long-run. There are many underlying problems that help fuel the bullying epidemic, and so offering a topical solution without addressing these underlying causes is like trying to fix a severed limb with a band-aid. Bullying won’t be fixed simply by lecturing to kids. It requires a multi-faceted, ongoing approach that begins in elementary school and continues throughout high-school.

What HAS Been Proven to Work in Bullying Prevention

1.    Better supervision

Decades of research has found that the single most effective deterrent to bullying is adult authority and supervision.

2.    Greater integration between students

Bullying researchers observe that “it becomes more difficult to judge harshly and denigrate a peer with whom you spend considerable time.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 81) Left to
their own devices, kids will generally digress to within their own peer groups. So do your best to create situations where students who wouldn’t normally hang out are required to collaborate for school projects.

3.    Adult modeling

Kids pay attention to what adults do. Having a strong role model (such as a favorite teacher) who outwardly rejects prejudice in all its forms can leave a lasting impression on students, whereas many adults inadvertently condone or encourage bullying when they support prejudice or act in hostile ways towards each other.