Educational Fad: Zero Tolerance Approach To Behaviour

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shutterstock_390670672 Hipster girl in checked shirt showing tongue with piercing over yellow background. Impertinent behaviour. Hipsters. Provocation. Aggression. Naughtiness.

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Does your school have a zero tolerance behaviour policy?

Zero tolerance policies have not had an impact in keeping schools safer and in many cases have had adverse consequences.

Paul Dix (2017) in his book When The Adults Change Everything Changes tells us that “Most behaviour policies are a collection of confused and rehashed ideas that barely worked for yesterday’s children, let alone today’s.”

Paul reminds us that some schools have more rules than Alcatraz and their policies are full of prison terminology.

He advises us, “Resist the urge to adopt the platitudes – zero tolerance, non-negotiables, red lines. It might make you feel butch but it makes absolutely no difference to the children.”

He’s right. As reported in The Guardian, “Two decades of US experience with zero tolerance policies in schools tells us that it doesn’t work.”

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, supported “zero-tolerance” policies in schools for years but then back-tracked and apologised for its failure.

Catherine Winter (2016) reports that zero-tolerance has been anything but a success in the US saying,

“Across the country, schools are moving away from zero tolerance and trying to reduce the number of students they’re suspending. The turnaround is a response to a growing body of research showing that zero-tolerance policies resulted in a disproportionate number of kids of color suspended, expelled, and referred to law enforcement.”

In its 2016 report Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice, the National Academies of Sciences, said that the most effective school behaviour programmes “are those that promote a positive school environment and combine social and emotional skill-building for all students, with targeted interventions for those at greatest risk for being involved in bullying,”

Ready, Respectful, Safe

Every school should have a behaviour policy that is rational, flexible and simple enough to cater for all students. Many work on the basis of a ‘Ready, Respectful, Safe’ (RRS) methodology which is simple and offers clarity for everyone.

RRS isn’t complicated because behaviour management doesn’t have to be.

In schools with over-complicated policies, teachers are often confused by the rules and what to do. Heavyweight policies end up punishing teachers because they add more players of stress and workload.

If a school promotes a ‘zero tolerance’, how confident are these institutions helping young people learn from their mistakes? How do their permanent exclusion figures read? Every school should have a behaviour policy which promotes learning and aims to cull disruption or defiance.

At their annual conference, the NUT section of the National Education Union (NEU) voiced concerns about zero tolerance and the state of children’s mental health saying that zero tolerance was an “abuse” of their rights.

Zero tolerance policies come at a huge social cost as they are contributing to high exclusions, and in some cases a ‘meteroic‘ rise. We therefore need to stop tolerating zero tolerance.

Zero Tolerance – it doesn’t work!

To say you have a ‘zero tolerance’ approach, is just lip-service for parents and visitors. It’s the same when a school says it is ‘inclusive’. Every school requires students to learn in a safe and respectful environment.

As the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force found ten years ago,

“Zero tolerance has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety. Its application in suspension and expulsion has not proven an effective means of improving student behavior. It has not resolved, and indeed may have exacerbated, minority overrepresentation in school punishments. Zero tolerance policies as applied appear to run counter to our best knowledge of child development.”

Every school wants good behaviour but zero tolerance isn’t the way to get there because it doesn’t work.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

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