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Zero Tolerance Doesn’t Work

Image School behaviours NotepadZero tolerance and hard discipline in themselves do not improve behaviour, according to a recent study by an American research organisation Child Trends.

Students need character development and to understand why they should behave positively.

Zero tolerance is the most widely promoted approach in the United States, though my own experience suggests we are much better in the UK at positioning our rules and policies with students.  However, in the busy world that we all operate in and with so  much to do each day I think there is much more most schools can do to develop the right student (and teacher) behaviours.

So what more can schools do?

The most important step is to help students understand why behaviour, rules and policies are so important to them achieving the success they need and deserve. Too often behaviours are positioned only from a school perspective…that is we look at them from our own agenda rather than from the student’s own agenda.

Given the many different backgrounds, experiences and influences on our students early lives, it isn’t surprising that there are so many ways they might behave as they start school life. As a result and particularly if we apply zero tolerance we may be guilty of failing to put children’s behaviour into context.

How do you help them to come together around a set of school values and behaviours that they can all accept and learn to live? One way is to ask them to work together to come up with their own values and behaviours for themselves and this could be done with each new year 7 group.

When this is done well, it raises student awareness of others and just what is acceptable and encourages them to take personal responsibility for owning and living to them.

A second step is to position everything in positive terms.

  • Why have an anti-bullying policy when you could have a pro-friendship one. The former sets out that bullying occurs and how we will deal with it. The second sets expectations of the positive behaviours we want to see. We could show rewards for the right behaviours more prominently than the punishment for ‘wrong’ behaviours.
  • Do we want no running policies or a reason to walk policy?
  • A no talking in class policy or a reason to be quiet and respect others policy? (And to also promote actively raising comments and questions in lessons).
  • You get the picture…and can add more of your own to this.

Sometimes when I am talking in schools people think this is splitting hairs or a bit fluffy. However, it isn’t just this research that suggests you take a positive approach, my own experience of working with successful people and organisations, in both business and education has shown me they work and most importantly they also improve performance and bottom line results.

A third way to improve behaviours is to build teaching character, success skills and behaviours systematically and consistently into your school curriculum.  Whether this is through a weekly lesson, tutor time, enrichment days or in a way that best suits your school doesn’t matter – delivering it regularly does.

Our 53 one hour lessons form a comprehensive library of resources to give you a great start. If delivered well we guarantee they will improve behaviour, performance and results. If you haven’t yet looked at a lesson plan then you can get one free here.

There are many other ways schools develop the right values and behaviours and these are just three very effective suggestions. I am sure you will already be doing some of these or have your own approaches.

It would be great to know more about what you already do in your school so let us know and we can add these to the discussion and share with other schools.  Just drop me an e-mail at