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Is punishment over used for bullying behaviour?

Everyone accepts that there needs to be some form of punishment for behaviour that is clearly unacceptable. The idea is to discourage and deter the behaviour by having consequences. The difficulty with bullying behaviour is it has such a large spread of different behaviours that means punishment does not always suit the particular problem. But it seems to remains the go to approach for many.
Setting up the approach is relatively easy. You establish rules and policies. Then train and provide information so everyone knows the rules and expectations. It requires constant monitor and any reports lead to investigate of breaches, a judgement on culpability and punishment if proven. The punishment can at times depend on the situation, which is essential as it recognises not all situations are the same.

However, punishment is sometimes be associated with zero tolerance policies where no distinction is made regarding the severity or circumstances. Everyone is punished with the same consequences. This is were overuse of the approach occurs. No other options are explored which might prove better in addressing the behaviour. While the approach has some strengths, we need to be mindful of its many weaknesses.


  • Whole organisation approach
  • Has wide community support and appeal
  • Is easily understood
  • Is shown to be more successful with younger children (Rigby, 2010)
  • Advocates suggest straight forward and simple
  • Provides suitable consequences in severe cases
  • Can use a range of consequences depending on the case


  • Lack of evidence that it really works effectively in schools (Rigby, 2010)
  • Can foster simplistic set and forget approach because once rules implemented the problem is deemed to be fixed.
  • Strongly associated with zero tolerance approaches which based on a 20 year review have a lack of evidence to support that it works in school settings (APA 2008)
  • Kowalski, Limber & Agatston (2012) suggest possible lack of reporting of incidents in school settings due to students lack of confidence in teachers/administrators handling of incidents. Potentially the wide spread reliance on disciplinary approaches could be impacting on this perception
  • Behaviour studies show that to be effective, punishment responses needs to occur as soon as possible after the act (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1998), but this is often delayed due to the investigation process
  • Difficulty in being able to frame rules that capture indirect bullying behaviour
  • Unintended consequences by capturing acceptable behaviour e.g. not inviting a person to birthday party on the weekend captured under rules to stop the exclusion of others
  • Limited effectiveness of punishment creating longer term behaviour change (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1998)
  • Negative reactions of the behaviour user towards the punisher (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1998)
  • Possible stigmatisation/stereotyping of the behaviour user
  • Bullying behaviour user can blame the target for punishment and retaliates by victimising the target further
  • Consequences do not actually teach the bullying behaviour user pro-social behaviour
  • Has difficulty in dealing with complex group bullying behaviour situations
  • Does little to support the target of the behaviour
  • Fails to deal with situations where there is provocative behaviour from the target or can mean punishing the victim who as well
  • Requires investigation skills and ability to get all the facts to provide natural justice to all concerned

For me, using punishment needs to be on the basis of 'is less is more'. Choosing when to use it is the most critical part. When there are 8 other options to use, why would you use just one option in every situation?


American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008) Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. American Psychologist

Baldwin, John. D. & Baldwin, Janice. I. (1998) Behaviour Principles in Everyday Life, 3rd ed.

Kowalski, R.M., Limber, S.P. & Agatston, P.W. (2012) Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age

Rigby, Ken (2010) Bullying Interventions in Schools: Six Basic Approaches
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