Got an e-mail from my mom (elementary school counselor who hates "zero tolerance") today, talking about her work, so I thought I'd share with you guys.
She says that first of all, it's important to have a research-based anti-bullying program that educates children, parents and teachers about bullying from a social/emotional perspective (she recommends the Committee for Children
in Seattle.) Just saying "no bullying" does NOT work and kids don't respect it or relate to it. She thinks it's important to be up front with the kids about their social dynamics--how there are always a few kids that nobody wants to play with, and a few kids on top, and how the kids in between end up being manipulated by the kids on top so they don't become pariahs. They are surprisingly understanding of this stuff and are really interested in discussing and brainstorming about it, in her experience.
She also says it's important to have a mediation program run by a counselor (rather than just getting the kids in trouble for fighting, having them work through it themselves with adult help) and also to make SURE that kids can talk to a counselor confidentially. One problem for kids is that if they "tell on" a bully, often the adult will automatically talk to the bully or the bully's parents, and then the kid who told has to fear reprisal from the bully. That's basically throwing the kid to the sharks. It's important for the kid to be able to talk to a counselor about individual problems and their possible solutions before the situation is publicized.
One thing she does is teach them to use social dynamics against bullies. For example, there was one recent situation where one kid was dominating the basketball court, deciding who could and couldn't play, deciding the rules, deciding the teams, cheating, etc. My mom knew that several of the kids were bothered by this, but were too afraid to speak out on their own. She organized them so that the boys got together and confronted the bully, saying that they would not play with him anymore unless he agreed to fair rules (that they had worked out with my mom beforehand.) That really took him down a notch and has seemed to work up to now, she said.
She also does a lot of role-playing, teaching the kids to be assertive with their bodies and faces and voices. A lot of bullies rely on the submission of the people they are bullying, and if they don't get that, they are more likely to back down. During the role plays, they analyze what worked and what didn't work, how it felt to be on either side of the fence, what felt effective and what fell flat.
The bottom line is, empowering the kids to act for themselves is the most effective solution in most situations. It comes down to undermining the social power of the bully--and that's really in the hands of the other kids, because they will always have numbers on their side. My mom says "An important thing I do is to tell the kids I don't have answers, but I want to hear what is going on and we can explore options together, then how they choose to handle it is up to them. This year I worked weekly with a group of 5th graders this way and they really came to some important realizations-that many of the things they were doing weren't working well for them, and that the options they came up with were often not realistic for various reasons. If the year had been longer I think they would have started to come up with some ideas... the cutting edge work is still to be done..."
And that's my cool mom! Hope this lends some insight!