Bullying is an age-old problem. It affects people of any age in almost every situation. School-age children, especially those with special needs, are frequently the easiest targets for bullies and the least able to protect themselves. But what is bullying? And how can we minimize its occurrence and its effect on our students?
Most bullies start by making fun of their targets. But the definition of bullying goes beyond teasing:
- When children are being bullied, they are intimidated, experiencing either verbal or physical abuse. Bullies can do this by making threats, spreading rumors, excluding children socially or showing physical aggression.
- Bullying takes place repeatedly and over time.
- There is usually a social, physical or intellectual imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.
In a collaboration between the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this definition was developed: "Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated."
How Bullying Affects Students with Special Needs
PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center reports that studies found "children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers." In fact, 60% of students with disabilities have reported being bullied on a regular basis, compared to 25% of all students included in the report.
Students with disabilities are often more vulnerable to bullying because of their inability to respond quickly to the environment, making them easy targets. They are identified by peers as "different," creating a feeling of alienation and making it more difficult for them to form strong relationships with classmates.
Author Emily Bazelon defines bullying as "one kid, using social power, or physical strength, to dominate another in a way that really makes the target miserable." The victims do not have the tools necessary to either make it stop or handle their response to it.
What Educators Can Do to Help Students Being Bullied
The federal government and all state governments have enacted laws addressing the public's formal response to bullying. Under IDEA, students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education, including the right to attend school without being harassed.
When the school bully starts tormenting a child receiving special services, however, laws do not make an immediate difference. The student's most important and direct line of defense is the group of caring adults, parents, educators and community members. Their response is key to helping children remain calm and minimally affected by a bully's attacks. As an educator, you can take these steps:
- Make sure the lines of communication are open. Develop a relationship of trust with students who are or are likely to become victims of bullying.
- When students come to you, listen, let them know you believe them, and be patient as they tell their stories.
- Every time students tell you about an incident, reinforce the truth with them:
- They are not at fault.
- They are not responsible for fixing the problem.
- They do not deserve to be bullied.
- Do not turn a blind eye to bullying you witness.
- Report every incident to school leadership.
What Schools Can Do
There is little to nothing schools can do to completely prevent bullying. They must, however, respond quickly and with consistency when they become aware of a student who is being bullied.
The effect of formal programs is still being debated. According to Psychology Today, "Most studies indicate that the actual benefits of these programs may be small at best and that their overall impact may not be as great as schools hope."
Every school, however, should maintain a strong anti-bullying stance. Teachers and staff members must be on the lookout for evidence of bullying, even if not reported or identified by students, and address the importance of making schools safe for all students.
In addition, schools are held accountable by the U. S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. As stated in a 2014 Letter, "When a school knows or should know of bullying conduct based on a student's disability, it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred."
Bullying at any age is unacceptable social behavior. While we may not be able to stop bullying, when children with special needs are targeted, it is critical that trusted adults rally around them and help them survive and even thrive despite the behavior of those who insist on demeaning and threatening them.
U.S. Department of Education: Responding to Bullying of Students With Disabilities
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