Bullying is a serious problem affecting many children and teens, but it is not likely that most children, especially those with special needs, will walk up to their parents and tell them, “I’m being bullied.” Bullying can involve name-calling, exclusion, or violence and should be identified and addressed as soon as possible. The ability to pinpoint the signs of bullying and take preventative measures against future incidents can make all the difference in the life and academic progress of a child with special needs.
Signs for Parents that Signal Incidents of Bullying
Observation of daily routines, such as changes in the child’s appetite or diet or difficulty sleeping will help to alert parents to possible emotional or physical stress at school. These could be common occurrences due to the child’s disability, but they are worth investigating to determine if changes are related to problems at school.
If a child asks to take “sick” days with increased frequency, there may be an underlying reason for his or her reluctance to attend classes.
Ask questions about your child’s friends. Name-calling, such as the term “retard,” is all too common in schools, but some children with special needs may not even be aware that they are being called offensive terms. Parents can ask what nicknames their child’s friends call each other. Do the friends hit or push them? This can help to pinpoint the problem when emotional or physical signs aren’t as obvious.
Examine your child for physical signs, such as cuts, bruises and torn clothing. Also consider whether injuries result from the child hurting herself. Self-mutilation can be symptomatic of a larger problem.
For boys, a common sign of bullying could be if they race into the bathroom at home every day after school. Boys who are teased about being “abnormal” are often scared to go into school bathrooms. With usually only one way in and one way out, bathrooms can be the ideal place for children to get cornered and made fun of. Boys who are bullied like this will often avoid the bathroom all day, which can have a lasting effect on their health.
Another symptom of bullying can be a sudden decline in academic performance. Talking to the child’s teacher will help make certain it is not due to teasing from the other children.
How Teachers Can Protect Students with Special Needs from Bullying
Teachers can monitor the use of cameras and cell phones in the classroom. With the increased use of cell phones by students, the number of cyber bullying incidents has grown. Be aware of how students with special needs and typically developing students use social media networks if they log in while at school. Keep close watch on what they post and view so that if an incident occurs, parents and school officials can be notified immediately.
Create opportunities for peer mentoring between neurotypical students and students with special needs. This can result in a decrease in bullying of children with disabilities.
Consider seating the student with special needs away from students who tend to bully. Proactive measures such as this can often prevent bullying incidents from occurring at all.
Foster understanding among students by building awareness that everyone has different abilities. Help students focus on the strengths of their classmates with special needs.
Teachers are often “first responders” to incidents of bullying in the classroom. It is essential that they are also aware of the physical and behavioral special needs of students, such as sensitivity to being touched or difficulty in expressing emotions.
Designate a “peer buddy” or encourage a friendship with someone “safe” for the child. Bullies tend avoid targeting children who have someone to defend them.
How IEP Goals Can Address Bullying Issues
Students with special needs who have the opportunity to practice social situations and role-playing with peers, under adult supervision, may be able to better identify bullying situations when they occur.
Focus on improving self-advocacy skills so that a child feels empowered to tell the bully “stop that” or walk away in difficult situations.
Have the child learn and practice a non-confrontational response to a bully. Also consider both direct and indirect ways to handle bullies, including avoidance.
Work on building interpersonal skills, such as sharing and thinking before acting. This can help to improve social understanding.
Develop a special signal system with the child to use when he or she feels threatened or needs help.
Increase self-awareness of a child’s disability by helping him appreciate his strengths while also understanding how his disability may affect him in social situations.
If it becomes evident that social situations are interfering with the child’s academic performance, a new assessment of goals may be necessary.