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Bullying and Your Special Needs Child

By Judith Greenberg, Ph.D.
President, School Finders, LLC

No matter what grade your student is in this year, or what the school psychologist decides the testing shows to be your child's special needs, no student should be bullied. Students with disabilities are often targeted by students who may or may not also be having difficulties in school. These students may manage to stay out of trouble or under the "radar" of teachers and staff members. Bullying can take place in many places within the school building and outside of the building. School buses and bus stops are prime areas for bullying as well. So what exactly is bullying? How do we define an act of bullying? How do we prevent further bullying and how do we deal with bullying in schools?

Bullying is not wanted, it is usually aggressive, creates a power imbalance, it can be repeated, threatening, and involve rumors. It can be physical, verbal, in the open or behind the back of a student. It can happen in grades pre-kindergarten through High School. In today's high tech climate, bullying very often happens at night in a student's home setting and several students may be online sending texts, emails, and pictures that are cruel and hurt a student.

Children of all ages want to be liked and to have friends: getting a cruel message from one or more students can make sleeping very difficult and attending school the next day is very hard. Fear is hard to discuss with parents and teachers and going to school afraid is very difficult. Years ago, passing a note to torment a student was considered very mean, today cyber bulling is way beyond passing a note. Parents need to be vigilant about children's cyber activities.

Age is not an issue, younger children are involved earlier and earlier. I spoke with a third grader in a private school who told me her school had a triangle of social status that represented the students who were the best and most liked students and these were at the top of the triangle. There was no middle level, just the rest of the students who were not athletes, and the ones in special needs classes. These students were considered to be "less" than top tier and were determined by cyber discussions to be not as socially accepted by students. I asked my young friend, "what if one of the lower rung students is you neighbor, can you play with her or go to her birthday party?" The answer shocked me: "no, I couldn't or I would go to the lower level." Fortunately, her family took her out of that school. This type of classifying students happens in many schools and students, especially students with special needs and disabilities are then targets of bullying.

Physical bullying can be worse in that students are both physically and emotionally hurt and may also face retaliation from school officials, parents, and friends. It is difficult to categorize what makes for a physical bullying episode but most schools would define it by involving touching, hitting, throwing, spitting, pushing, pulling out chairs, tripping and other aggressive physical actions. These are actions aimed at fellow students and often teachers.

Students with disabilities are often impulsive and in situations where another student makes a face or whispers a nasty comment, the disabled student may lose his/her temper and react quickly and impulsively by hitting or spitting to get back at the student.

Unfortunately, it is often the disabled student who is caught and disciplined and often suspended. This makes the situation more difficult for the returning student who must face the classmates who know what really happened. It is very difficult to catch up both in class work and with the rhythm of the class. Students with disabilities need help from school and family to be prepared with appropriate methods of dealing with bullies and understanding that not all classmates will be nice but you do not need to return poor behavior. You are always in charge of your good behavior and you can speak to the teacher or guidance counselor before you get into trouble. Practicing at home and even roleplaying will help your child to deal with bullies at school and on the bus.

School personal do try hard to keep schools free of bullying. No one can make a one-hundred percent pledge to any parent, however, every school has a program and policy set by the school district. When your special needs child enters a new school or starts the new school year, ask to see a copy of this bullying policy. Be prepared to support your child and to help yourself. All schools have counselors, psychologists, pupil personnel workers, etc., who can help your family deal with a bullying situation. It is important to push for help for your child. Community services for your school can be found online, the list is long and very helpful.

Dr. Judith Greenberg is the Director of School Finders, LLC, an educational consulting firm in the Washington, DC metro area. School Finders works with families across the country to find the best schools for their Kindergarten through college age students, or as they seek to implement home schooling.


Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help people find the right help for their special needs children and teens. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, type of special education professional, specific special education professional, or educational methods.

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