Parents of children with special needs know all too well the daily struggles their children face. Bullying, especailly at school, is one challenge that can sometimes be hidden from parents. Check out the resources below to learn how to talk to your child about whether he or she has been bullied, and what you can do to make a difference for your child and all children who are bullied.
Learn how to talk to your child about bullying.
If your child is being bullied the best approach is to notify the authorities at his or her school in writing. Here you can access sample letters that can be customized to your specific situation.
Know your rights! Excellent resources for learning about state laws relating to bullying.
Your child's IEP can be an excellent resource for spelling out anti-bullying procedures and precautions. Learn more about how to use this important document to help prevent bullying.
Tips for explaining your child's disability to his or her classmates. When children understand differences they are less likely to think of them as "bad" and more likely to accept others for who they are.
This video from NCLD's Dr. Sheldon Horowitz gives some helpful tips for parents dealing with bullying and children with special needs.
I have the most amazing 12 year old son who is sweet, bright, energetic, and loves nothing more than to help others. He has also been diagnosed ADHD, dyslexic, dyspraxic, dysgraphic, speech delayed, and Asperger's. I knew school was going to be tough, but I never imagined that entering middle school would be so dreadful for him... Life is going to be hard enough for my son. Adding bullies to it will not only make it tougher, but demean and degrade him as a human being. My son deserves to life a bully free life, and his father and I will continue to fight for his right to have one.
Join the movement to create a Bully Free World for children with special needs today!
Self-Advocacy—What Is It and How Do I Practice It?
What is Self-Advocacy?
Self-advocacy means taking the responsibility for telling people what you want and need in a straightforward way. It is knowing how to:
• speak up for yourself
• describe your strengths, disability, needs, and wishes
• take responsibility for yourself
• find out about your rights
• obtain help or know who to ask if you have a question
How Do I Practice Self Advocacy?
It is never too early to start teaching your child how he or she can advocate for himself or herself. Like many other important life skills, self-advocacy is a critical tool your child needs in order to achieve goals, increase self-sufficiency, and become a successful young adult. It is a lifelong process that begins with your child learning by watching you, as a parent, be a good advocate.
Self-advocacy is a key step in becoming an adult. It means looking out for yourself, telling people what you need, and knowing how to take responsibility. No one is born knowing these skills. Everyone has to learn them. Ready to begin learning? Click on the link above for some great information from teens, for teens, that can start you on your way.
Drama. Bullying. Teasing. Harassment. No matter what you call it, it hurts. If you’re pushed, hit, or your things are ripped off or trashed, it can hurt physically. If you’re ignored by friends or cruel things are posted about you online, it can hurt emotionally. If it happens to you, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Why me?” You know how painful it is to be treated this way. So seriously, what can you do? A lot! Learn how.
Bullying can be stopped, but that doesn’t just happen. You must take action and develop a plan that works for you and your situation. This is your opportunity to change what is happening to you or some else and to make a difference. You can get started by creating your own plan to take action against bullying!
Strategies for educators dealing with school-based bullying of children with special needs
According to Perfect Targets, Rebekah Heinrichs’ book that outlines various aspects of bullying and solutions to support students, bullying can take several forms:
- physical (hitting, pushing, tripping, grabbing, destroying another’s property or school work)
- verbal (teasing, making fun, threats, name-calling, or non-verbal communication)
- social (intent to isolate others through rumors, shunning, humiliation, etc)
- educational (adults from the school team who use their position and power to cause distress to students—can include sarcasm, humiliation, favoring certain students, etc.)
Research has shown there are general characteristics of an individual inclined to bully others, as well as typical victim profiles. The characteristics of a child on the autism spectrum often fall within the victim profile—social, interpersonal and communication difficulties, anxiety and poor sense of self, feelings of not being in control, younger, smaller or weaker, and typically well-protected or overly directed by family members or well-intended adults. In particular, students with Asperger Syndrome or others who perform well academically and are less likely to have full time adult support (and therefore, protection) are often the targets of bullying. As with other areas of intervention for special needs students, finding ways to help the child to become more assertive, self-reliant and able to self-advocate is a critical piece of reducing a student’s victim characteristics.
Several strategies are available to develop a community that minimizes bullying and helps to develop a welcoming environment for all. Options include staff and school community awareness and training, positive adult modeling, developing a school code of conduct and reporting, using formative and pro-social instruction as well as consequences, and involving parents when bullying occurs. Specific intervention strategies excerpted from Perfect Targets are outlined as follows:
Strategies for Dealing with Targets of Bullying (pg. 106-7)
- listen, be compassionate and use a calm voice
- provide as much privacy as possible
- take reports seriously and reassure students that they were right to come to you and that you will advocate for them
- decrease self-blame by identifying the bullying behaviors as wrong and unjustified
- be proactive in manipulating the classroom environment for success (e.g.,, helpful peers)
- look for cues that students may need help developing social competence
- discuss whether other bullying has occurred
- continue to monitor behaviors and have a follow-up conversation with the student
- take into consideration any exceptionalities and how they may impact bullying situations; individualize strategies accordingly
Strategies for Dealing with Students who Bully
- stay calm but use a firm, straightforward style
- provide as much privacy as possible
- give a brief, clear summary of the unacceptable behavior(s) and consequences, if appropriate
- note the behavior so a pattern can be established if behaviors continue
- do not get drawn into arguments or lengthy discussions
- correct the bully’s thinking errors (e.g., blaming the target)
- identify the target’s emotions to help promote empathy
- consider other ways to help build empathy for the target(e.g., role-play incident with the bully taking the target’s role)
- re-channel the bully’s need for power into more positive, socially appropriate endeavors
- model respect and look for opportunities to pay attention to positive behaviors
- provide formative /pro-social consequences whenever possible (e.g., making amends)
- take into consideration any exceptionalities and how they may impact bullying situations; individualize strategies and responses accordingly
Extracted from: Perfect Targets; Asperger Syndrome and Bullying; Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World, By Rebekah Heinrichs
Some tips for ways to start conversations with a child who is bullying include:
- If every student is going to learn, we need a school environment where everyone feels safe.
- At our school, we have policies against bullying.
- Bullying includes – (state their actions and behavior with this instance)
- Do you have anything that you’d like to share about the situation?
- How can we support you so that you don’t do this again?
- We are going to talk about the consequences for your actions.
- What do you think would be appropriate to remedy this situation?
There are many ways that teachers and school administrators can create a culture that fosters kindness and leaves no room for bullying. Tolerance is one of the key skills that schools can help instill in children.
Teaching tolerance can come in many different forms. You can create specific curriculums and events around disability awareness months, such as Down Syndrome month in October. Invite speakers in to classrooms to highlight individuals with disabilities who have made a positive impact in their community. Talk about bullying of students with special needs as a civil rights issue, and make connections to other civil rights. Talk about the R-word with students, and explore the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. Give students something actionable they can do, by asking them to call out uses of hateful or derogatory speech.
Keep reading for a few stories of real schools who are implementing Ability Awareness programs
In Pacifica, CA parents, educators and administrators have successfully implemented an Ability Awareness Day, dedicated to bringing awareness about students with special needs. The day is filled with educational programs culminating in an afternoon of experiential learning. In the afternoon, the students are able to touch, play and experience the world of switches and other technology that helps children and youth with various disabilities. Wheelchairs and other equipment are also provided and fun activities to do while using such equipment is demonstrated. The event has been offered for more than 10 years and is a testament to a strong collaborative partnership between parents and educators.
In Burlingame, CA an entire week is dedicated to Ability Awareness. Originally started by parents of children with special needs, the program has dramatically expanded since its inception. From the beginning the concept had tremendous buy in from the superintendent and administrators, helping to make it a true community program. Each elementary school has a “treasure chest” complete with books, reading lists and activities to promote ability awareness and respect. A Kids on The Block puppet show is performed in Kindergarten classes that center around a boy with cerebral palsy, who is proud and excited to show off his wheelchair to students. First thru third graders participate in hands-on activities provided by Community Gatepath that demonstrate what it might be like to have limited dexterity, speech and vision as well as an exercise in what it might be like to have a learning disability like dyslexia. Students discuss their feelings and despite the challenges they encounter many see that they CAN do things but they might do them differently and at a different pace. In the junior high, a collection of powerful videos are shown in class that demonstrate ability. A couple years ago, a sibling in high school produced a podcast about growing up with her brother—which was moving and captured the tween audience. An art poster competition is now also included into the event. Burlingame’s Ability Awareness week brings together the community—parents, schools and community partners and culminates into a “Spirit Night” at the middle school to celebrate ability!
Social and Emotional Learning Curriculums (SEL) are also a great way to teach tolerance
Social and emotional learning (SEL) assists children to develop fundamental skills to effectively handle school, relationships and personal development. Examples may include managing emotions, caring for others, decision making and handling situations ethically. New research provides dramatic evidence that social and emotional learning can be taught, just like geometry and Spanish.
High-quality SEL programs led to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional skills, in attitudes about self and others, and in classroom behavior. Programs were also associated with substantial decreases in conduct problems and emotional distress such as anxiety and depression—all of which are part of the bullying phenomenon. Academic scores also improved significantly—by as much as 11 percentile points. Educators realized that SEL doesn’t interfere with academic learning but helps it.
Because social and emotional components factor into why children bully other students, the ability to teach them behavioral skills, many of which are part of SEL, can reduce the incidence of bullying – no matter if the victim is a child with special needs or neurotypical student. Vreeman and Carroll (2007) concluded in a report that the most effective anti-bullying programs are those that take a “whole-school approach” such as SEL. Social awareness and relationship skills also aid in the prevention of bullying, either by the better understanding of a student’s differences or intervention by bystanders to support the victim.
For more information and ideas about teaching tolerance, check out the resources below
Starabella was created by the Fialco family based on the experiences of their daughter Tara, a self-taught pianist and composer who deals with autism. The audio-picture books follow the story of a courageous little girl with learning differences who expresses her thoughts and feelings and reflections of the world around her through music. Books one and two focus on Starabella at home and in her community. Book Three, "Starabella: Welcome to a Bright New World" offers a new way to deal with bullying, and can be used to teach school children about coming together as a classroom "family" to solve everyday social conflict situations.
The Autism Acceptance Book is an interactive, educational and character-building book that introduces children to the challenges faced by people with autism while also supporting their personal journey toward appreciating and respecting people's differences. The 62-page spiral-bound book offers educational information, conversation-starters, and engaging exercises that invite children to “walk in someone else's shoes” as they learn to treat others the same ways they would like to be treated themselves. This book is ideal for use in classrooms, camps, and other group settings. A free Teacher’s Guide is also available to help teachers maximize the impact of the book.
Students Protecting Students
Before Julie Hertzog became the director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, she was a concerned parent. Because her son David was born with Down syndrome, was nonverbal, and had a Pacemaker and a feeding tube, she was worried that he would be vulnerable to bullying. As she advocated for her son with school staff, she realized how much student interaction happens outside the view of adults.
Recognizing that David’s classmates could be powerful allies for her son in bullying situations, Hertzog worked with the school to create a unique support for him while he was in sixth grade. A group of his classmates received training disability and on how to prevent bullying and speak out on David’s behalf. They called these students peer advocates. If they see bullying they can intervene, talk privately with the person who is bullying, help remove David from the situation or report to an adult.
The idea worked for David. Now what started with four children in sixth grade has evolved to a school wide project. More than 40 students volunteer to become peer advocates so they can help David and other students with disabilities. The program continues today in the middle school and students from the original pilot that are now in high school championed with their administration to start a program at their school. It’s a strategy that any parent and educators can explore.
Learn more about implementing a peer advocacy program in your school here.
Schools are just one part of the equation to combating the bullying epidemic. However, they play a key and vital role to setting the tone of tolerance. It is important for districts and individual schools to have their bullying policy available and accessible to all.
- Include a prominent link to the school's bullying policy on your website
- Review the highlights of the policy at back to school nights with families,
- Reveiw the policy with students during the first week of school
- Keep the conversation going about the zero tolerance for bullying policy that the school/district follows throughout the year
Just as important as parents and students is sharing the policy with vendors, because they are technically an extension of the school. This includes bus drivers, specialists/therapists providing designated instructional services, substitute teachers and others. Before the contracts with these individuals or companies are signed, reviewing the bullying policy and outlining the process for internal review if a complaint is filed is imperative to extending the zero tolerance beyond the school yard.
Creating a safe environment is necessary for students to learn and thrive. Show your community bulling behavior is not welcomed and doesn’t have a place in your community. Consider having students, teachers, administrators, families and vendors sign “contracts” or agreements that they’ve read the bullying policy and they pledge to adhere to this policy. Celebrate when students show acts of kindness, philanthropy or other social good. This isn’t just about discipline and punishment, good anti-bullying practices include reward and recognition for doing the right thing!
Educators often see incidents of bullying in school hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, and on the bus. These sample stories of bullying and conversation starters can help break the silence and give teachers, administrators and support staff a guide to talking to bullies and their targets. Most bullying ends when conversations like these happen, so educators have the unique position of being at the front line with the ability to make real and lasting change in the lives of all children involved.
Story 1 - Josie
Josie is a 15-year-old high school student with hearing loss, and many of the boys in her class say they would like to go out with her. Robert overhears some boys talking about Josie and the next time he sees her in the hallway – knowing the teen can’t hear – he makes a sexually inappropriate comment about Josie to his friends.
Josie notices that Robert’s friends are giving her uncomfortable looks and laughing but, because she is unaware of his behavior, she has no idea why. Robert continues acting this way every time he sees Josie. Eventually, one of the boys shares with Josie what’s going on and she is left feeling humiliated and angry.
Josie, I am sorry that this happened to you. What Robert did was inappropriate. Comments about sexuality in this manner are considered bullying – or harassment – and he will have consequences. What is most important is that we want to support you so you don’t have to experience this again. We are going to work out a plan and we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be a part of the planning?
Story 2 - Jack
Jack is a high school student diagnosed with autism. At one time he was a good student but lately Jack’s grades have been slipping. He is refusing to eat lunch at school and is avoiding going to science class. During the lunch hour, a number of teachers have reported seeing Jack pacing back and forth outside the lunchroom. Asked by a teacher why he isn’t eating, Jack says he’s not hungry and the teacher doesn’t press the issue. This routine continues for several days.
Eventually, Jack is informed that he must be in the lunchroom at that time or he will face disciplinary action. Jack has also been skipping science class, which eventually lands him in the principal’s office. By questioning Jack about his behavior, the principal discovers that Jack is afraid to go in the lunchroom because there is a group of boys who swipe his tray and eat his food. They also tell him he is worthless and everyone hates him. The principal also learns that every day in science class, the teacher tells the students to “pair up.” When this happens – including where there is an even number of students – Jack is left out of the mix as the kids purposely form groups of three to exclude him. They tell Jack he is a “loser,” that he doesn’t deserve to have any friends, and ask him why he even bothers coming to school.
Jack, we want you to know that no one ever deserves to be bullied, and that all students have a right to be safe at school. We are going to work with your IEP team and make some changes to your schedule. We’ll help develop a network of students who can support you, and create a plan (with your input) to make sure this behavior stops and doesn’t happen again.
Story 3 - Lauren
Lauren is a middle school student with cerebral palsy. She and her neighbor Kaylee are life-long friends and the two girls have been inseparable since preschool. At the beginning of seventh grade, Kaylee decides to try out for the dance team, which many students view as something only the “popular” girls are part of. Kaylee is excited to learn she has been chosen for the squad and Lauren is happy for her because she knows how important it is to her friend. Kaylee asks Lauren to come to the first practice and then to have dinner at her house afterward.
The day after practice, the captain of the dance team stops Kaylee in the hallway and wants to know why her friend moves the way she does. Kaylee explains what she knows about cerebral palsy but the captain is unimpressed. She tells Kaylee the other girls are not comfortable having Lauren around. “We have ‘standards’ on our team,” the captain says. “If you want to be part of the squad, you need to choose your friends more carefully.”
Kaylee, what is happening to you and Lauren is bullying – it’s called “exclusion” and “social manipulation.” This happens to a lot of students and we want you to know that this form of bullying is written into our school district policy and is not acceptable at our school. There will be consequences for the team captain. With your consent, we would like you and Lauren to share your ideas about how this issue can be addressed, both for you and other students it might happen to.
Story 4 - Kyle
Kyle is a high school student with Down syndrome. He is new at the school and spends most of his day in special education classes. During lunch hour, he sometimes sits with a group of younger boys who soon pick up on the fact that Kyle likes Maddie, one of the more popular girls in school. Thinking it would be funny, the boys tell Kyle that Maddie likes him, too, and Kyle is pleased when he hears this. The boys encourage Kyle to talk to Maddie which he eventually does, and she is very gracious and kind about it. At the urging of the boys, Kyle talks to Maddie every day but she eventually becomes uncomfortable with the situation and asks Kyle to stop. “She’s just playing hard to get. That’s what girls do,’” the boys tell Kyle. “Go talk to her again. Send her an e-mail and call her, too!”
Kyle follows their advice but the next day he is called to the principal’s office and informed that Maddie does not want to have any more contact with him. Kyle is confused. He tells the boys what happened and they urge him to “Go talk to Maddie right now. She doesn’t really mean that.” So the next day, Kyle talks to Maddie again and is summoned to the principal’s office once more. This time, the principal calls Kyle’s mother to inform her that Kyle has been “harassing” the girl and that she is considering filing a restraining order. He also informs Kyle’s mother that the school is conducting an investigation to determine if the harassment is sexual in nature.
Kyle, what we have been told about your behavior with Maddie is very serious. We have been hearing different stories but, before we take any action, we’d like to know more. As part of our investigation, it is important that we hear what you have to say and we want to give you the opportunity to tell us what happened. Would you feel more comfortable having this conversation with one or both of your parents here? What would be the most comfortable way for you to share any concerns you have about this situation? We want to develop a plan so that every student in our school – including you – feels comfortable.
Story 5 - Ann
Ann, an 11-year-old with Aspergers, has been asking her mom to drive her to school lately. This is difficult because it causes her mom to be late for work. Ann is so upset about the situation that her mom agrees to drive her to school for two weeks but she insists that Ann ride the bus home. Eventually, Ann refuses to go to school altogether.
Frustrated, Ann’s mother talks to her friend next door about the situation and the friend tells the mother about something her daughter shared. The daughter said there was a group of kids on the bus who were making fun of Ann. Two days ago, as she walked down the aisle, Ann was tripped and pushed. She fell awkwardly and her books were strewn across the bus floor. The neighbor’s daughter said many of the children laughed about what had happened. She wanted to help but was too afraid to act. Ann’s mother immediately called the school to discuss the situation. “Don’t worry about it,” she was told. “These kinds of things happen on the bus every day. It’s just kids playing around.”
Ann, we are sorry that your mom was told that this is just “kids playing around.” What has been happening to you on the school bus is bullying and no one deserves to be bullied. You have the right to be safe at school and that includes your bus ride. We are going to talk with your mom again, then take steps to make sure that your bus ride is safe. When we develop a plan – with your permission – we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be involved? Remember, you are not alone. None of this was your fault, and we are going to help.
** The students involved in a bullying situation should always be spoken to individually, not as a group.
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Bullying
Research demonstrates that students with disabilities are at greater risk of being bullied, but they also have direct opportunities to address the situation. With the appropriate tools and support systems in place, a child can be a part of changing the situation. One essential tool available to educators, parents, and students is the Individualized Education Program (IEP).
A child’s team – parents and other IEP team members – should work together to make the IEP reflect the child’s unique needs in school, including the need to be safe from bullying. The IEP team members should consider a variety of supports, accommodations, and strategies that can be incorporated into the IEP to support the student. A school psychologist may be involved in writing social-emotional goals that are measurable and relevant. Including the child in the IEP decision-making process, if appropriate, can also lead to better outcomes.
Read more about ways to include bullying prevention measures in your child's IEP.
Telling Classmates About Your Child's Disability May Foster Acceptance
Parents and professionals find that when classmates understand a child’s disability, they may become allies in helping the child. “I found that children rose to the occasion when they understood the reasons for my son’s challenges,” says one mother. “When there’s an obvious difference, and no one is talking about it, children become confused and think there must be something ‘bad’ about it. When the children understood that the disability was not bad – just different – many were eager to help him.” One of the best ways to teach children about a disability is to talk to them about it at school. For many families, presenting at school is an annual event.
To read more about ways to talk to your child's class about differences click here.
Most states have laws about bullying, and some have specific laws relating to bullying of children with special needs. It is important to know your rights and your child's rights when incidents of bullying take place. Look up your state's laws relating to bullying at OLWEUS.
Using a Template Letter to Notify the School About Bullying
Parents should contact school staff each time their child informs them that he or she has been bullied. PACER Center has created template letters – one for students with a 504 plan, another for students with an IEP – that parents can use as a guide for writing a letter to their child’s school. These letters are general in nature but contain standard language and “fill-in-the-blank” spaces so they can easily be customized for your child’s situation.
Data is important and these letters can serve as a written, factual record of what happened. Remember, if it is not in writing, it does not exist. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter(s) for your records so that you have a concise, accurate timeline of events.
Help Your Child Recognize the Signs of Bullying
Children may not always realize that they are being bullied. They might think it is bullying only if they are being physically hurt; they might believe the other child is joking; or they may not understand the subtle social norms and cues. Children can benefit from a definition of the differences between friendly behavior and bullying behavior. The basic rule: Let children know if the behavior hurts or harms them, either emotionally or physically, it is bullying.
Parents can prepare themselves to talk with their children by considering how they are going to respond to their child’s questions and emotions. They can also decide what information they would like to give their child about bullying.
Parents should be ready to:
- Listen. It is the child’s story; let him or her tell it. They may be in emotional pain about the way they are being treated.
- Believe. The knowledge that a child is being bullied can raise many emotions. To be an effective advocate, parents need to react in a way that encourages the child to trust.
- Be supportive. Tell the child it is not his fault and that he does not deserve to be bullied. Empower the child by telling her how terrific she is. Avoid judgmental comments about the child or the child who bullies. The child may already be feeling isolated. Hearing negative statements from parents may only further isolate him or her.
- Be patient. Children may not be ready to open up right away. Talking about the bullying can be difficult because children may fear retaliation from the bully or think that, even if they tell an adult, nothing will change. The child might be feeling insecure, withdrawn, frightened, or ashamed.
- Provide information. Parents should educate their child about bullying by providing information at a level that the child can understand.
- Explore options for intervention strategies. Parents can discuss options with their child to deal with bullying behavior.
Questions to Ask Your Child about Bullying
Open-ended questions will help the child talk about his or her situation. Begin with questions that address the child’s environment. For example, “How was your bus ride today?” or “Have you ever seen anyone being mean to someone else on the bus?” Then move on to questions that directly affect the child such as, “Are you ever scared to get on the bus?” or “Has anyone ever been mean to you on the bus?”
If the child is talking about the situation, parents can help their child recognize bullying behavior by asking more questions such as:
- Did the child hurt you on purpose?
- Was it done more than once?
- Did it make you feel bad or angry? How do you feel about the behavior?
- Did the child know you were being hurt?
- Is the other child more powerful (i.e. bigger, scarier) than you in some way?
For the child who is reluctant to talk about the situation, questions may include:
- How was gym class today?
- Who did you sit by at lunch?
- You seem to be feeling sick a lot and want to stay home. Please tell me about that.
- Are kids making fun of you?
- Are there a lot of cliques at school? What do you think about them?
- Has anyone ever touched you in a way that did not feel right?
Reactions to Avoid
When children choose to tell their parents about bullying, parents might have one of three responses.
- Tell their child to stand up to the bully
- Tell their child to ignore and avoid the bully
- Take matters into their own hands
While these reactions express genuine caring, concern, and good intentions – and often reflect what parents were told by their own parents or other adults – they are likely to be ineffective. Parents may feel better for having taken action, but these reactions can have harmful consequences. Here’s why these responses will likely be unsuccessful:
- Tell your child to stand up to the bully – This can imply that it is your child’s responsibility to handle the situation. While there is a ring of truth to this statement (being assertive is often a good response) sending your child back into the situation without further information will probably cause more harm. A more effective response is to brainstorm options with your child about what you can do as a team to respond to the situation.
- Tell your child to ignore the bully – This is easier said than done. Your child has probably tried ignoring the situation, which is a typical response for children. If that method had been effective, however, there wouldn’t be a need for the child to seek your help. It is difficult to ignore someone who is sitting behind you on the bus or next to you in class.
- In addition, if the student who is bullying realizes that their target is purposefully “ignoring” them, it can actually ignite further bullying, since that response provides the sense of power and control the student seeks.
- Take matters into your own hands – A normal gut response from parents is to try to fix the situation and remove their child from harm. For example, a parent might call the parents of the student who is bullying, or directly confront the bully. Remember, when children tell a parent about bullying, they are looking for the parent to guide them to a solution that makes them feel empowered. Involve them in the process of determining next steps. Typically, calling the other parent or directly confronting the bullying student is ineffective. It is best to work through the school and implement steps to respond.
It Is Important to Help Your Child Know That They Are Not Alone
- You are not alone. Many children feel that they are the only ones who are bullied and that no one cares. Let them know that there are people who do care.
- It is not up to you to stop the bullying. It is never the responsibility of the child to change what is happening to them.
- Bullying happens to a lot of kids but that NEVER makes it right. Let your child know that bullying happens in small schools, large schools, rural schools, and city schools. It can happen in preschool, high school, and every school in between. It happens in Australia, Argentina, and all around the globe. Certain people will say that some kids deserve to be bullied because of the way the child looks or acts, but this is simply not true.
- No one deserves to be bullied. Everyone deserves respect. All students have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what.
- We all need to work together. Everyone is responsible for addressing bullying. The community, schools, parents, and students all play a role.
Are you an educator working with a student being bullied, a parent looking for ways to help your child change their behavior, or a student who wants to take action against bullying but you aren’t sure what to do? As a student, bullying is something that impacts you, your peers, and your school – whether you’re the target of bullying, a witness, or the person who bullies. Bullying can end, but that won’t happen unless students, parents, and educators work together and take action.
The first step is to create a plan that works for you and your situation. This student action plan is an opportunity for you – either on your own or with parents and teachers – to develop a strategy to change what’s happening to you or someone else. It’s your chance to make a difference
An interactive teen perspective (written by teens for adults) on unhelpful advice from parents and educators.
An interactive look, from a teen perspective, at some of the reasons students don’t talk about bullying. Meet Pete. He is a dude with a lot going on inside, and he has zeroed in on some of the reasons that students don’t tell an adult about bullying
Teens have their turn talking about what is helpful and what they want parents to know.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities' in-house expert, Dr. Sheldon Horowitz, gives three tips for parents of children with special needs who are struggling with bullying.
Top Ten Facts Parents, Educators and Students need to know
1. The Facts - Students with disabilities are much more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.
Bullying of children with disabilities is significant but there is very little research to document it. Only 10 U.S. studies have been conducted on the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities but all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. One study shows that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of all students.
2. Bullying affects a student's ability to learn.
Many students with disabilities are already addressing challenges in the academic environment. When they are bullied, it can directly impact their education.
Bullying is not a harmless rite of childhood that everyone experiences. Research shows that bullying can negatively impact a child’s access to education and lead to:
- School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
- Decrease in grades
- Inability to concentrate
- Loss of interest in academic achievement
- Increase in dropout rates
3. The Definition - bullying based on a student's disability may be considered harassment.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated that bullying may also be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion
Harassing behaviors may include:
- Unwelcome conduct such as verbal abuse, name-calling, epithets, or slurs
- Graphic or written statements
- Physical assault
- Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating
4. The Federal Laws - disability harassment is a civil rights issue.
Parents have legal rights when their child with a disability is the target of bullying or disability harassment. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (often referred to as ‘Section 504’) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II) are the federal laws that apply if the harassment denies a student with a disability an equal opportunity to education. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces Section 504 and Title II of the ADA. Students with a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) would qualify for these protections.
According to a 2000 Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights, “States and school districts also have a responsibility under Section 504, Title II, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is enforced by OSERS [the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services], to ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to eligible students with disabilities. Disability harassment may result in a denial of FAPE under these statutes.”
The letter further outlines how bullying in the form of disability harassment may prevent a student with an IEP from receiving an appropriate education: “The IDEA was enacted to ensure that recipients of IDEA funds make available to students with disabilities the appropriate special education and related services that enable them to access and benefit from public education. The specific services to be provided a student with a disability are set forth in the student's individualized education program (IEP), which is developed by a team that includes the student's parents, teachers and, where appropriate, the student. Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student's ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.”
5. The State Laws - students with disabilities have legal rights when they are a target of bullying.
Most states have laws that address bullying. Some have information specific to students with disabilities. For a complete overview of state laws, visit Olweus.org.
Many school districts also have individual policies that address how to respond to bullying situations. Contact your local district to request a written copy of the district policy on bullying.
6. The adult response is important
Parents, educators, and other adults are the most important advocates that a student with disabilities can have. It is important that adults know the best way to talk with someone in a bullying situation.
Some children are able to talk with an adult about personal matters and may be willing to discuss bullying. Others may be reluctant to speak about the situation. There could be a number of reasons for this. The student bullying them may have told them not to tell or they might fear that if they do tell someone, the bullying won’t stop or may become worse.
When preparing to talk to children about bullying, adults (parents and educators) should consider how they will handle the child’s questions and emotions and what their own responses will be. Adults should be prepared to listen without judgment, providing the child with a safe place to work out their feelings and determine their next steps.
It is never the responsibility of the child to fix a bullying situation. If children could do that, they wouldn’t be seeking the help of an adult in the first place.
For more information, go to Talking With Your Child About Bullying
7. The Resources - students with disabilities have resources that are specifically designed for their situation.
IEP – Students with disabilities, who are eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
The IEP can be a helpful tool in a bullying prevention plan. Remember, every child receiving special education is entitled to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), and bullying can become an obstacle to that education.
For more information, go to our section on Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Bullying
Dear Colleague Letter –In 2000, a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter was sent to school districts nationwide from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) that defined the term “disability harassment.”
In 2010, another Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights was issued that reminded school districts of their responsibilities under civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.
Template Letters –Parents should contact school staff each time their child informs them that he or she has been bullied. PACER has created these letters that parents may use as a guide for writing a letter to their child’s school. These letters contain standard language and “fill-in-the-blank” spaces so that the letter can be customized for each child’s situation.
These sample letter(s) can serve two purposes:
- First, the letter will alert school administration of the bullying and your desire for interventions.
- Second, the letter can serve as your written record when referring to events. The record (letter) should be factual and absent of opinions or emotional statements.
The two letters – ”Student with an IEP, Notifying School About Bullying” and “Student with a 504, Notifying School About Bullying” – are for parents who have a child with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504. The bullying law of the individual state applies to all students as noted in the law. When bullying is based on the child’s disability, federal law can also apply under Section 504, Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
8. The Power of Bystanders - more than 50% of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes.
Most students don’t like to see bullying but they may not know what to do when it happens. Peer advocacy – students speaking out on behalf of others – is a unique approach that empowers students to protect those targeted by bullying.
Peer advocacy works for two reasons: First, students are more likely than adults to see what is happening with their peers and peer influence is powerful. Second, a student telling someone to stop bullying has much more impact than an adult giving the same advice.
9. The importance of self-advocacy
Self-advocacy means the student with a disability is responsible for telling people what they want and need in a straightforward way. Students need to be involved in the steps taken to address a bullying situation. Self-advocacy is knowing how to:
- Speak up for yourself
- Describe your strengths, disability, needs, and wishes
- Take responsibility for yourself
- Learn about your rights
- Obtain help, or know who to ask, if you have a question
The person who has been bullied should be involved in deciding how to respond to the bullying. This involvement can provide students with a sense of control over their situation, and help them realize that someone is willing to listen, take action, and reassure them that their opinions and ideas are important.
To learn more go to our section on Student Self-Advocacy
The Student Action Plan is a self-advocacy resource. It includes three simple steps to explore specific, tangible actions to address the situation:
- Define the situation
- Think about how the situation could be different
- Write down the steps to take action
10. You are not alone
When students have been bullied, they often believe they are the only one this is happening to, and that no one else cares. In fact, they are not alone.
There are individuals, communities, and organizations that do care. It is not up to one person to end the bullying and it is never the responsibility of the child to change what is happening to them. No one deserves to be bullied. All people should be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what. Everyone has a responsibility – and a role to play – as schools, parents, students, and the community work together for positive change.
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What is Bullying?
Bullying is complex and appears in many different forms, but in general it is an action that is carried out deliberately to cause emotional or physical harm to another. It can be characterized by:
- An overt action such as hitting, or name calling
- A covert action such as gossiping or harassment over the internet
Bullying can be circumstantial in that it only occurs once as a result of a particular situation, or it can be chronic and characteristic of long-term behavior.
Bullying can consist of:
- Verbal abuse
- Written statements or drawings
- Emotionally or physically threatening actions
- Physical assault or harm
- Conduct to purposefully humiliate another
What are the different forms of bullying?
- Manipulative bullying - when one child is being controlled and coerced by another student
- Conditional Friendship – when a child is under the impression that a student is their friend, while in reality this student alternates between acting as a friend and acting as a bully
- Exploitative Bullying – when the aspects of a child’s condition or disability are used to bully them
- Cyber Bullying – when the internet, cell phones, or other technological devices are used to intentionally harm or embarrass another individual
When does bullying become harassment?
The OCR (Office for Civil Rights) and DOJ (Department of Justice) have made the distinction that bullying becomes harassment when certain behaviors – such as verbal abuse, epithets, slurs, graphic or written statements, threats, physical assault, or other conduct that may be physically threatening or humiliating – are directed at a protected class, including race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.
Children with special needs face unique challenges for dealing with bullying. They often stand out from their peers in ways that make them targets for bullying, and children who have difficulty with social interactions have an even higher risk of being bullied.
Bullying certainly isn't a new problem; it has existed for generations. Historically, many have seen it as a rite of passage, a type of de facto hazing. According to Dr. Peter Raffalli, a pediatric neurologist at the Children's Hospital in Boston, Mass., this attitude is, in many cases, more dangerous than the bullies themselves. "No matter how you look at it, bullying is a form of abuse victimization, plain and simple," said Dr.Raffailli. "It's a case of the strong - or at least the stronger - preying on the weak. It says volumes about where we are as a culture and race."
Bullying has negative effects on all its victims, but kids with special needs are especially vulnerable, according to Nancy A. Murphy, M.D., FAAP and chair of the AAP Council on Children with Disabilities Executive Committee. "Since these children already struggle with self-esteem issues," said Dr. Murphy, "bullying has a greater impact and they desire to fit in, and are less likely to stand up for themselves."
Learn more about the unique charcteristics of children with special needs and why these children are so often the targets of bullying in this article from our partners at AbilityPath.
Educators are often on the front lines of combating bullying. Children with special needs are most often bullied at school - in the hallways, cafeteria, and on the bus. In this section of the toolkit you will find helpful resources for school administrators, teachers, and support staff who may witness incidents of bullying or hear reports of it from students.
Stories of bullying with suggested approaches for how to start a conversation with all parties involved.
Strategies for talking with bullying and bullied children, especially those with special needs.
Ideas for how schools can create a tolerant culture, changing bullying from a disciplinary issue to a cultural issue.
Publicizing your school's anti-bullying policy is one important step to creating a culture that does not allow bullying.
When students look out for other students, especially those with special needs, incidents of bullying decrease. Learn how to start a Peer Advocacy program in your school.
Special Needs Anti-Bullying Toolkit
Welcome to our specially designed tool kit for parents, teachers and students dealing with bullying and children with special needs.
This toolkit is a set of resources for people to confront bullying of children with special needs from all angles - from talking to your children to knowing your rights to teaching tolerance in schools. Start by reading the Top Ten Facts to know about bullying and children with special needs, and then learn about the unique challenges children with special needs face when encountering bullying.
Now you have the facts, but want to DO something to help create a bully free world? Getting started is as easy as writing a letter to your child's teacher, or asking your Principal to post your school's anti-bullying policy in public places around the school building. It could mean talking to your child about how he or she has experienced bullying, or reading about the roles of bullying and identifying your personal place in the cycle of bullying.
David and Tina Long shared their own personal, painful experience with bullying in the BULLY film. They took some time recently to record this message about why they're excited about the resources available in the toolkit. Check it out -
Every step towards a bully free world will help a child with special needs live free from fear and torment. Take your first action today, and tell us how you're working to create a bully free world for children with special needs in your home, school, and community.
Enter the toolkit below to access unique resources for
Thank You for joining our movement to end bullying.
Please share the Bully Free World site with your family and friends via email, Facebook, and Twitter. Together we will make a difference for all of our childern.