How to Help Students with Special Needs Avoid Bullying

By Shannon Kay | Parenting Special Needs magazine

Picture of two little girls bullying another little girl.

How to Help Students with Special Needs Avoid Bullying

Recent tragedies in western Massachusetts have reminded us all that bullying can have heartbreaking consequences for students in our schools. For parents of special needs students, the threat of bullying is a particularly urgent concern. Unfortunately, these children are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers because they are different and because they are less likely to have the skills they need to seek assistance and avoid bullying.

Our state’s recent anti-bullying legislation helps specifically define bullying, mandates anti-bullying education, and holds school personnel accountable for reporting bullying incidents. This is a step forward, but there are many additional positive strategies parents can use to help their child avoid bullying.

Bullying prevention should start when students are very young. Parents of students with disabilities who are included in primary school general education classes can help the typically developing children understand their child’s disability. The parents or a school psychologist can speak to the class in a positive, developmentally appropriate way about the child’s disability. If children in the school community are given information early on about how to interact with their classmates who have special needs and see them as part of their classroom, they may be less likely to bully these children and more likely to report it if they see them being bullied in the future.

Parents should try to observe their child’s school and extracurricular activities frequently, develop strong trusting relationships with school personnel, and get to know the child’s peers. These strategies will make it more likely that they will find out about potential bullying and be able to address it.

Unfortunately, many children with special needs might not recognize that they are being bullied or be able to communicate that fact. They need to be taught how to identify bullying and learn that it is unacceptable.

If a child reports that s/he is being bullied, it is essential that parents work with teachers and administrators to assess the situation and end the bullying. They should encourage the child to appropriately seek adult assistance and avoid telling him or her to fight back.

Although we should never blame the special needs child for being the victim of bullying, there are some strategies that will make that child less likely to be targeted. First, some children with autism and other developmental disabilities can benefit from social skills instruction. They can be taught social skills that may help them form positive relationships with their peers and learn about social conventions, impulse control, and ways to appropriately build friendships.

Children with disabilities also need to learn specific skills to help them know how to respond if they are bullied. For example, a behavior therapist might have children role play a bullying situation and practice appropriate responses to the bully as well as the process of getting adult assistance.

Additionally, parents may want to help their children with disabilities make age-appropriate clothing and toy selections. For example, a teenager with autism may enjoy wearing a pumpkin hat at Halloween, but that choice may make it more likely that s/he will be a target of bullies in a middle school environment.

A behavior analyst can work with children with special needs to help reduce problem behaviors that may make it less likely that they will be accepted by their peers. For example, I worked with an adolescent who drooled frequently and was not well received in a high school cooking class. We developed an intervention package that reduced the frequency of his drooling and helped him learn to wipe his mouth appropriately when he drooled. Consequently, his fellow students stopped making negative comments and were much more accepting.

Protecting special needs children from bullying should be a strong priority for school administrators, teachers, and parents. Working together, we can teach children with special needs how to identify bullying behavior, seek adult assistance, and learn the necessary social skills that will help them thwart bullies and have a happier and more productive school experience.

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