Bullying and Children with Developmental Disabilities

October 21, 2019

Bullying and Children with Developmental Disabilities

Now that school is back in full swing, the topic of bullying is at the forefront of many parents’ minds. While any child can be the target of bullies, children with developmental disabilities are at increased risk for bullying. There are several reasons for this, which we explore below. More importantly, though, we offer practical advice for addressing the issue of bullying and children with developmental disabilities. We’ll discuss how you can prevent your child or teen from becoming a victim, as well as how to address a bullying situation that has already occurred or is ongoing.

What Is Bullying?

First, let’s define bullying, which is a term that, though used frequently today, is sometimes misused or misunderstood. There are three types of bullying that can occur:

  • Physical: This type of bullying behavior involves physical contact between the bully and his victim. This might include pushing, hitting, tripping, kicking, spitting, throwing things at the victim, and taking/breaking items that belong to the victim.
  • Verbal: This type of bullying includes name calling, taunting, teasing, threatening, or making comments meant to demean the victim or make her feel uncomfortable.
  • Social: This type of bullying involves purposely excluding the victim, encouraging others to exclude or ignore the victim, spreading rumors or sharing private information about the victim, or embarrassing the victim in front of others.

The Facts on Children with Developmental Disabilities and Bullying

Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to bullied than their nondisabled peers, according to an organization known as PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center (NBPC). This is likely due to the fact that, to bullies, individuals with disabilities may seem to be “easier” targets, as they may be unable to stand up for or defend themselves. What’s more, people tend to fear what they do not understand. Ignorance or lack of knowledge may lead children to feel fearful or uncertain. This, coupled with poor self-esteem, low self-confidence, or inadequate communication skills, can cause some children to be mean, hurtful, or otherwise act out when faced with a situation or person they don’t understand.

Regardless of why or how much bullying may occur, all individuals with disabilities are protected by federal law against bullying that is specific to their disabilities. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, your child’s school is required by federal law to address the harassment. If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, he or she is eligible for such protection under the law, and steps can even be outlined in the plan to prevent victimization.

IEP and 504 Plan Strategies

If your child has an IEP or 504, PACER’s NBPC recommends the following potential strategies be considered and potentially written into the plan:

  • Identifying an adult in the school who the child can report to or go to for assistance
  • Determining how school staff will document and report incidents
  • Allowing the child to leave class early to avoid hallway incidents
  • Holding separate in-services for school staff and classroom peers to help them understand a child’s disability
  • Educating peers about school district policies on bullying behavior
  • Ensuring regular reassurance from the school staff to the student that he or she has a “right to be safe” and that the bullying is not his or her fault
  • Shadowing by school staff of the student who has been bullied. Shadowing could be done in hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds.

Other Strategies for Preventing and Dealing with Bullying

While most children with disabilities will have a plan such as the above, there are other strategies for dealing with bullying that can help as well.

Speak Up: Don’t be afraid to stand up for your child and push back against the school if you feel your child isn’t receiving what is known as a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE), which she is entitled to under the law. In this case, her school must address the situation swiftly and continue to take steps to prevent further bullying until the behavior ceases completely. At no time should your child be told he must behave a certain way or skip certain activities to avoid being bullied.

Understanding Who’s Responsible: Everyone has a responsibility to prevent and address bullying, except the person being bullied. Be sure your child understands that it’s not his fault he is being bullied and that it’s not his job to stop it. At the same time, encourage your child to tell a teacher if she sees someone else being bullied.

Knowledge Is Power: Know what the school’s specific responsibilities are regarding bullying prevention. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has developed a fact sheet for parents on this topic. If you have questions about your child’s rights or you’re experiencing challenges in getting the school to address a bullying issue, you can seek further information or file a complaint by visiting the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights’ School Bullying page. You should also consider familiarizing yourself with the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.  

Seek Out Allies: Children who have positive peer support are less likely to bullied. There are many ways to foster positive relationships among your child and his peers.

  • Ask your school to implement a weekly program where students with special needs have lunch with students without special needs
  • Suggest an initiative be implemented that encourages students to volunteer to help students with special needs learn a new skill or try a new sport
  • Ask that your child be assigned school-based “buddies” to look out for him during the school day.
  • Ask if you or an appropriate professional can speak to the students about your child’s disability, which may help them better understand your child and be more likely to see him or her as a peer
  • Encourage your school to reward and recognize positive, inclusive behavior

Prepare Your Child: If possible, help your child understand what she can do when facing a bullying situation.

  • Identify safe adults and safe places where she can go if feeling threatened or upset
  • Use role-playing activities to help them learn how to respond to bullying in simple ways
  • Promote their self-confidence with activities that enable them to be successful at learning a new skill or trying something new
  • Help them to cultivate relationships with other students who they can look to for help or support

Resources Preventing Bullying in Children with Developmental Disabilities

We hope this has been useful in helping you understand bullying children with developmental disabilities and what you can do to prevent and stop this type of destructive behavior. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, we suggest you visit www.stompoutbullying.org, www.pacer.org/bullying, or www.stopbullying.gov. Also, you might consider enrolling your child in one of SCARC’s programs for children and teens, where he or she can make friends, learn new skills, build self-confidence, and have fun. Contact Daele Phlegar at (973) 383-7442, ext. 254, for more information.