What Can Teachers Do When Students with Special Needs Are Bullied?

By Andrew Hawk

What Can Teachers Do When Students with Special Needs Are Bullied?The act of bullying may very well predate recorded history. However, only in the last couple of generations has it received any serious attention in mainstream society. This is especially true of the last ten years.

Social media has further complicated an already challenging matter. Previous generations of Americans did most of their bullying face-to-face. Today, young people do not even have to look the person they are bullying in the eye. This distance makes matters worse because the people doing the bullying may never know how deeply they have hurt their target.

Students with special needs are especially at risk for being bullied. This population is usually different from the rest of the student body in ways that are obvious to their peers. It has been my professional experience that students with speech impediments are almost always bullied at some point in their education careers. All students with exceptionalities are at a higher risk for being bullied than a typically functioning student.

Here are some ideas of what teachers can do if a kid with special needs is being bullied.

Understand Bullying
Bullying is often misidentified. People may categorize any kind of negative behavior as bullying. But bullying has a specific definition: unwanted, hurtful acts that students repeatedly commit against other students. The key word here is repeatedly. Isolated hurtful incidents are not bullying. Children and teenagers are impulsive beings. The first negative occurrence should be addressed but not categorized as bullying.

Don’t Jump to Punishments
Of course, it is easier to punish the instigator than it is to get to the root of the problem. Maybe we give students who bully detention or keep them inside at recess. These punishments are not even productive enough to be categorized as a Band-Aid. Chances are, the kid who bullied will spend the entire duration of the punishment resenting the person he or she targeted. If you catch a student bullying a special needs student, don’t immediately try to collect your pound of flesh. Reflect on productive ways to help the bullying student understand the effect she or he has had on other students.

Help Kids Develop Empathy
It is a worn-out notion that children who bully are insecure so they lash out at those around them. In my experience, students who bully are usually extroverts with a lot of self-confidence. What these children are really missing is a sense of empathy for other people. So how do you help bullying students develop empathy? That is the million dollar question. Here are some ideas.

  • Role playing. Role playing is one of the most popular ways to get children who display bullying behavior to see things from the other students’ points of view. The challenge here is to get everyone to take the role playing seriously. The best way I have found to do this is to get a group of relative strangers together. Taking students out of their comfort zones is a good first step to getting them to approach the role playing with a serious attitude.
  • Circle discussions. I once attended an all-day seminar on how to resolve conflicts using group circle discussions. This concept is not hard. People sit in a circle while an object is passed around. Only the person who is holding the object has permission to speak. The person leading the discussion poses questions to the group. The best strategy is for the leader to answer the question first and then pass the object. This approach sets a tone for the rest of the group. Group circle discussions are time-consuming but effective. It takes several sessions to really get the group to relax with each other.
  • Restitution-based consequences. Restitution-based discipline programs are great for character development if they have a creative facilitator. What would a restitution-based consequence be for someone who has repeatedly been caught bullying others? Put that student in charge of teaching others about the dangers of bullying.
  • Bringing them together. One reason that kids with special needs are bullied is that, often, the person bullying them only sees the students’ differences. Giving the bullying student the opportunity to spend time with the targeted student away from the rest of the crowd can work wonders in reducing the bullying behavior. An adult will need to facilitate this time. What the students do together depends on their grade level, but some general ideas include playing board games or eating lunch. The idea is to let kids who bully see the similarities between themselves and the targeted students.

Use the Whole School Community
Many schools have school-wide initiatives against bullying. If your school does not, try to spearhead a program. The idea is to create a strong community where students are brave enough to stick up for others. This method is another instance where a strong and creative facilitator makes a huge difference.

No single approach can completely eliminate bullying because bullying almost always takes place when the adult-to-student ratio is low, such as during lunch, at recess, or on the bus ride home. Events that happen off school property are even trickier to address. The best strategy is to stay positive and creative.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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2 Responses to What Can Teachers Do When Students with Special Needs Are Bullied?

  1. Dear MandyMarie, Thank you for sharing your personal and painful experience with bullying. It’s so important for those who have been mistreated and harmed to speak up and be heard! I have worked on bullying prevention with thousands of students and they, too, report that being different in appearance is a very common reason why students are targeted. There is so much- too much!- emphasis on physical “beauty” in our culture, and this “beauty” is so narrowly defined. I think we have a long way to go, as a society, toward accepting and celebrating differences. Your difference has given you experiences that allows you to have insights- about a great many things- that many others don’t have. I value that! I think providing concrete examples like the ones you did (about how your deformity impacts your daily activities) will help kids be able to imagine being in someone else’s shoes. I also think it’s very important that we live together, instead of segregating ourselves based on race, ability, gender, etc. The more people we interact with in positive ways, the more undeniable it becomes that diversities- of all kinds- are beautiful and interesting. Our differences are assets to each of us and to our community as a whole. Add some compassion for others’ feelings to this appreciation for differences, and I think we might be able to make some headway. Thanks again for sharing your story. Peace to you.

  2. mandymarie20 says:

    I admire your work here but as someone who has suffered lifelong bullying due at least in part to my physical deformity, part of the problem that troubles us is the seeming lack of consequences to the bully and lack of comfort to the bullied. I was bullied in the 80s and 90s because of my deformity, and all administration in the schools did was prescribe talk – in groups, counselors, with and without the bullies and their parents, etc. What always happened was for that time or day, the bullies stopped, but the next day it would go back to the harassment and death threats. There never seemed to be any punishment or consequences. As a victim of bullying, there needs to be at least the appearance of some consequences. If there is just talk, it seems as if nothing is done and other students realize as well there is no consequence to bullying the student. It also seems to the victim (well, to me when I was one anyway) the bullies could do anything and we would just have a chat every once in a while, whereas I had to take the abuse every day. What is not mentioned a lot, is bullying due to physical impairment continues as an adult. I suffered 10 years of it at a previous job. In this high tech and narcissistic world, It’s easy to just ‘swipe past’ someone you don’t want to look at. I eventually grew a hard shell. Having a deformity also taught me self reliance, empathy, opened my eyes to intellectual pursuits, humility, and perhaps a bit too strong amount of skepticism of things and people. What’s funny is I occasionally see my bullies in public at stores or restaurants and they act like we were best friends. They clearly don’t remember saying such horrible things to me in class I would cry and had to run out of the room during class to protect my sanity or the many times I would overhear them telling their friends they hoped I would die so they didn’t have to look at me.

    When teaching empathy, I feel like there has to be a way to teach about physical deformity without describing it as something bad, even though it is abnormal. It’s just the way you are born and those of us who have them can’t separate ourselves from the deformity. It influences all our thoughts, feelings, activities, etc. I can’t do anything without my deformity as reference. How much to eat, being able to find clothes that fit – let alone ones you like, how much you can exercise, etc. There has to be a way to explain it respectfully – but not shunning it. It’s difficult to find a comparison on normal people for something you are born with that you can’t change for a good comparison. You can cut or die your hair, get implants, put on colored contacts, go tanning. And things like clothing, food, housing are choices, so those aren’t good tools for empathy. Things that are choices don’t convey the true issue. It is something you can’t change and it is part of everything about you. Height is probably the closest example you can’t change and may or may not want to. If you are tall, would you want to be short and vise versa? You can’t change it, it influences every aspect of your life, and it’s not a bad thing. It just makes you different from others. Tall people have to bend for everything and short people have to get stools for everything. They both have problems finding clothes. They both may get bullied for these very things which aren’t disabilities (unless you have gigantism or dwarfism). Someone has to think of a way to teach actual empathy – not just with words – about those of us with physical deformities who just want to be left alone and can’t and don’t want to change. It’s important for those of us with physical deformities to be visible and proud. The world would be a horrible place without difference of experience provided by those of us with deformities. There is a reason disabled people were a target for the Nazis – first with forced sterilization in 1933 – then with almost 300,000 extermination deaths during World War II. The disabled were guinea pigs for the Holocaust. Perhaps learning about this Holocaust more would help people understand the threat we are under – especially with the resurgence of eugenics.
    See the U.S. Holocaust Museum for more details: https://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007683

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