By Andrew Hawk
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.
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 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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