How to Respond When Students with Disabilities Are Bullied

By Andrew Hawk

How to Respond When Students with Disabilities Are BulliedIn most states, school personnel complete annual training about bullying and bullying prevention. Anyone who has completed one of these trainings knows that students with disabilities are at a higher risk of being bullied.

However, new information released recently in the journal Children & Schools describes the findings of the Technology Harassment Victimization study. This study was conducted by having young people ages 10–20 complete a phone survey. The researchers looked at how students with various disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and special education services experience peer harassment victimization (PHV), with a particular focus on whether they experience it in person, online, or both.

Here are some findings from the study and some strategies that may help if you know a young person who is being bullied.

Finding 1

When compared to all students with disabilities, students with learning disabilities are more likely to experience in-person bullying.


Students with learning disabilities spend most of their time with their age peers. They often visit a special education classroom for small-group instruction for a certain amount of time each day, but they don’t receive one-on-one assistance from a teaching assistant. This is in contrast to students with physical disabilities, who may have a one-on-one teaching assistant or another adult assisting them throughout the day. Students are not likely to engage in acts of bullying while an adult is present.

How to Help

Teach bullying-prevention skills. Give students some direct instruction on what bullying is and how to appropriately respond to it in different settings. For example, on the playground, students may be able to walk away from altercations, but what should they do in the cafeteria? In many elementary school cafeterias, students are not allowed to leave their tables without permission. This causes a problem for a student who needs to avoid bullying but who also does not feel comfortable telling on a peer.

In the cafeteria at my school, we have group and individual tables. While students do not have a choice in where they sit at the group tables, they are allowed to relocate themselves to an individual table. If a student moves to one of these tables, a staff member goes and checks on the student, which brings us to the next point.

Help adults become safe people. Not every student is going to be ready to tell any adult about being bullied. Aside from not wanting to be a tattletale, students may feel embarrassed or may think that the adults around them will not do anything to help the situation.

School personnel often feel frustrated when they receive phone calls from angry parents describing incidents of bullying that were not reported to a staff member. To combat this, find ways to help all staff members become safe people in the eyes of students. How to accomplish this will vary depending on staff members’ jobs and personalities.

In general, students will find staff members more approachable if they have some familiarity with them. You can accomplish this by trying to find creative ways for staff members to spend time with students. This can be a challenge in schools with large student populations. I encourage my lunch and recess supervisors to mingle with students in the course of completing their duties.

Help students build peer relationships. Having even one friend greatly reduces the chances of a student being bullied. If you notice that any students have trouble making friends, consider ways you can assist them. It is also a good idea to reach out to colleagues for ideas.

Finding 2

Students with physical disabilities are at a greater risk of experiencing bullying online than other students with disabilities are.


This finding is in contrast to the past belief that all students are at an equal risk of being bullied online. The “why” is a little more difficult to determine in this case. In my opinion, students with physical disabilities are at a greater risk of being bullied in general. As previously mentioned, the risk factor is decreased for in-person bullying because there are often extra adults present to assist these students. This safeguard is not in place on the internet.

How to Help

Promote digital citizenship. Sometimes it feels like those of us who work with young people are always telling them to behave, be kind, be good. It is easy to become frustrated with having to repeat things that feel like common sense. But we must always keep in mind that we are dealing with the constant impulsiveness of the not-fully-developed adolescent brain. Repeatedly telling students the same information can be tedious, but it also can help students stop and consider their actions in decision-making moments. Remind students to be kind online, conduct digital citizenship activities to promote positive online behavior, and consider giving character education lessons as well.

Check in with students. I am not saying that you have to watch everything a young person does online (though that is a tempting thought). I am just suggesting that you check in with young people. Ask them if there is anything they have been looking at that they can show you. Ask them if everything is okay. Encourage students to come to you if something is bothering them (even if it isn’t about something on the internet).

Get others involved. Find out if your school’s policy covers online interactions outside of school. The policy at my school does. If yours does, get the school involved when problems arise. You can also consider filing complaints with the social networking sites. While they cannot monitor every interaction, many of these sites do have proper use policies in place. It is probably a good idea to keep young people off any site that lacks a proper use policy.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for eighteen years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.

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