Emerging research indicates that a child with a disability is more likely to be physically or verbally bullied than his typically developing peers. As a special needs teacher with over twenty years under my belt, I can attest to this data. However, by teaching children to understand that not everyone sees the world the same way, parents can facilitate understanding and healthy interaction between all kinds of children. Developing specific social skills and an action plan to prevent bullying can decrease the odds that kids will be bullied, or that they themselves will become bullies in the face of social anxiety.

Although children with disabilities are more likely to be the object of bullying, sometimes they can become the bully, often as a result of low self-esteem or being bullied by others. No matter how your child is affected by bullying, however, these steps can go a long way in preventing this hurtful practice:

When a Special Needs Child is Bullied:

  • Talk to the child about situations that invite bullying. A child with developmental delays such as Down Syndrome or Asberger’s syndrome is often trusting and friendly. Because he does not think that others will play tricks on him, he becomes an easy target. Parents can help with some simple advice. For example, they can talk with their child about where to sit on the bus; is it possible for him to sit near the driver or a friend? Sometimes knowing where to be and where not to be can deter confrontation with bullies.
  • Teach children about body language. This is particularly difficult for children who are autistic or with learning disabilities, because they often don't pick up on social cues such as facial expression and body language. A bully will most likely demonstrate cocky movements, loud voice, and mocking facial expressions. Teach your child to think “Is he too close to me?” “Are his words very loud?” If so, your child should use confident body language of his own.
  • Use appropriate social language. Many children with language delays or processing difficulties cannot come up with a quick response to verbal bullying. Practice confident social language (not threats). Try practicing scenarios with your child at home, so that he is prepared for bullying whenever it come his way.
  • Children should be ready to take safe action such as leaving the situation or telling an adult. A child with mental retardation who thinks very concretely may be reluctant to approach an adult because he thinks that he is creating the problem. Adults can teach them to overcome these feeling, using hypothetical examples, and emphasizing that it is responsible to report unsafe situations.

When the Bully Has Special Needs:

Often the child with a speech difficulty or the child who leaves the “regular” classroom for special instruction is teased by his peers. Because the child may have been teased for poor academic or social skills, he may look for someone who is weaker in those areas. Bullying in this case may also be the result of misreading social cues or lacking the communication skills to ask for something appropriately. Developing skills in social confidence can reduce the tendency to bully. Here are some further suggestions:

  • Explain the rules. Talk about when something is the child’s and when it is not. Jason’s turn on the swings is just that – Jason’s turn. Whether or not another child wants to swing at that moment it is not an option because someone else is taking his own turn.

  • School them in body language. Teach your child that a head shake, turning away, or standing up to someone (as well as the verbal “No”) means no. These body signals should tell the child to stop. If your child is struggling to pick up on social cues, practice different scenarios at home, and discuss what happened afterward.

  • Use appropriate social language. Help your child practice using words, not actions, to get what he wants. If he wants to play with a ball or borrow a pencil, remind him to wait for a positive response before taking the desired item.

Parents of typically developing children can explain that children with special needs may be struggling with social skills. This is their opportunity to take a leadership role and show respect to their classmates. They can help stop the cycle of bullying by supporting their special needs peers.