The saying children can be so cruel rings true for many parents of children with disabilities, who are often anxious about their child being bullied at school—and wonder how they can encourage his young classmates to befriend him.

Unfortunately, some of this worry seems warranted—children with disabilities are more likely to be victims of bullying than their typically developing classmates. They’re more likely to be rejected—and less likely to be accepted—as workmates and playmates, and frequently have few, if any, friends in their class. This is found across the board, in different countries, in various types of schools and within a range of age groups (1). However, there’s no need to wring your hands about how your little one is treated in school—this situation isn’t necessarily inevitable. A lot depends on your child’s classmates’ understanding of his disability.

Fostering Sympathy and Support

Like adults, kids have expectations about how others should behave in particular situations—and seek to explain differences in ways that make sense to them. Often children with disabilities act in some ways that puzzle their classmates, such as struggling with speech, or lashing out at peers. If children think child is to blame for their behavior, then this will make them feel, and possibly behave, negatively toward their disabled classmate. On the other hand, if these kids understand that a child with a disability isn’t at fault for acting out, they’ll feel sympathetic and often offer help and support (2). When a child’s classmates understand that his disability affects his ability to meet classroom and social expectations, they’ll tend to be more accepting, while attempting to show them what to do, as they might with a younger kid (1).

Isn’t ‘Labeling’ a Bad Thing?

Schools are sometimes reluctant to point out the needs of a child with disabilities to his classmates, due to concerns about ‘labeling’—the risk that kids will only see and respond to the disability, not the person, with negative associations about the disability being translated into negative interactions with the child suffering from it. For example, administrators worry that telling a class of children that one of their peers has an Autism Spectrum Disorder may lead to name-calling.

In actuality, concerns about negative labeling have been exaggerated. Negative behavior is what is important in producing negative responses from others, not special education labels (3). Don’t simply provide a label, since with younger children, any special term may take focus away from the issue at hand, Instead, explain the child’s needs, how they link with behavior, and how classmates are expected to show positive support (4).

Helping Children with Disabilities

As the parent of a disabled child, it’s up to you to do everything in your power to facilitate a welcoming, safe environment at your kid’s school. Talk with his teacher about implementing some of the following ideas:

  • Positive initial introduction. Ask your child’s teacher to introduce him to the class using upbeat, child-friendly language. Emphasize discussing your child as a whole person, his support needs and the reasons for them, and how best other children can help. You and your teacher must take the lead on providing the class with information, and modelling acceptable behavior (4).
  • Address problematic social behavior. Help nip intolerance in the bud by brainstorming unacceptable actions with your child’s teacher, then presenting them to the class and asking for ideas about positive actions to use instead. Involving peers is often successful in helping your child feel included with his classmates. Set up a whole class meeting for a day that your child is absent to develop understanding of his difficulties, how these can be affected by a lack of friends, and how the children can each befriend and support your kid. Or, set up a small group of volunteers to meet and play weekly with your child during a recess period. Be sure this get-together is facilitated by an adult to help support, monitor and review meetings (5).
  • Promote learning and social interactions in class. Set up a “buddy system” that pairs a child with disabilities with a peer, provide cooperative activities that require working in twosomes, along with books, puzzles, games or other materials that encourage sharing. These interactions are beneficial for promoting positivity and teaching children how to work well with others.
  • Establish peer tutoring on an individual, small group or class-wide basis. Train a group of volunteers and your child on what to do and how to get any help they need. Tell parents about your group approach—parents of a typically developing child sometimes worry that their kid should be focusing on their own studies instead of helping out others. However, the peer-on-peer tutoring is beneficial on both sides. For example, children doing academic tutoring typically make even more progress than the students receiving the tutoring. It’s good if kids with disabilities have some opportunities to be the tutor as well, to allow him a social opportunity normally delegated to his peers (6).

Almost every parent worries about whether their child will successfully integrate into school with understanding friends, learning opportunities and positive daily interaction. By working with teachers to foster an inviting environment, children with disabilities can thrive in a safe, secure school setting.

This article is based on these research reports:

Frederickson, N. (2010). Bullying or Befriending? Children’s responses to classmates with special needs. British Journal of Special Education, 37(1), 4-12.

Juvonen, J. & Weiner, B. (1993). ‘An attributional analysis of students’ interactions: the social consequences of perceived responsibility’, Educational Psychology Review, 5(4), 325-345.

Law, G.U., Sinclair, S., & Fraser, N. (2007). Children’s attitudes and behavioural intentions towards a peer with symptoms of ADHD: does the addition of a diagnostic label make a difference? Journal of Child Health Care, 11(2), 98-111.

Morton, J. F., & Campbell, J. M. (2008). Information source affects peers’ initial attitudes toward autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 29(3), 189-201.

Frederickson, N., & Turner, J. (2003). Utilizing the classroom peer group to address children's social needs. An evaluation of the "circle of friends" intervention approach, Journal of Special Education, 36, 234-245.

Kamps, D. M., Barbetta, P. M., Leonard, B. R., & Delquadri, J. (1994). Class-wide peer tutoring: an integration strategy to improve reading skills and promote peer interactions amongst students with Autism and general education peers. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 27(1), 49-61.