Kids with disabilities are at a greater risk of bullying than their nondisabled peers

Schools and other youth settings have an important responsibility for creating safe settings for youth with disabilities.

Every day across our communities, thousands of young people are affected by a range of bullying behaviors. According to Michigan State University Extension, many researchers and health practitioners  consider this situation to be a serious public health issue. When young people talk about these experiences and why some kids are targets of bullying, they often mention characteristics related to areas of human differences, such as gender or gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, race, and disabilities.

There are many different kinds of disabilities  including physical, learning and emotional disabilities, attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders, and autism spectrum disorders. According to a 2012 article published in the Journal of School Psychology, several studies have shown that students with disabilities are at greater risk than their nondisabled peers for being targets of bullying behaviors, for bullying others and for being bully-victims (involvement in both carrying out and being targeted by bullying behaviors).

In efforts to ensure that schools provide positive, safe and nurturing environments where all children can learn and develop, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services distributed a letter to all schools on August 20, 2013, about their responsibilities related to students with disabilities and issues of bullying. The letter emphasized the legal and ethical obligations of schools to work to both intervene when these situations occur and to create policies and practices to prevent them from taking place.  

The letter offered several practices for schools to use to provide safe and nurturing environments that are bully-free. Many of these strategies can be helpful for adults involved in any kind of youth setting:

  • Teach appropriate behaviors and how to respond. Having a clear understanding (by both young people and adults) of what bullying behaviors look like is key to preventing these behaviors from occurring. Too often, nasty and hurtful behaviors are seen as “normal” and go unchallenged. Having conversations within any youth setting about these messages and behaviors is an important aspect of creating safe settings. These conversations can be deepened by giving young people opportunities to talk about human differences – including disabilities – in healthy ways. It’s also important to provide time for young people and adults to explore and practice strategies for responding when they experience or witness negative behaviors. Having helpful and safe strategies to use can be especially important for young people with disabilities who may experience trauma responses, increased anxiety, social difficulties and misperceptions when bullying occurs.
  • Provide active, ongoing and consistent adult superivision. Young people need to know that adults are ready to step in, interrupt and address bullying behaviors when they happen. A lack of involvement or inconsistent actions by adults makes it less likely that kids will use their voice to carry out or interrupt these behaviors. They may also feel less empathy for those who are targeted. It’s critical that the adults in a youth setting be prepared to step in immediately when they observe, or learn about, bullying situations and that they provide immediate support for youth who are targeted. It’s also essential that they follow up with those who are doing the bullying in order to find out what’s underneath or contributing to these behaviors.  
  • Train and provide ongoing support around these issues. Understanding the unique experiences and vulnerabilities of young people with disabilities related to bullying is important for adults in any kind of youth setting.  Because of the complexities of their disabilities, some young people may not always recognize bullying behaviors as harmful including the ways they may be targeted through manipulation or exploitation. They also may not have the neccessary knowledge and skills needed to explain what’s going on to an adult who could help. Giving adults some key strategies for being a helpful resource for kids with disabilities can contribute to creating a safer setting for all the young people involved. It’s also important that these training opportunities help adults clearly understand when bullying situations cross the line into illegal forms of harassment.

MSU Extension is leading an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Enviornments that includes resources for helping adults and youth work in partnership to address issues of bullying. The initiative includes the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum which can be used in both out-of-school time youth settings and middle schools. As part of the Be SAFE initiative, MSU Extension is offering an upcoming webinar for adults who work with kids titled Trauma Reactions to Bullying: Voices From Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorders, which will examine the bullying experiences of young people with autism and provide strategies that adults can use to better support these youth.

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