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Bullying in Special Education: What it is and How to help.

Three children hang from a playground rope climber.

Images by Emma Gottschalk

by Devin Taylor

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and you might be asking yourself why that is. Why do we, as a nation, devote an entire month to a topic that is often associated with playgrounds and comical cartoon character tropes? Isn’t it all just a normal part of childhood? 

The unfortunate reality behind this nation-wide observance is that bullying is a serious and often insidious problem which continues to show new faces and take new forms as technology and social networking change the landscape of human interaction. It doesn’t make kids “tougher” and it is not a normal part of childhood.

Bullying is ongoing, targeted aggression that exploits a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the target. The adverse effects may be profound and lasting for the child being bullied, the child doing the bullying, and those who witness it. Some children who are bullied may be seen as instigators or provocateurs, but this does not excuse bullying behavior. 

When a child tells an adult that they are being bullied, the appropriate response is to reassure them that no one deserves to be bullied; that it is not their fault and not ok. Parents and family members can take steps to help the child being bullied. School staff are required to report incidents of bullying in accordance with Spero Academy’s School Bullying Prohibition Policy after conducting reasonable investigation and inquiry into the incident. To do this effectively, it’s important to understand what bullying is and what it isn’t.

Bullying: What it is and What it isn't

As stated above, bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior involving a real or perceived power imbalance. The criteria recognized by Stopbullying.gov state that in order to be considered bullying, the behavior must:

  • Be aggressive (physically, verbally, or socially)
  • Involve an imbalance of power, such as physical size, strength, or ability, popularity, or access to embarrassing information.
  • Be repetitive, occurring or having the potential to occur more than once 

According to psychologist and founder of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Dan Olweus: “Bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending themselves.”

So that’s an overview of what bullying is. Now let’s talk about what it’s not.

Peer Conflict

Unlike bullying, peer conflict is a natural and perhaps unavoidable part of childhood. As children develop and begin to navigate social situations, it is unreasonable to think that they will never have a disagreement, feel challenged, or act impulsively in a way that is hurtful or unkind. 

Displays of aggression during early childhood interactions are generally not an act of bullying. This is a time when children engage in their first social interactions outside of their home. They are still learning to communicate effectively, understand their feelings (and the feelings of others), and control their impulses. This applies to behavior in older children as well when it is due to deficits of cognitive, social, or communication skills, which are a feature of a child’s disability. 

Let’s imagine a scenario set in a special education classroom. In this imaginary classroom, there is a student with sensory processing deficits who uses vocal stimming to self-sooth. This student groans or hums constantly, occasionally making high-pitched screeching noises. This behavior is calming to the student as it helps them focus and deal with environmental stressors. Another student in the classroom has high auditory sensitivity and limited communication and self-regulation skills. This student reacts to the noise of the other student’s vocalization by grabbing, hitting, and scratching them. This behavior is aggressive and targets a particular student. But is it bullying?

As established above, aggressive behavior is not necessarily bullying – especially in a situation like this in which the child displaying aggression has deficits in the areas of communication, sensory processing, and emotional regulation. In the scenario above, each student is doing what they need to do in order to control their environment in response to a need that is specific to their disability. One is using self-soothing behavior to override environmental stressors, while the other is attempting to eliminate one. Neither student’s intention is to bully or even cause harm to another person. 

In this case, the priority and responsibility of classroom and school staff is to protect the targeted student while offering support, coping strategies, and replacement behaviors to the student who lashed out physically. As in the case of any peer conflict, steps should be taken to understand the cause and nature of the conflict, repair any communication breakdowns, and develop reasonable protocol to ensure the safety of both students and prevent recurrence. 

But what happens when bullying does occur at school?

Bullying may be different or less discernible in a special education environment, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Children with disabilities, including those that are physical, developmental, or emotional, are at an increased risk of being bullied. Additionally, some children with disabilities may bully others. 

The effects of bullying may be more profound or pervasive for disabled students. For those with unique learning needs and associated academic challenges, being bullied can exacerbate these challenges, creating a detrimental effect on the student’s ability to learn as well as their overall development. 

Students with disabilities are also protected by federal law. If the bullying directed at a child appears to be based on their disability, it could be considered discriminatory harassment as defined by the Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights.

This determination can be complicated in the world of special education where federal law also protects students with disabilities who may bully others. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects these students from Zero Tolerance policies that would otherwise require their removal from school. In this case, schools must still abide by law by conducting investigation and inquiry into the incident. The school must then follow through with reasonable steps to end the harassment, repair its effects, and prevent retaliation or recurrence.

Of course, the ideal way to address bullying is to stop it before it starts. School staff can help prevent bullying in the community by promoting an environment of empathy and mindfulness while supporting the social and emotional development of students. Spero educators work to support this vision through a strong focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The SEL Program at Spero Academy teaches students in every grade and classroom setting to identify their feelings, navigate conflict, and use calming strategies to manage internal and external stressors. In addition to reducing the occurrence of aggressive behavior, the program teaches empathy and promotes student mindfulness and overall well being. 

Another important component of school wide bullying prevention is staff development. Spero Academy staff undergo annual professional development to build the skills to implement the district bullying prohibition policy. This training includes refresher training on recognizing, responding to, and reporting incidents of bullying, exploring new research, developing new strategies for prevention, and examining current strategies in terms of what works and what doesn’t.

What doesn’t work?

Zero Tolerance Policies

Zero Tolerance policies were designed to eliminate school violence by applying a one-size-fits-all, no exceptions disciplinary model. Under this model, students face suspension or expulsion for any action that could be construed as violence or threat of violence. This includes physical aggression, verbal threats, or possession of an item that could be used as a weapon (i.e. a butter knife in a child’s lunch box, a toy ax as part of a Halloween costume). On the basis of technicality, Zero Tolerance policies may enforce severe and inappropriate consequences for undeserving children and youth through lack of consideration for things like circumstance, personal history, and the cognitive and emotional development of children and adolescents. 

Even in cases where bullying behavior is observed and undisputed, these policies may be of more harm than help. As the American Psychological Association points out: “Bullying behavior can be an early indicator of other problem behaviors [such as] unexcused absences, fighting, theft, and vandalism.” A policy which enforces the undisputed removal of these students from school also removes them from positive role models and risks destroying the student’s relationship with the school system.

Zero Tolerance might make some parents feel better, believing that their children will be safer and better able to access their education with fewer disruptions. But research raises doubts about this as well. A “Zero Tolerance Task Force” constructed in 2008 by the American Psychological Association found that Zero Tolerance policies have a negative impact on youth mental health, causing “alienation, anxiety, rejection, and breaking of healthy adult bonds.”

These policies also have a disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that Black or African-American students in particular are more likely to be suspended or expelled for minor infractions. Students with disabilities - particularly those of a social and emotional nature - are sometimes subject to disciplinary measures based on misunderstanding or lack of education around their access needs. 

The problematic factor in Zero Tolerance is that, by definition, it does not leave room for discussion of any of these talking points. And with no room for discussion among qualified professionals, these policies do not offer an effective or just means of creating safer schools.

So what about a more dialectical approach, like conflict resolution or peer-mediation?

While peer mediation and conflict resolution can be useful when sorting out issues between students, they are not an appropriate strategy to use when addressing occurrences of bullying.

As outlined above, bullying is not “peer conflict.” Bullying is intentional victimization. A brief look at some misdirections in bullying prevention from Stopbullying.gov stresses the importance of delivering two separate and unwavering statements to each student involved in the situation: 

“The message to a child who is bullied should be: ‘No one deserves to be bullied and we will do everything we can to stop it.’ The message for children who bully should be: ‘Your behavior is inappropriate and you must stop.’” 

The impartial tone of mediation, however, may lead the victimized student to feel that they are partially to blame for what has happened to them. On the other hand, the student who bullies may come away feeling that their actions are partially justified. Additionally, forcing a student who has been bullied to face their victimizer is likely to be upsetting or even retraumatizing.

Given the risks and drawbacks of each of these methods, the lack of evidence that either of them do anything to stop bullying is a sufficiently compelling argument against them.

So what does work?

As any Special Educator knows, it is far more helpful and effective to tell students what they can and should do, versus what they can’t or shouldn’t. Schools have had some success with initiatives that focus on what can and should be done by students, teachers, and members of the community. Kindness programs and SEL programs like MindUp, replace the “don’t be mean” message with “DO be kind.” 

Anti-bullying programs are also shown to be effective, as are programs designed to help bystanders to stop bullying when they see it. Intervention from bystanders continues to be one of the most effective ways to combat bullying, and there are lots of safe and effective ways that kids can stand up to bullying

Remember: Bullies depend on the support or silence of those around them. Standing up for someone who is being bullied is one of the most powerful things you can do to stop it. Visit STOMP Out Bullying and Pacer’s Kids Against Bullying website for more on what you can do to help prevent bullying in your school and community.