As upsetting as being bullied can be for any child, the impact can be even worse for those who require special education. Bullies pick their targets based on perceived physical, mental or emotional differences, resulting in special education students often being popular targets.
According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers. Other studies and surveys have shown that students with physical or emotional conditions, such as autism and ADHD, are also highly targeted.
A special education teacher needs to be able to immediately spot aggressive behavior in the classroom and employ bullying strategies to put an end to the intimidation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Students’ mental health and self-esteem depends on the instructor’s ability to protect them from bullies.
In an interview, Dr. Jackie Humans, author of 15 Ways to Zap a Bully!, said, “Some students have such severe disabilities that they are unlikely to ever be able to deflect bullying on their own. Clearly, these children need and deserve our protection.”
How to Spot Bullying
Physical bullying is probably the most easily recognized type. It can include any sort of violent hitting, pushing, tripping or breaking someone’s personal property.
Verbal bullying occurs when a bully says something to another student with intention to upset or hurt them. This can include name-calling, threats of physical harm, teasing, taunts or verbal abuse because of physical or mental disabilities.
Finally, there is social bullying. With the advent of social media, this can be especially difficult to spot, as it is rarely in person to a student’s face. This category can include spreading rumors about someone, excluding them from group activities or embarrassing them in front of others.
How to Handle Aggressive Situations
It is important to try to end the bullying immediately. According to stopbullying.gov, a federal resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, ignoring the problem or hoping the students will resolve it on their own may lead to an escalation.
Separate the students involved and make sure everyone is safe. Address any emotional or mental health needs of the students, especially if they suffer from an emotional or mental disability. And remember to follow through – just because the persecuted student has been removed from immediate intimidation doesn’t mean they are out of crisis.
The emotional and mental state of the bullying student should also be addressed, to reach the root of the behavior. This is also not the time to force an apology, nor is it the time to discipline them in front of the other students. If you need to talk to a student, do it separately, away from the gazes of others, as humiliation and embarrassment could paradoxically make them less likely to follow the rules in the future.
Prevent Behavior From Happening Again
Within the classroom, create rules that give students a positive framework of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Always ask for student input, as this will give them ownership over the rules of their classroom. Any classroom should be a safe, encouraging place for all students. When there is a classroom culture that accepts differences and is inclusive, rates of bullying tend to go down.
Affirming good behavior almost always shows better returns than criticizing poor behavior. Make sure the bullying student knows exactly what they did, why it hurt and why it was unacceptable. Give them a clear path to address their behavior and make amends after the situation has calmed down. Try to find the root of their aggression; are they trying to fit in or impress others? Perhaps they have a learning disability or emotional issue themselves that is causing them to act out. If they are acting out because of external circumstances, such as emotional or physical abuse at home, you may need to bring in additional support.
When to Bring in Parents and Authorities
If no progress is being made with a particular student, the school may need to bring this to the attention of their parents. This should never be used as a threat to try to elicit better behavior from the student. The parents of the bullying student might be unaware a situation even exists, so make sure they understand what the school is doing to address the problem and suggest strategies they might employ themselves. Again, punishment rarely fixes issues of misbehavior and bullying.
If bullying reaches levels beyond what a special education teacher or the school administration can handle, such as extreme physical violence or threats, alerting law enforcement might become necessary. Disability harassment is illegal, as civil rights laws protect students who have physical, emotional and/or mental disabilities.
Special education teachers often have to manage a number of behavioral difficulties within their classrooms. It is important to keep this in mind when addressing bullying behavior. Always be calm, avoid judgment and do not threaten the aggressive student. Instead, teach why that kind of behavior is unacceptable. By fostering a supportive and calm environment in a special education classroom, students will feel both safe and protected.
Becoming a special education teacher includes many difficult and rewarding tasks. Learn more about options for pursuing advanced degrees to strengthen your special education training for situations like this and many others.