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  3. When Students with Disabilities Become Bullying Targets

When Students with Disabilities Become Bullying Targets

A teacher works with a student with a disability

Students with a behavioral, emotional, or developmental disability are at a greater risk for bullying – in fact, according to a study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics (2006), the rate is about twice as high as typical kids.

In our state of Delaware, public school enrollment of students with disabilities has averaged around 14 percent. As many as 25 percent of all reported bullying incidents involved students with disabilities or special needs. Prevention efforts, with particular attention to kids at higher risk, have been a public health priority for the state.

What Helps When Bullying Occurs

Throughout the United States, public school districts have policies and processes to report incidents because of how often bullying occurs. Many states also have a reporting and response requirements and other protections for students with disabilities. But even with a protocol in place, students may struggle with what to do in the moment.

All students need to understand what bullying is and how to recognize it. When it does occur, peer-to-peer communication skills can be a bridge to support and help.

Schools in Delaware and in other states use interventions that empower students to address bullying and build positive peer relationships. They all aim to build skills, reinforce positive behavior, and support healthy relationships among students.

The most recognized evidence-based approaches center on social-emotional learning (SEL), empathy building, and creating a positive school climate.

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning teaches kids at a young age how to name and recognize their feelings and builds skills to manage emotions. This approach provides students the opportunity to work together, understand each other, take responsibility, and resolve disagreements peacefully. By understanding each other personally, kids are less likely to bully or do other unkind acts to each other. SEL helps kids to see how a classmate with a disability might be different because of an illness or other challenge. If bullying does occur, SEL approaches can be helpful (by naming?) what is happening, identifying the feelings behind the actions, and finding a resolution.

In addition to a school-wide focus on SEL, two interventions specifically designed to support students with disabilities have proven successful in Delaware.

PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills)

The PEERS program uses a very different approach to learning for teens with disabilities. Instead of directly teaching teens important social skills, it looks at what socially engaged teens do to make and keep friends. Some students may not know the difference between friendly teasing or sarcasm and bullying, so they learn what each scenario looks like. They are taught specific steps to follow if bullying occurs. They also build relational skills to make friends, which can help prevent bullying, as it happens more often when students are alone.

The No Bully System® Pilot

Delaware also uses the No Bully System to prevent bullying and provide student-based supports to intervene when bullying occurs. Rather than discipline students, a team of peers (the Solution Team®), led by a trained in-house Solution Coach®, come together to discuss and use group empathy. The Solution Team consists of the person who is doing the bullying, any peer followers, and positive peer leaders (not necessarily associated with the incident). The model ensures that everyone knows from the start that no one is or will be in trouble. The Solution Coach® then leads the group to discuss what happened, how it might feel, and what the Solution Team® can do to stop the bullying and what can be done to prevent it in the future. Although this program is new to Delaware, early findings are positive and the intervention has helped to reduce the intensity and frequency of bullying.

These programs effectively create a positive school climate by nurturing healthy relationships and developing specific skills so kids know how to address bullying., For all students, learning relationship skills, building friendships, and thinking about how others feel are all critical tools that help in school and beyond. And for kids with special needs and disabilities, healthy relationships can help to protect against bullying. The biggest win, however, is that these programs are ideal for preventing bullying for students with and without disabilities. The programs used in Delaware are collaborative and inclusive, which allows for a more consistent path to preventing bullying for all students. Schools and youth programs can benefit by considering ways to improve school climate to have similar positive outcomes.