How to help prevent bullying of special needs children

As students begin a new school year, they face many changes. Adjusting to new teachers and learning expectations. Meeting new friends and navigating the social scene. Unfortunately, bullying is an issue that is likely to arise in many schools. And for the most vulnerable students – children with special needs – those chances are even higher.

According to the Arc of Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, 60 percent of students with special needs or disabilities report being bullied, compared to 25 percent of the general school population. Forty percent of students with autism and 60 percent of students with Asperger’s syndrome are bullied on a regular basis.

“While all children can experience bullying, it is the unfortunate fact that children with disabilities are much more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers,” says Sherri Landis, executive director of the Arc of Pennsylvania. “Parents, through listening and care, can teach their child the skills to deal with bullying.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently launched the Safe 2 Say Something program, run by the Attorney General’s office.

“This resource for students and parents teaches them how to recognize warning signs and signals, especially within social media, from individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others, and ‘say something’ before it is too late,” says Matthew Stem, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Stem advises parents to be aware of signs of possible bullying, including not wanting to go to school, damaged personal property or changes in behavior.

“Talk with your child and listen with problem solving in mind,” he says. “Become familiar with the reporting process in your school and utilize the communication system created to address possible bullying situations.”

For students with special needs, bullying prevention begins with education.

“I think often students with disabilities may not even recognize what constitutes as bullying,” says Jody Manning, director of PACER’s Parent Training and Information Center. “It is really important to educate students on behaviors that would not be appropriate that they would need to report to an adult.”

The PACER Center, which stands for Parent Advocacy Coalition for Education Rights, is a Minnesota-based organization created by parents of children and youth with disabilities to help other parents and families facing similar challenges. In 2006, the PACER National Bullying Prevention Center was formed and provides innovative resources for students, parents, educators and others nationwide.

Manning encourages parents to be welcoming of their child’s experience. Ensuring the lines of communication are open will help resolve any issues that may arise.

“Listen and reserve judgment,” Manning says. “You want to make sure your child will continue to come to you if they have concerns. In addition, you can praise them for talking to you.”

Parents will also want to make sure their child knows that it is not their job to fix the bullying situation, Manning adds. The student should always go to an adult. But because bullying often comes with a shift in power, experts at the PACER Center encourage the involvement of the student in the action plan to remedy the bullying situation.

“We’ve created a free, downloadable Student Action Plan template to be used in remedying bullying situations,” Manning says. “The team can allow the child to take part in the plan, and it empowers them to be a part of the solution.”

Manning notes that nondisabled students can help support their peers with special needs who might not be able to speak up on their own behalf.

“There is a lot of research that says using positive peers as productive bystanders is also another great way to resolve bullying issues,” she says. “At the PACER Center, we have developed a free, downloadable program called the Peer Advocacy Program. The program trains student volunteers to be positive ambassadors in their school buildings.”

These students step in when they witness a bullying situation, and they’re able to help students who may not be able to speak up on their own behalf.

“Research shows that if a bystander steps in the middle of a bullying situation, it is more than likely that the bullying will never happen again,” Manning says. “Students are a great tool.”

It is also wise to involve other adults in the school in the bullying prevention process as well.

“Think about who else can be involved to remedy the situation,” she says. “Custodians have been involved with a plan because frankly they are in the hallways when a lot of bullying is going on. The more we find you educate all staff related to bullying prevention, the more involved to remedy these situations for the better.”

Manning encourages parents to document bullying incidents that their child brings to them. PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center has created a series of letter templates that parents can use to report bullying to their school.

“We developed the letters for a few reasons,” Manning says. “First, it is incredibly painful as a parent to have your child be bullied. The template, which has blanks for parents to fill in, allows the parents to keep the emotion out of the letter and keep the facts in. It also allows the parents to keep track of a historical perspective. So they are able to see, for instance, if a child has been bullied once in the past 30 days, as opposed to 15 times in the past 30 days. Then you have the documentation to take to the school.”

It is important to encourage all children to be kind to their peers, no matter their ability.

“Educating children on differences – and the value of these differences – and how to be inclusive of all children, is so important,” Manning says. “Teach your child ways to engage those who may be different from them in a kind and respectful way.”


Tips for parents

Sherri Landis, executive director at the Arc of Pennsylvania, shared the following tips for parents of students with special needs:

  • Talk about bullying before it becomes a problem. Don’t wait until the bullying has started to bring it up for the first time. Help your child think ahead about how they will handle it.
  • Support your child in building a solid circle of friends. These friends can support and help assure your child that they are to be treated with dignity and respect at all times. Another student telling a student to stop can go a long way in stopping the bullying.
  • As adults, be prepared to listen without judgment. Make sure that your child does not believe that they caused the bullying in any way. They are not at fault.
  • Assure the child that it is safe to talk about what has happened and that you will assist them in figuring out what to do next. They don’t have to face the problem alone.
  • Impress upon them that bullying is NOT OKAY and those in authority should be told and expected to do something to stop it. It is never the child’s responsibility to stop bullying.  It is the responsibility of the adults in authority to do so.
  • Teach them to stand up for others when they see bullying occur as well.


Resources for parents

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Arc of Pennsylvania

Safe 2 Say Something

PA Department of Education
Bullying Prevention Consultation Line




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