Child being bullied

CYBER BULLYING GUIDE: Here’s a great resource to educate families about the importance and impact of cyber bullying. The guide points out the warning signs, how to report and prevent it in the future.

Many children are bullied especially in the middle school years, but kids with disabilities are about twice as likely to be victims. Experts discuss the problem and how parents and schools can work together to prevent bullying of these children.

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Barb Ziemke, Senior Advocate and Parent Trainer, Pacer Center and National Bullying Prevention Center, Minneapolis

Jan Urbanski, Director, Safe and Humane Schools, Clemson University Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

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16-22 Bullying Kids with Special Needs

Reed Pence: Marge and Jack’s son, Ben, is entering middle school next year and they’re concerned. Ben has a severe learning disability and his parents know that kids with disabilities get picked on and bullied more than other kids. Experts like Barb Ziemke say Marge and Jack have reason to worry. Ziemke is senior advocate and parent trainer at the Pacer Center in Minneapolis, which houses the national Bullying Prevention Center.

Barb Ziemke: What we know about children with disabilities, I believe the statistic is they’re maybe twice as often as other students are going to encounter bullying. Individuals with especially developmental and intellectual disabilities historically have had more violence committed against them even. And individuals with different kinds of disabilities have always been more vulnerable in many ways – emotionally, socially, physically, just because of the challenges of either a physical disability, an intellectual disability, a disability that perhaps does not allow the individual to read nonverbal behavior or to respond in ways that might actually aggravate situations unknowingly.

Pence: Ziemke says bullying behavior can take place at any age, but as most grownups know and may have lived through themselves, there’s an increase starting in middle school.

Ziemke: That’s a big concern going into middle school for lots of different reasons. Kids are changing hormonally, the school structure has changed in most cases and there’s a lot more hallway time, non-structured, less supervised time within that middle school environment for the first time for most of these students who have been in a grade school environment where they had one homeroom teacher and a cohesive group of students that by and large get to know each other. In middle school when you start to change to having multiple classes within one day you expand the number of students and you lessen the structure, and supervision for it. That’s when there seems to be more opportunities for bullying as well as, students in general, that developmental stage where they are kind of testing their own power and looking for their own power.

Jan Urbanski: Students would choose to bully generally for power and control. They are looking to have power over another person and to be able to control their behavior or their actions. So it’s not an issue of a low self-esteem for a child who’s bullying others. They really are seeking ways to gain power and control over others.

Pence: That’s Jan Urbanski, director of Safe and Humane Schools at Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, which is also the home of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

Urbanski: There are now laws in all 50 states regarding bullying, and although they are different in all states, most of them require that there be a policy in the school districts. What’s in those policies and what each state’s required to do varies. And even within the states obviously what schools are doing will vary from school to school. There are a lot of schools that are doing a lot of things to address bullying. Unfortunately, some schools will choose to do things that maybe are not best practice in bullying prevention. There’s been a lot of research that shows what works in bullying prevention. So schools that actually include all those components in a comprehensive program will see much better results than, for instance, schools that might just decide to have an assembly once a year to talk about it.

Pence: For parents of a disabled child, Ziemke says it’s a good strategy to assume that he or she will be bullied in middle school. So it makes sense to take the bully by the horns, so to speak. For starters, Ziemke suggests meeting with your child’s individualized education program or IEP team the year before entering middle school.

Ziemke: Together put into the child’s individual plan some supports, some strategies and maybe a goal or two for the child to work on a skill that will make them less likely to be bullied and to know what to do when bullying occurs. Also putting into place some ways for that student to get to know the school and the people in the school, particularly some adults that they connect with right away that they feel safe and connected to. So introducing them before school starts to the school to a few key people, maybe a guidance counselor and then special ed teacher and even an administrative person that meets them one-on-one.

Pence: Ziemke says the Pacer Center also offers parents what she calls a “student snapshot template” to distribute to school staff.

Ziemke: The one-pager with a photo of the child that tells what they like, what their strengths are, but then their main challenges and the best way to address them and what their goals are for the year. It’s a quick and easy way to give that to every adult that’s going to interact with this child in this school before school starts to put them on the radar so that a lot of people are watching out for. And also demonstrating appropriate inclusion, because when inclusion is happening on a real level it really minimizes the opportunities for inappropriate or bullying behavior to take place because there are lots of people and they are all watching and they all care.

Pence: Then in the fall, Ziemke says teachers can plan student activities that center around things, such as…..

Ziemke: Recognizing, but valuing differences, why inclusion is so important, setting up some friendship groups for sixth graders that include the student with disabilities. There’s also a program that our bullying prevention center makes available to schools to actually have a peer mentor/advocate kind of relationship program. Students who have other students around them are far less likely to get bullied than students who are somewhat isolated within a school.

Pence: Kids who are younger seem to be less judgmental. Ziemke says that often kindergarteners or first graders with disabilities are open to talking about their disability in front of the class, or even okay with a letter going home to all their classmates’ parents explaining about the disability.

Ziemke: But depending on the disability and the child, as they get older that might not be appropriate. So in middle school for instance, even my own son who has an intellectual disability is quite aware of the classes all talking about him and his disability. So finding a way to do it in a really appropriate way that respects the dignity of the individual student is the tricky part. I have seen it done well.

Pence: Ziemke tells the story of one middle school student who successfully pulled off this approach.

Ziemke: A student with Asperger’s that I was aware of actually prepared their own little PowerPoint about autism and Asperger’s syndrome. And did a little presentation as part of one of their projects where all the students in the sixth grade or seventh, I can’t remember what year it was, were telling some things about themselves and presented that. This person felt very comfortable doing that and it was quite powerful. He was able to say what his strengths were and have photos of those things that he’s really good at and also talked realistically about how it might impact him at school. That’s kind of a very unique kind of kid maybe though who can get up in front of a class and do that. So I think it just depends on the child, it depends on the disability.    

Pence: Doing a presentation in front of the class can certainly be too intimidating for a lot of kids, so Ziemke says teachers can create small peer groups to draw other students into the role of champion for the child with disabilities.

Ziemke: For all the students in the school, but for students with disabilities is the most crucial time to provide more support around peer advocates, getting other students on board to know all of the students. When you know someone it’s a whole different situation than feeling isolated because you’re not known or included.

Urbanski: Schools should also recognize that they are not necessarily waiting for a problem to happen, but prior to that to be teaching students how to advocate on behalf of someone else, how to be a bystander, giving them the knowledge and skills about bullying and what to do in that situation and how to stand up for somebody. So a lot of preventive work could happen so that doesn’t occur.

Pence: Urbanski says having a plan for what to do when bullying does occur can also be very helpful. She gives an example of a student who’s being bullied asking other friends to sit with her at lunch to make the whole day easier.

Urbanski: It’s going to be very hard for her to learn or concentrate on her math lesson if she was worried that no one is going to sit with her at lunch. So, things like that can be very helpful when having a plan in place. And that is one of the things that’s recommended as well for a student who is a victim of bullying, to develop a safety plan of sorts that would outline specific strategies and steps and people they can talk to if things happen.

Pence: Urbanski says it’s also important for parents not to blame anyone when bullying occurs, including themselves.

Urbanski: If a problem does arise, encouraging parents to take the problem seriously, but resisting the tendency to blame themselves, to blame the school, to blame other children. Communicating with their child is important, but keeping the focus of the discussion on the behavior, not the individual. That’s kind of avoiding the label of calling a child a bully. In fact with our Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, we don’t typically use the word bully or victim because we want to avoid labeling students. We would use terms such as the student who bullies, or the student who was bullied. Ask about the school’s bullying prevention policy, what’s written in there. It’s a good idea to be well informed about what the state law says about what schools have to do for bullying prevention.

Pence: However, both Ziemke and Urbanski agree that no matter what the school’s policy is, parents need to be involved at every level.

Urbanski: Absolutely parents need to be part of the prevention and intervention solutions. When parents are involved in a child’s education they are much more likely to be successful, and particularly with students with disabilities parents can be a great advocate that can be a huge protective factor for them. So given that some students with disabilities have significant communication barriers, they may not be able to report bullying, or they may not recognize that what’s happening to them is bullying, so parents need to be informed, they need to be part of it, they need to be supporting the school’s prevention efforts. Schools need to be informing parents; so absolutely they have a role in it. Kids don’t want their parents to get involved, but parents need to get involved anyway, because really ultimately it’s an adult responsibility to make sure their child is safe, the children at school are safe. So parents need to get involved even if their child says don’t.

Pence: For many of us who grew up in years past, bullying was a painful rite of passage. Today, it’s still a problem, and a public health issue, but at least now there are laws protecting children from bullying.

Ziemke: What the individuals with disabilities need to know most of all is that they’re not alone. We get calls, e-mails, texts; we’ll talk with the individuals themselves and help people create action plans for how to address it. I guess I’d like to leave with saying there’s hope. We see lots of situations where a student has been bullied or has been the bullier, which can be turned around through adults grouping together, coming up with a plan, there can be really good outcomes. So I just want to leave people with hope, and to let them know they are not alone and there’s help out there and to reach out for help.

Pence: If your child is entering middle school next fall, now is the time to educate yourself about bullying policies in your school district. You can learn more about our guests Barb Ziemke and Jan Urbanski, about Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center and the Olweus Bullying prevention program through links on our web site at

Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. I’m Reed Pence.

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