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Bullying and the Special Needs Child

by Terrye

The Bullying Project

Sunday morning, I was watching FoxNews and caught the tale end of the story about the New Jersey father that put the tape recorder in his autistic son’s pocket to figure out why the little guy was so disturbed when he’d get home from school. If you didn’t hear about it, here’s a link to the original story. If it doesn’t piss you off, there’s just something wrong with you.

So, I did a little research and found out that special needs kids are 65% more likely to be bullied than their “normal” classmates. As a parent of a 5 year old non-communicative autistic son, I immediately went into panic mode, you know “OMG! Someone could be bullying my sweet, innocent little guy!”

I also found out that there are three kinds of bullying that they typically experience:

  1. The Manipulative Bully: A special needs child is being coerced and controlled by another student.
  2. The Conditional Friendship: Another child is being a friend, but it is alternated with episodes of bullying.
  3. The Exploitative Bully: The special needs child’s condition is used to bully them either by other students, teachers, or through technology and social media.

As A Parent, What Can I Do?

The following are best practices for parents recommended by The MatrixParents Network:

•Be aware that students often feel that adult intervention is infrequent and unhelpful and, as such, fear that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies.
• Be observant of a child’s behavior, appearance and moods, particularly if one thinks that a child is ‘at risk’ for being bullied. If a child is reluctant to attend school, investigate why and consider a negative social experience as one reason.
• If a parent suspects something is wrong, talk with the child. Children can be reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation or because they don’t want to “tattletale.” Whether it’s a parent or the child who initiates the conversation, speak openly and honestly – and listen! Keep the conversation at a level a child can understand. Remember that every child is different, what may not bother one child, might be extremely detrimental to another.

• Don’t blame the child. Be supportive, loving and patient. Take his/her story seriously. Let him/her know that it’s not his/her fault and that appropriate action will be taken.

• Get details from the child about the incident(s). Try not to direct his/her responses, but ask pertinent questions about what happened and how he/she felt/feels. Let the child know that appropriate confidentiality will be kept, but that keeping bullying a secret is not good for anyone. Tell the child that he/she has the right to be safe.

• Stay focused on the child and the issue. Though a parent will likely be upset and/or angry for the child, over reacting (or under reacting) can make things more stressful for a child. Allowing emotions to ‘take over’ can also make an objective assessment of the situation more difficult. Keeping an emotional response in check will help one better support and advocate for the child.

• If appropriate, problem solve or brainstorm intervention strategies with the child. Giving him/her relevant information, such as the definition of bullying, at a level he/she can understand, can be helpful as well.

• Bullying should never be ignored. Intervene immediately. Children are easily emotionally wounded and often have few skills to cope. Follow up with the school as soon as possible. If needed, seek help from outside sources.

• Talk with all pertinent school staff . Find out what they know and what actions, if any, they’ve taken. Make sure that they understand the child’s disability and the possible impact his/her disability might have on the social dynamics which set-up the bullying. The staff may not be aware of a problem, but, once they are, work collaboratively on how best to help the child. On-going communication and the continued monitoring of resolved bullying issues is often necessary.

• Make sure that the staff speaks with the bully and victim separately. Depending on the age and needs of the child, a parent may want to be a part of the initial discussion that the staff has with the child.

“Children are easily emotionally

wounded and often have few skills to cope.”

• If needed, ask for a general or an IEP meeting to discuss the situation and solutions. Document the incidents in writing. Include the conversations with the child, staff, etc.

• Record dates, who was involved , what was said , names of possible witnesses, the adverse effects on the child and the school’s responses and interventions. Stick to the facts.

• A written complaint to the district may be appropriate if the problem proves to be severe.

• Seek the help of outside professionals, such as a pediatrician or mental health provider.

Depending upon the degree of the problem and your child’s vulnerability, utilizing professional assistance sooner rather than later may be important.

• Consult with outside organizations. Violence prevention agencies can provide information on how to protect the child. Organizations familiar with the child’s disability and its unique characteristics may have some specific intervention ideas.

• If physical signs of the bullying exist (torn clothes, cuts, bruises, etc.), take a photo; police involvement may be needed.

• For the younger child, volunteering in his/her classroom might help one better understand the social dynamics and the underlying problems.

• Discuss the issue of bullying with other parents, individually or in a support group. Talking with the parents of the bully, or the bully him/herself, is not recommended.

• Continue to assess and monitor the child. Is he/she physically and emotionally safe? If not,what further steps need to be taken? Provide on-going opportunities for continued open discussions, checking in with the child regularly. If the child becomes more withdrawn, depressed or reluctant to go to school, and/or sees a decline in his/her academic performance, then take the issue back to the school. If the school does not use appropriate actions, then one may need to go higher up in the administration or take other actions, such as making a formal complaint.

And If The Bully Is A Teacher?

Most parents wouldn’t hesitate to turn in a teacher if there is physical abuse, but when it comes to verbal or emotional bullying, it’s often seen as a gray area. The parents are often afraid that it could lead to the teacher taking revenge on their kid, leaving the kid no escape from the abuse. It’s a whole different level from kid on kid bullying. The article, Teachers Who Bully, “Don’t ignore the problem, experts say. Here are some tips for handling the issue of teacher bullying:

  • Develop a Habit of Talking Openly About School With Your Child: Because children view teachers as authority figures, they often won’t tell their parents if they’re being mistreated. Parents who don’t talk with their children won’t know about bullying until grades drop or a child becomes depressed. Keep an eye out for such behavior changes. Also, probe for details if your child says, “Mrs. So-and-So doesn’t like me,” says Janet Belsky, PhD, a Middle Tennessee State University psychology professor. That’s especially true if a child rarely complains of mistreatment by others. Volunteering in class also allows a parent to keep an eye on the situation and develop a relationship with the teacher.
  • Talk With the Teacher in a Nonadversarial Manner: If parents suspect a problem, they should meet with the teacher without “screaming or threatening attorneys,” Twemlow says. Avoid blaming and keep an open mind. After all, a child may have misinterpreted a teacher’s behavior. Take a cooperative approach, says Mark Weiss, education director for Operation Respect, a New York-based nonprofit organization that deals with bullying. A parent can say, “‘I’m concerned. I think my child’s afraid in this class. What do you think is going on?’ The teacher is then able to engage in the conversation.” Don’t bring a young child, Twemlow adds, but it’s fine to include a teenager “who needs to be treated more like an adult.” Always tell your child beforehand that you’re seeing the teacher, he says. That way, he or she won’t be embarrassed to find out after the fact. A teacher meeting often solves the problem, Twemlow says. But not always. “A master bully will rationalize,” Freeman says, and nothing changes.
  • Take Your Complaint Higher: If the situation doesn’t improve, ask the principal to intervene. It may pay to ask for a classroom transfer, Freeman says. Not all principals honor such requests, but some do. Some principals let bully teachers go unchallenged, he adds. Then parents may have to go up the chain of command, for example, by filing a formal complaint with the school superintendent or school board and demanding a response. They should also keep good records of all communications and incidents.
  • Reassure Your Child: Resolving a bullying issue can be difficult, so support your child, Weiss says. “Let your child know that you care and that you want to do something — that in life we try to do things and sometimes it takes more than one shot at it.” But don’t let the situation drag on for months, Belsky says. “You want to try to nip it in the bud.”

No child, special needs or otherwise, should have to live in fear from bullies whether they are another student or a teacher or coach. Stand up to bullies.

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