Observable Disabilities Increase the Likelihood of Bullying, One Study Finds

July 06, 2012

Observable Disabilities Increase the Likelihood of Bullying, One Study Finds

The difference between special needs children and their general education counterparts has becomes a big issue over the past few decades and in recent headlines thanks to the anti-bullying movement. Thanks to legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the model for inclusive education has become the norm rather than the exception. Finding the “least restrictive environment” generally means moving children with both visible and invisible disabilities into the general education environment. However, despite the myriad benefits of this type of inclusive education, the affects that the blending of special needs children with the general education population has on the social environment of the classroom is not always positive. The truth is that bullying among special needs children and general education children is a real problem and one new study from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln makes that connection even more clear. Appearance Matters According to the study titled, “Kids with Behavior Issues, Disabilities Are Bullied More, Bully Others More,” which was published in the Journal of Psychology the physical appearance of a disability, such as a hearing or vision impairment or mild mental handicaps, increases the likelihood of children both engaging in bullying behavior and being bullied themselves. The study looked at 800 students from the ages of 9-16 in both special-ed and general-ed settings at nine different schools. The findings specifically show that students who were in special-ed were more likely to be bullied. Perhaps more shockingly, however, these same special-ed students were more likely to be bullies themselves. The lead author of the study, Dr. Susan Swearer, explains, “these results paint a fairly bleak picture for students with disabilities in terms of bullying, victimization and disciplinary actions…these are the students who most need to display prosocial behavior and receive support from their peers.” One of the most interesting points of this study, however, was that students with so-called “invisible” disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD were cast into the same group as general-ed students. According to Swearer, “the observable nature of the disability makes it easy to identify those students as individuals with disabilities, which may place them at greater risk for being the easy target of bullying.” Then, in response to this victimization, Swearer and her colleagues believe these same students retaliate by becoming the bullies themselves. Additional Notes There were several other interesting points from Swearer’s study in regards to the impact of age and gender as well as special-ed status on bullying. These conclusions, outlined below, may help teachers and school counselors to better understand the nature of bullying as we see it in our schools:
  • For general-ed students, bullying seems to gain momentum from approximately 4th or 5th grade through 7th grade (where it peaks). Then, bullying seems to decline steadily.
  • Gender does not seem to play a role in a student’s likelihood to bully or be bullied. Across both general-ed and special-ed settings, the gender difference was statistically insignificant.
  • In general education settings, there was a marked difference between victimization experiences by grade level with the most victimization occurring in 5th grade. Special-ed students, by contrast, showed no such difference between grade levels and victimization.
These conclusions are an important step in understanding the issue of bullying in schools from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Far more than a “typical” childhood experience, this study seems to confirm that the integration of special-ed and general-ed students into the same classroom and school settings needs to be accompanied by programs with promote prosocial and modeled behavior. Swearer and her colleagues agree, concluding that “programming should be consistently implemented across general and special education, should occur in each grade and should be part of an inclusive curriculum. A culture of respect, tolerance and acceptance is our only hope for reducing bullying among all school-aged youth.”



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