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Empower Kids with Special Needs to Stop Bullies

Whether children with special needs have tics from Tourette syndrome, turned-in feet from cerebral palsy or social skills deficits, their behavior sometimes draws the unwanted attention of bullies. 

“It’s easy to pick on them,” says Heidi Mizell, resource coordinator for Autism Delaware. “And to some kids it’s funny to watch them overreact,” she adds.

While children with differences may be easy targets for bullies, they and their parents can learn ways to address harassment at school. 

What bullied kids can do

Students with special needs can learn strategies to counter the words and actions of school bullies. “You have personal power. You can shut down bullies,” says Mike Fogel, LPC, director of The Art of Friendship social skills program in Ardmore, PA. Many programs focus on adults rescuing the kids, says Fogel, but he empowers the kids themselves. 

Techniques he teaches to children with special needs include:
• Determine who is a true bully and who is just a teaser.
• Stay close to the nicer kids.
• Stay close to an adult authority figure. 

Fogel does not endorse physical retaliation. “We try to teach them to deal with it themselves, but if that doesn’t work, get help,” he advises. “There is a difference between tattling and asking for help in problem-solving a situation,” adds Dr. Wendy Ross, MD, a developmental pediatrician in Bryn Mawr, PA.

What parents can do

Parents may struggle to determine whether their child has been bullied at school. Some kids have difficulty with misperception, says Mizell, which can make them think they have been bullied when a perceived slight was unintentional. 

If parents suspect bullying behavior toward their child, they should talk to the designated anti-bullying representative at their school, says Stuart Green, LCSW, Director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. Often schools will say they’re investigating an incident, but they don’t say exactly what’s happening because of student privacy policies, notes Josh Kershenbaum, a lawyer for Frankel Kershenbaum, a Bryn Mawr, PA, law firm that represents kids with special needs. As a result, addressing the issue with the bully’s parents may have a greater effect, he suggests. 

During an IEP meeting with school representatives, parents should discuss the ‘hidden curriculum,’ advises Mizell, meaning the unwritten social rules for school success, such as what kids are wearing and what they talk about. This helps kids with weak social skills avoid unwittingly making faux pas at school. 

Parents can also ask staff to identify the ‘helper’ kid in their child’s class and point out that student to their child. 

What schools can do

According to a Dear Colleague letter on the bullying of students with disabilities, issued by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2014, schools have a responsiblility to stop bullying once they know about it, says Kershenbaum. While not a law, this recommendation tells school districts how to approach bullying. 

What peers can do

“Schools in general don’t do a good job educating kids about disabilities,” says Green. But the biggest missing piece in the bullying issue is peer support, he notes. Kids tend to fear what they don’t understand, says Sherrie Sponseller, a consultant with the PA Tourette Syndrome Alliance, and as 14-year-old Megan reports from her own experience (see sidebar), once kids do understand a disability, much of the negativity seems to disappear. 

“Take bullying very seriously,” advises Kershenbaum. “Getting intervention early is really key,” he says. 

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids

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