Bullying is an issue that almost every child will experience at least once by the time they finish high school. Special needs children unfortunately are victims of bullying repeatedly. They tend to be targets for bully’s. Roughly 65% of children who are bullied struggle with special needs. This creates a double whammy of sorts.
Special needs children struggle with negative self efficacy, poor self-esteem and other issues due to their challenges and feeling different. Being bullied exacerbates negative feelings they already possess about themselves. Their negative experiences with peers creates psychological and emotional issues that they will carry into adulthood.
Bullying a child is not only defined as physical abuse. It can be verbally attacking a child’s intelligence, physical attributes, motor skill abilities, mimicking their speech, making fun of an emotional meltdown, social behaviors that peers deem as odd and more. True, a physical punch can leave a bruise. On many occasions verbal or emotional abuse leaves an internal bruise that is not visible to the naked eye, yet may take years to heal or worse yet never heal, causing issues that are carried into adulthood.
Bullies tend to target children who display a weakness in some area. Children may be smaller, weaker, fearful, anxious, lack the physical, verbal or emotional capabilities to stand up to a bully. Or the bullied child may be a peace seeker who sees the positive in others. Many times, special needs kids lack the skills to defend themselves. There is an imbalance of power., survival of the fittest. Your child may not have the capability to comprehend they are being bullied.
I know first hand how painful it is for a parent to observe their special needs child being bullied. I have experienced it first hand. Observing my son with Aspergers/ ADHD being bullied as a child was heartbreaking for me as well as him. After all, parents wish to take away their child’s pain and sadness. Observing your child being bullied and feeling like your hands are tied behind your back is a horrific feeling.
Combining my experience in the classroom and personal experience on the home front experiencing bullying propelled me to develop a game plan, both in the classroom and at home.
Many articles suggest finding a safe person to go to, a teacher, principal, school monitor or lunch personnel at the school. In my observation this has not proven successful. Many children fear telling an adult that they are being bullied. The child fears worse abuse if the bully witnesses them telling an adult about their experience or find out.
In my classroom I developed a plan of action:
A locked metal box with a slot was placed in the school office. Children could drop a note in the box alerting me of abuse. I was the only individual with a key. Thus once notes were anonymously placed in the box, I was the only person who could unlock it. I checked it at the end of each day. In doing so, I was made aware of and able to observe certain students in action so I could address the issue. The bully never knew who told on them. The abused child stayed anonymous to the bully allaying fears of repercussions as a result of disclosing the identity of their abuser.
Parents were encouraged to email me with information. Hence, assisting me in nipping issues and resolving the issues by alerting me to observe certain children. Developing class discussions according to issues that occur during the day are of the utmost importance.
I would keep an open ear and eye to comments or altercations that happened during the day and incorporate them into a circle discussion that I had everyday. An example in point: I had a student in my class who possessed emotional challenges. I heard another child call him bad and stupid. First and foremost, the word bad was banned in my classroom. I taught the students that there are no bad children, only children who make mistakes.
Using my mantra of not singling out the bullied child publicly , I started circle by stating how we all make mistakes. I encouraged each child to tell us about a time they made a mistake. It was quite successful. I role modeled the safety of admitting our mistakes by starting with me.
I told the children in circle how I went to a drive through bank machine. I was in a rush. I repeatedly put my ATM card in the ATM slot. The bank machine repeatedly spit it out. I was confused and checked my bank card attempting to figure out why the ATM would not accept it. I realized that I had been inserting my health insurance card in the slot, not my bank card as I thought I was.
This was met by the kids with roars of laughter as I said, “see, even grown ups make mistakes”. What occurred here? I modeled my own willingness to admit my error. This in turn assisted the students in their willingness to admit their errors as well. This was a lesson in tolerance for others and an appreciation for human imperfection.
Preventing bullying starts with role models. It is one thing to speak about bullying, it is another to create an action oriented plan which models empathy ,social skills and the importance of good character.
After spending some time reading books on bullying, people who have disabilities and books on character building. We created a kindness box. The intent here was to go beyond talking about kindness and teach the children how to become more altruistic, empathetic and tolerant.
The kindness box was created from a shoe box. It had a small slit in the top. The children decorated it as a team . They wrapped it in shiny tin foil, decorated it with stickers, glued sea shells on it and what ever other items they chose to use. By allowing them to decorate it, it became (their) box. It was their classroom and I was the coach. If children have involvement in projects versus the teacher dictating the whole design, they are more responsive and take more pride in their project.
The children were encouraged to drop a note in the box when they witnessed another student performing a good deed. My only rule was that they could not sign their comments. I was attempting to teach students how to give anonymous comments and learn to enjoy the happiness their comment gave to another student. My goal was to reinforce that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. Children were encouraged to drop a note in the kindness box if a child assisted another child in tying their shoes, assisted a struggling learner with a project, picked up an item off the floor if another dropped it etc.
On Fridays, we sat in a circle and I opened the box and I read the kindness notes out loud mentioning the name of the recipient who performed the good deed. Applause for recipients was encouraged. The recipient was given their note to take home and cherish. I monitored the kindness box during the week, out of my students sight to make sure every child had a note in it.
I was aware that children could be left out and not receiving a kindness note, particularly special needs kids. This was not going to be a popularity contest as it would defeat the purpose of this activity. If a child did not have a note in the box, I would write one in childish scrawl to ensure all experienced the feeling of gratitude.
This became an extremely popular activity and created a larger sense of camaraderie in the classroom. When students heard the comments pertaining to their special needs peers, it opened typically developing kids eyes to the special needs peers talents. It caught on so well, that I found quite a surprise in the kindness box. The children started writing positive comments about me as well. My most memorable note in the kindness box said, “Miss Mari is a good teacher, she cares about us” A memorable moment I cherish.
Reading books and exploring various disabilities at the beginning of the school year can assist children in understanding the concept of differing abilities within their environment. Allowing time to discuss the strengths and similarities to neurotypical peers and not merely the differences can assist the children in understanding that classmates may have different challenges and come in all shapes and sizes, yet in the end they are all children who possess emotions, needs wanting to belong within their peer group. By reading various books and providing discussions and activities, children who do not wish to discuss their issues are not singled out.
Children’s individual wishes and choices should always be respected. If children wish to do so, allowing them, their parents or both to speak in the class regarding their disabilities is a positive way to teach other students about differences and diagnosis. I myself personally believe being open about a child’s diagnosis in some form is important. However, it is imperative that the diagnosis is used only to gain an understanding regarding the child’s needs. Methods of approach to learning and learn about their differences and strength. If a child does not wish to publicly speak about the diagnosis perhaps the parent could speak to the teacher privately.
Remember, children learn what children see. No one is born a bully. Modeling good character, acceptance, tolerance and altruism can break the cycle. Creating buddy systems within the classroom can breed teamwork. When choosing children for teams I made sure no one was left out. Children will tend to line up next to a friend when teams are chosen. When they lined up I would call out random numbers from number one on up. ie 1 and 4 in line would be on the same team etc. I would switch my random number choices each time we did an activity so friends never knew what order I would choose in picking teams. The end result was a mixture on teams of children who possessed varied abilities and NO ONE was left out.
Special needs kids need to have a sense of belonging. Involve them in some type of club or group where they have interaction with other children. In my son’s case, we had school band in his IEP with intent to have it incorporated in his whole school program as it was his only time that he socialized in an extracurricular format with peers. Invite one child over to your home who shares an interest with your child. Make the visit short while gradually increasing socialization.
I have included a link to another article that I wrote long ago as well. It is a long-term project done in my classroom to teach empathy. I do not normally provide dual links within my blog. I do think both articles are interconnected in this case.
MY STUDENTS TAUGHT ME ABOUT COMPASSION http://wp.me/p2PTZP-39
Bullying should never be tolerated, it is unacceptable. As adults we need to create plans to break the bullying chain. Especially for special needs kids. We need to be their voice when they do not have one.
I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s Amazon.com at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on http://tinyurl.com/kdspqy9
Mari Nosal M.Ed.