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Addressing Bullying of Students With Disabilities

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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The Expert Advisory Group of the NJ Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention recently developed guidance for schools concerning bullying prevention for students with disabilities. This is an important area because these are students who are disproportionately targets of bullying and they sometimes exhibit bullying-related behaviors that are also part of their disabilities. The latter makes it hard to know how to apply more general school rules regarding bullying.

The guidance document is available at the Coalition web site and contains many specific recommendations. Here, I want to summarize the key overall issue identified in the document by the primary author, Dr. Millicent Kellner of Rutgers University.

The term "disability" covers a range of conditions from the highly "visible," (e.g., a student with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair) to the more "invisible," (e.g., a student with a learning disability). Students with disabilities are more often targeted for bullying than other students and understanding the reasons why is the first step toward generating effective prevention efforts.

Think of students that you know as you consider each of these reasons:

  1. Their appearance is different.
  2. They may be more socially isolated than students without disabilities and lack relationships which buffer against being bullied.
  3. Their disability may make it less likely that they can defend themselves, verbally or physically.
  4. They may behave differently or in ways that others do not understand.
  5. The extra support they require may pose challenges to staff, as well as other students.
  6. Opportunities for engaging with, becoming familiar with, and better understanding students with disabilities are often limited.

These reasons are not unrelated to one another and all connect to the climate of the school and the priority given to seeing school as a place where all members of the school community expect and experience acceptance and where students with and without disabilities have, and benefit from, opportunities to interact and to develop friendships.

Schools should be places where everyone's dignity is both respected and upheld, and where everyone is an upstander for decency and helpfulness. This is not only possible, it's essential for genuine learning and social-emotional and character development.

At the end of January, look for a recording on the Coalition site of a teleseminar featuring Dr. Kellner, and Dr. Stuart Green, the Coalition Director, fielding questions about this topic and related bully prevention and response issues.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Barbjb's picture
ELL Tutor

Great blog! I especially like your point that it is essential for schools to be places where everyone's dignity is respected and upheld. As a teacher of English Language Learners, I find that any form of "difference" becomes a target for bullying. My thought is that ignoring a particular student (or students) is a form of bullying. It is imperative that administrators, teachers, and staff understand and model acceptance of all students.

Rstone230's picture

After bringing our matter of bullying toward our Special Needs daughter to the attention of the Principal, Superintendent even the Town Board of Education we were ostracized. Through the Freedom of Information Act we requested email correspondences of the school officials involved. What we found was conspiracy and willful contempt to cover up the matter. The State Board of Education concluded after a nine day Hearing that there was "outrageous bullying behavior" by the coach and that the Board "failed to appropriately reprimand" the coach. Also discovered through facts was, "She was provided nothing by the Board, in fact, the Board acquiesced in the bullying". The Town Board is currently appealing the State's decision and has filed for an appeal through Federal Court. Please know that it is difficult to fight city hall, but if you believe in your cause the outcome can change things for the better and for everyone, most importantly for our children. We are still hopeful! Please see the youtube video of the local television news report shortly after the school board filed their appeal,

Elizabeth's picture
Elementary Special Education Teacher IL

I think that bullying is becoming such a huge problem in schools, even at the elementary level. I teach students with disabilities and many times they come up to me and tell me another student called them a name or told them they were weird because they have to go a different classroom with a different teacher to learn because they can't learn with the regular kids. It is sad to see that so many children are picked on because of something that they cannot help. Some students with disabilities are made fun of and do not realize they are being made fun of which causes the bully to attack them even more. I think that every school needs to have a bullying policy and it needs to be reinforced,otherwise it teaches the bully's that they can get away with their harmful words and actions.

Sharon's picture
high school special education teacher

I believe it is important to talk openly about bullying. Bullying has been around forever, that doesn't mean that it should continue to be tolerated. Everyone has value and it's doesn't matter if a person has a "visible" or "invisible" disability. Once people recognize value in the differences people possess then there will be respect. Until then, bullying will continue. Thanks for bringing the topic of Bullying as it pertains to students with disabilities to the forefront.

LadyWeichert's picture
3rd Grade Teacher from Federal Way, WA

I gained a new student who has visible and invisible differences from the rest of the students in my classroom. A few students in the school started playing a "game" with her at recess. The "game" turned out to be stealing her coat and making her chase after them to get it back. I spoke with my colleagues to gain ideas on how to approach this and found that this group are actually repeat-offenders. When I sat down with the students to talk about how this situation is actually bullying, they were confused because my new student never told them to stop. I tried to help them understand that regardless of the new student's response, if they knew it was wrong, then the behaviors need to stop. It was very challenging to respect both my new student's privacy as well as the playground kids' naivety. In the end, I found the best way to prevent future bullying was to have a Friendship Club where anyone could join, play together at recess, and feel safe to be themselves. I got the idea from a book called The Bully Blockers Club by Teresa Bateman. So far, we have success!

Ahbez Eden's picture

Bullying is bad for any kid, learning disabled or not. I agree that it can be harder for kids with learning disabilities who may find it difficult to explain or discuss it with a person with authority. I think that special ed schools counter this very well - with their better teacher to student ratio allowing teachers to pay more attention to the students.

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