Not all children with disabilities are bullied. Young children have a remarkable capacity to accept disability issues, often more readily than adults. Sometimes, though, bullies can be a source of heartache for kids with differences, particularly when children are integrated into the traditional education system.
A study undertaken a number of years ago by the University of Leeds, with children with disabilities aged 11 to 16 years, found bullying to be a central theme when these children talked about their lives—and was often cited as a reason for moving from an inclusive school and back into a segregated school environment.
What is bullying?
According to Norwegian researcher Dr. Dan Olweus, bullying is “A pattern of repeated aggressive behaviour, with negative intent, directed from one child to another where there is a power imbalance.” Children with disabilities are potential victims of bullying because of just such a power imbalance—if they look different, are physically or emotionally vulnerable, or are perceived to be getting special treatment then ringleaders may target them. And children with disabilities can also be bullies—the Leeds research revealed that segregated school environments are not immune from bullying.
Pius Ryan is the district principal in charge of student services for the Howe Sound School District, BC. His master’s thesis focused on the relationship between bullying and empathy. Ryan explains that the way a child handles adverse peer encounters at school is often a question of his or her own resilience. Simply put, to have a successful school experience, children need three things: Supportive parents, positive social networks and to find themselves academically capable. A child who has two of these can overcome deficits in the third—for example, when peer networks sour. The additional difficulty for children with certain disabilities, such as intellectual or learning challenges, is that their academic capability or ability to attend class might already be the stool’s wobbly leg. If their peers start victimizing them as well, these children can be at greater risk.
Empower your children
Encourage your children to speak up for themselves, assert themselves and not to think like victims. Bullies tend to pick on children whom they perceive to be vulnerable and unable to defend themselves.
Experts suggest that a code of silence often protects bullies. Suggest that your children tell an adult or a friend if they are bullied or witness bullying.
Help your kids build a support network of parents, friends, caregivers, therapists and teachers who understand what is going on and are prepared to help. Share tips and strategies with your child to combat bullying (see sidebar). Teach them that if they start to be bullied, they should walk away and find a place where there is a responsible adult.
Ask for help
Be engaged and create networks of positive relationships for your child. Let other parents, teachers, staff and students know what is happening and what help you might need. If your child comes home with a ripped shirt or sudden mood swings, or is afraid, then talk to the teacher. If your child tells you he or she is being bullied, pay attention. If the bullying persists after intervention, consider moving your child to another class or school.
Level the playing field
The more engaged children are in their community, the stronger they become and the more allies they will have who will come to their defense. Help your children find activities they have a unique ability or passion for, be it adaptive skiing, swimming or taking care of a pet. Kids with self-confidence are less vulnerable. Find an environment for your child where his or her disability disappears. For example, in wheelchair basketball, being in a wheelchair doesn’t stand out—it’s the norm. If a child with a disability can spend some time on a level playing field, he or she will feel more empowered. Encourage your children’s schools and activity groups to establish buddy programs, with seniors mentoring and watching out for younger kids and providing them with positive social interactions outside of their grade’s cliques.
Part of integrating children with disabilities into the mainstream school system involves dropping preconceived ideas of what should or should not happen. Success means different things to different people, based on their background, expectations and goals. When a child has a disability, it’s important to explore and redefine how you will measure success without labelling or separating that child. According to Ryan, “It’s sometimes hard for parents to let go of the traditional vision of success to realize a vision for their child,” says Ryan. Successes need to be recognized, and tailored to a child’s current and future potential and his or her abilities. A well-crafted educational plan can support a personalized vision of success and, as far as possible, help children with goal setting and confidence building for themselves. To enable this, talk to your child and his or her teachers, and establish how success will be measured for each school year. Then, develop an action plan to meet those markers. Reward your children for successes in meeting their own milestones, so they can enjoy a sense of academic capability.
The good news
Because nasty stories of bullying have made national headlines, schools and communities, and even celebrities, are now taking a strong anti-bullying stance. Community awareness and education are helping children, parents and teachers to successfully battle bullying, creating safer, zero-tolerance environments for all of our children.
5 BRIGHT IDEAS
1. Talk about it Talk about bullying with your kids and ask other family members to share their experiences. If one of your kids opens up about being bullied, praise him or her for being brave enough to discuss it and offer your unconditional support. Learn about the school’s anti-bullying policies, and ask staff and teachers how they can address the situation.
2. Remove the bait
If it‘s lunch money or gadgets that the school bully is after, you can help neutralize the situation by encouraging your child to pack a lunch or go to school gadget-free.
3. Buddy up for safety
Two or more friends standing at their lockers are less likely to be picked on than a child who is alone. Remind your child to use a buddy system when on the school bus, in the bathroom or wherever bullies may lurk.
4. Keep calm and carry on
If a bully strikes, a kid’s best defense is often to remain calm, ignore hurtful remarks, tell the bully to stop and simply walk away. Bullies thrive on hurting others. A child who isn’t easily ruffled has a better chance of staying off a bully’s radar.
5. Don’t try to fight the battle yourself
Talking to a bully’s parents can sometimes be constructive, but it’s generally best to do so in a setting where a school official, such as a counsellor, can mediate.