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Child Development and Learning Difficulties



Anti-Bullying week: Bullying in children with SEND

By Admin, on 20 November 2020


by Susanna Mannik,

Bullying is one of the most damaging forms of discrimination and all children can be vulnerable to bullying for a variety of reasons.

However, learners with special educational needs (SEN) may be bullied for a range of additional reasons (e.g. because they look or act differently). The phrase ‘special educational needs’ covers a broad range of conditions (including, for example, autism spectrum disorders, learning disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) (DSCF, 2008), which call for special educational provision to be made for the learner (Department of Education, 2015).


There is considerable amount of evidence confirming that children with SEN are significantly more likely to be bullied or victimised by their peers. Chatzitheochari and colleagues (Chatzitheochari et al., 2016) analysed nationally representative data from two renowned longitudinal studies, which allowed them to examine the prevalence of school bullying in early childhood (age 7) and adolescence (age 15). The results of their study suggest that children and young people with SEN were at a higher risk of bullying victimisation at both time points.

Additionally, various studies have suggested that bullying may have been experienced by 83% of children with learning difficulties (or eight out of ten) (Luciano and Savage, 2007 and Mencap, 2007). Furthermore, 70% of children with autistic spectrum disorders combined with other characteristics (for example, OCD) were shown to be victims of bullying in the study by Bejerot and Mortberg (2009), and 94% of parents of children with Asperger Syndrome reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months (Little, 2002).



There is evidence for both direct and indirect bullying against children with SEN. Woods and White (2005) have defined direct bullying behaviour as hitting, kicking or taking belongings, and indirect or relational bullying as causing harm through the manipulation of social relations by name calling, spreading rumours and social exclusion. In a study by Mooney and Smith (1995), 59% of the people with speech difficulties had been physically bullied as children, and 56% of respondents had experienced the spreading of rumours. However, children with SEN may, in some instances, be affected by a different kind of bullying involving ridicule, manipulation and name-calling (Moore, 2009).

Pupils with SEN can also be at a higher risk in relation to cyberbullying, which is becoming more prevalent with the increased use of technology. Cyberbullying is bullying via electronic means and can take a wide range of forms, such as threats, intimidation, namecalling, harassment, exclusion, posting personal information, etc. (Anti-bullying Alliance, 2020). In a study by Didden et al. (2009), victimization and bullying via the internet and cellphone were found to be relatively prevalent in students with developmental disabilities. Additionally, Beatbullying found in their Virtual Violence II report (2012) that those who reported having SEN were 12% more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than those who did not.


All pupils with SEN may have certain characteristics that can make them more vulnerable to bullying.

Deficits in social competence and communication have emerged as key issues in the bullying of pupils with SEN (Mclaughlin et al., 2010a). An analysis by Kavale and Forness (1996) demonstrated the presence of social skills deficits in 75% of the children with learning disabilities. Social competence comprises various domains, including social cognition, which is the ability to spontaneously read and correctly interpret verbal and nonverbal social and emotional cues, as well as the knowledge of different social behaviors and their consequences in social tasks (e.g., how to initiate a conversation, how to negotiate needs). This can be especially problematic for some children with SEN and may result in inappropriate social behaviour (Bauminger et al., 2005).

Other characteristics of children with SEN that are associated with an increased risk of peer victimization include academic as well as language difficulties (for example pupils with dyslexia). Being aware of these difficulties can damage the self-esteem of pupils with SEN and make them vulnerable to being teased (Singer, 2005) and this may lead to children with SEN being ‘less accepted and more rejected’ by their peers than other children (Mclaughlin et al., 2010b).

Additionally, it has been argued that children with SEN are at an increased risk of bullying because they are absent from school more often (Moore, 2009), which can reduce their opportunities for forming meaningful friendships that may protect them against being bullied (Savage, 2005).


Bullying interventions and prevention strategies often take the form of anti-bullying policies and/or school-wide educational programmes. School-wide programmes aim to change the attitudes and behaviours in teachers, students, as well as parents. In general, the literature has found that these programmes are most useful in the reduction of bullying (Foody & Samara, 2018).

Teachers are in the front line in terms of implementing school policies on bullying and dealing with incidents if they occur, however, there is good reason to also involve parents in bullying prevention. Parents can have an important role in working together with teachers, supporting anti-bullying initiatives, and liaising with schools if they have concerns about a child’s behaviour (Axford et al., 2015).


General advice related to bullying:

Raise awareness of the phenomena, and promote knowledge about bullying and victimization in pupils (De Luca et al., 2019).
Increase skills and competences on the effective ways to intervene after a bullying episode and gain training in conflict resolution (Ttofi & Farrington 2011).

Establish firm disciplinary sanctions against students who bully (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011). Develop techniques together with pupils in detecting and dealing with bullying behaviour (Axford et al., 2015).
Encourage teacher-parent relationships using strategies that include the sharing of information with parents on bullying policy and incident procedures, and training/advice for parents (Langford et al., 2014).

In guidances produced by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (2018; 2020), additional tips have been highlighted:

In the event of bullying in children with SEN, action should be taken at once if it is to be meaningful, as some learners will struggle to remember details of an incident several days later. Some learners with SEN and disabilities cannot recognise bullying behaviour nor identify the child who is using bullying behaviour. In such circumstances, work with bystanders and ongoing proactive work will be most productive.

Provide support groups of peers in school; buddy group, friendship groups etc.
In relation to cyberbullying, children and young people with SEN, should be taught how to use the internet and new technologies safely and responsibly to prevent cyberbullying. Helping young people develop into responsible digital citizens who can look after themselves, and their peers and get the most out of technology is the best counter to cyberbullying.



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