Bullying is a big concern for any parent, but parents of children with special needs often have more to worry about.
"Kids get targeted for bullying because they're different. The other reason they get picked on is because they're usually very vulnerable because they have few or no friends. And those are kind of two primary characteristics of kids with disabilities," says Julie Hertzog, the Bullying Prevention Project director at the PACER Center in Minneapolis, which aims to improve the lives of children with disabilities.
It's important to realize: most children bully because of fear.
"They see a difference and it makes them anxious, and they don't know really what to say or what to do, so they will tend to laugh, or point their finger, or exclude these kids," says Judy Freedman, author of Easing the Teasing and elementary school social worker in Wilmette and Buffalo Grove.
She says she believes educating kids about special needs makes a huge difference.
Take the case of a third-grade boy with Tourette's Syndrome in one of Freedman's classes. His classmates didn't understand the disorder and, as a result, teased him. Freedman fixed that when she brought him to the front of the class to talk about Tourette's and answer questions.
"That was it," she says. "I just think, especially with the younger kids, educating them, being proactive, can make an incredible difference."
That is what New Trier High School plans to do with its Names Can Really Hurt Us program for incoming freshmen. "The program really talks a lot about difference, and one of the refrains of the program is 'different is not less than,'" says Timothy Hayes, the assistant superintendent for Student Services. The program tries to incorporate at least one student with a disability into the programming to discuss his or her difference. "I think knowing one another better leads to less incidents of that kind of bullying," says Hayes.
Mostly, though, New Trier students don't bully because they've been taught from a young age to accept their peers with disabilities. "Our sender districts have done a very nice job of integrating the kids in an inclusion environment doing things at very young ages to talk about differences," says Laurel Burman, New Trier's director of special education. Because special needs education focuses on inclusion and incorporates children with disabilities into the mainstream classroom, students are getting the type of education that prevents bullying. "I think they're much more aware than students were years ago."
There are still things to watch out for, however.
A primary concern is that children with special needs often do not understand they are being teased and cannot defend themselves. "A lot of these children have such difficulty reading social cues they really don't get it, and many of them don't really perceive that this teasing is something negative," says Freedman. "They think it's something pretty cool because they're interacting with these kids."
One way to combat this problem is by teaching typically developing students to be peer advocates against bullying, as New Trier does.
For children who do understand the cues, controlling their responses is often the best way to prevent future teasing. "We try to give kids the tools to respond, because if they respond by using anger or get scared or get mad or fight back or get defensive or just pretend it isn't happening, then the behavior is much more likely to continue," says Hertzog.
Hertzog encourages parents to teach their kids to use humor to respond to the situation, or a detached, factual approach to deny bullies the rise they're looking to get.
"It's not the responsibility of the child to fix the bullying situation, but there are definitely ways to protect themselves," says Hertzog.