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
"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
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
"That was it," she says. "I just think, especially with the
younger kids, educating them, being proactive, can make an
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,"
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
One way to combat this problem is by teaching typically
developing students to be peer advocates against bullying, as New
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,"
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