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Everyone must play their part in tackling bullying of kids with SEN, writes Janet Shmulevitch

All too often, children experience bullying and are told it’s just an inevitable part of growing up.

Rarely is it a one-off event, but usually a series of incidences over a number of days, weeks, months or even years. Bullying can take a variety of forms: verbal, emotional, physical, theft and, more frequently, cyberbullying – where threatening messages or actions are sent via phone, text, email and social networking sites. 

Less overt forms of bullying can include “mate crime”, whereby friendships can become exploitative.  Out of a desire to maintain the relationship, vulnerable people can have money and possessions taken from them by these so-called friends, or “frenemies”. This can escalate into being used to engage in criminal or unwanted sexual activity, putting the vulnerable person at considerable risk.

Evidence shows children and young people with SEN and/or disabilities are thought to be three times more likely to be bullied or victimised, with an alarming 63 per cent of children with autism, and 80 per cent of children with learning disabilities, experiencing bullying at some point during their childhood.

Bullying is far from a minor inconvenience that children with SEN should learn to deal with. Left unchecked, the effects of bullying can be long-lasting and detrimental to the development, happiness, and safety of individuals.

Counting the cost

Byron, a 16-year-old, knows only too well about the impact of bullying. Enduring bullying on a regular basis at the mainstream school he attends, he has experienced name-calling, threats of violence, and other children switching off his electric wheelchair, leaving him immobile and vulnerable in a place that should be caring and nurturing. 

He said: “Being called ‘retard’, ‘spaz' and other names made me feel bad to the point where I couldn’t stay in class and refused to go to school. My parents felt strongly that not enough was being done. They took me out of school and I felt relieved not to be bullied.”

Children who experience bullying are more likely to have low self-esteem, become socially withdrawn, have lower academic achievement, find it difficult to form trusting, healthy relationships with friends, and may self-harm or attempt suicide. 

Despite this, its impact is often seriously underestimated by families, schools, health and social care providers. In 2012/13, the NSPCC reported that 45,000 children had talked to Childline about being bullied, and more than 16,000 were absent from school owing to bullying. These figures show little sign of decreasing.

Whilst removing a child from school may bring some temporary relief, it is not a long-term solution. Children and young people with SEN cannot simply be removed from the places where they find themselves victims of discriminatory and threatening behaviour. Everyone has the right to live a life that is free from bullying and exploitation.

Byron is now back at school three days a week and, whilst the bullying has reduced, it is still part of his life. He says: “To anyone being bullied, I would say tell your parents and carers as soon as possible to stop it getting worse. If my bullying was to stop tomorrow, I would be over the moon.”

Overcoming the damaging effects of bullying is always work in progress: it takes effort and enduring commitment. Regular opportunities in schools and other organisations for discussion and participation will enable children and young people to fully engage in the processes of challenging bullying behaviour in their communities, and help secure a brighter and healthier future for everyone.

Working together

The effects of bullying are not confined to the child who is experiencing it. Families caring for a child with SEN often face a unique combination of emotional, social, physical and financial pressures, and the additional stress of having to deal with the bullying of a child can be considerable. 

Everybody has a responsibility to combat bullying, including schools, clubs and groups, social care providers, members of the public, families and volunteers. There should be no choice as to whether we condone it or take positive action to address it. Taking responsibility is a duty and an obligation.

It is vitally important that organisations working with children develop robust policies and practices for dealing with bullying and that agencies work closely together with each other, children and their families, to plan strategies and find solutions that are long-lasting. Organisations can also be important in providing those who are being bullied with a safe environment in which to talk about their experiences.

A keen sportsman with a real sense of fun and energy, Byron has much to celebrate and be proud of. Whilst joining school sporting activities has often proved difficult, Byron has been supported to take part in wheelchair basketball and accessible abseilingwhich have increased his sense of achievement and his self-worth. He has been able to meet and engage with other people who share his interests and value his contribution and company.

Encouraged to speak up for himself, Byron is now using his experiences of growing up as a disabled child, often being told he can’t do things, to help other disabled children to develop self-belief. On the important issue of bullying he states that at a national level “we need to buck up our ideas and do something about it”.

Supporting bullies

In addition to supporting children who experience bullying, we should also provide support to bullies, who often feel negatively about themselves, lack positive role models in their lives and may also be victims of bullying. Bullies are more likely to develop depression and anxiety, have fewer friends, be abusive towards their partners and family, be excluded from school and jeopardise their jobs in later life. 

Working collectively to change the way in which organisations deal with bullying can have its challenges, but ignoring it can create an unhealthy culture of indifference and distrust that affects everybody and permeates the whole organisational ethos. The Brandon Trust, for example, has produced an Anti-bullying Policy and Procedure which states its organisational stance against bullying, providing information and giving advice about how to combat it. An easy-read report form has been designed to help children, young people and vulnerable adults to identify and report bullying incidents, discuss their feelings, and start to consider and discuss what action and support they need. 

Anti-bullying week, coordinated by the Anti-bullying Alliance, takes place between 16 and 20 November 2015, and will again focus the public’s gaze and bring children and young people, schools, parents and carers together with one aim: to stop bullying for all.

Further information

Janet Shmulevitch is a project manager at Brandon Trust, a charity supporting children and adults with learning disabilities and autism in the South of England:
www.brandontrust.org

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