Bullying and SEN


Taking a look at how schools can engender more tolerant attitudes to difference 

Disabled students and pupils with SEN are more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers – a hard truth which is sometimes overlooked by schools. Moreover, disabled students or those with SEN who are also LGBT+* or perceived to be, are more likely to be bullied and are at greater risk of not being believed when they report bullying. As one young person said, “it’s a double whammy”.

Academic research shows that being of a different gender identity, sexual orientation or being disabled (including having SEN) increases the risk of a child being victimised by peers. This kind of victimisation will often focus on the real or perceived differences between the victim and the rest of their peer group. When schools fail to champion difference and have an environment which is hostile to “difference” bullying, then these children are more likely to become ostracised. This is why whole-school approaches that champion respect and celebrate the things that make us all different are proven to be effective at reducing bullying.

In an average class, ten children will report that they have been bullied in the last year and one child will experience persistent bullying every day. Research shows, however, that in primary schools, disabled pupils are twice as likely to suffer from persistent bullying as their non-disabled classmates; with more than twice as many children with SEN saying they experienced bullying “all the time” at age seven, than those without SEN.

Similarly, over half of young people who identify as LGBT+ have experienced bullying related to their gender or sexual orientation: homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying (HBT). Disabled children and those with SEN are at increased risk of HBT bullying: a survey of LGBT+ young people in the UK found that two-thirds of those who also had SEN or were disabled had experienced HBT bullying, compared to 55 per cent among the sample as a whole.

Changing attitudes

Although schools have made commendable progress in dealing with bullying over the years, levels of homophobic and disablist bullying are still a concern. School culture, alongside attitudes towards supporting disabled children and those with SEN, can often be hurdles to change, with attention often focussing on changing the behaviour of the person who has been bullied rather than the perpetrator. School staff may say things like: it wouldn’t happen if “he didn’t make that noise”, if they “could talk about the things the other pupils want to talk about”, or if “she didn’t fly off the handle”. Such statements can make disabled learners and those with SEN feel as if they are at fault, as if they have to change or as if bullying is just inevitable, and can often prevent incidents being perceived as bullying, making pupils less forthcoming about reporting bullying behaviour.

In a similar way, when being gay is seen as something of a taboo within the school culture then HBT bullying is more likely to occur, and it becomes increasingly difficult for young people experiencing HBT bullying to report it. Two-thirds of young people responding to a survey for the Anti-Bullying Alliance said their teachers rarely spoke out against homophobia or transphobia. The Alliance consulted with young people and heard that when they saw others being victimised for being LGBT+, or did not hear LGBT+ being discussed in their SRE lessons, this made speaking out about HBT bullying very hard.

In addition, many young people reported that homophobic language was frequently heard in their school, especially the term “You’re so gay!”, which was used “whether you’re gay or not”. Interestingly, a disabled young person said that they thought others “think it’s easier to say that than to say something to us about being disabled”. Indeed, homophobic language could be used to accentuate any difference, such as victimising someone for having SEN or being disabled. Studies have shown that among victims of homophobic bullying, at least a third of young people say they were targeted because of their impairment and/or SEN.

Such attitudes in school can breed a culture of silence around bullying. It is estimated that around a quarter to a third of all children do not tell anyone that they are being bullied, but this figure is higher among young people who are victims of HBT bullying. Those young people who do not report bullying may not feel safe enough or able to talk about their experiences, especially if they are sexual in nature or relate to their sexuality or gender identity. Likewise, the disabled young people in the survey – some of whom identified as LGBT+ – were concerned they could not approach teachers about bullying “if teachers don’t understand LGBT+ or disability”.

These young people also expressed concern that “People think you can be disabled or LGBT but not both.” Sadly, it appears that there is still an assumption made by many that disabled people will be asexual – neither homosexual, bisexual nor heterosexual. In schools this means that staff “don’t talk to you [students] about any relationships, let alone about being or acknowledging that you are LGBT”. Presumptions of asexuality and a lack of adequate sex and relationships education can undermine disabled young people’s self-confidence, and put them at risk of not reporting bullying.

A whole-school approach

Over the last three years, the Anti-Bullying Alliance has led, together with the charities Contact a Family and Achievement for All, an evidence-based programme to address the disproportionate amount of bullying those with SEN and disabled students experience. This has involved delivering training to senior leadership teams in schools and other professionals from the children’s workforce which draws on the social model of disability.

A school with a social model of disability and a whole-school approach sends a message that everyone has equal value in school and should be respected. Schools are encouraged to challenge the behaviour of the person who is bullying others, rather than the behaviour of the person experiencing the bullying – which is all too often the case with disabled children.

In just three months, some schools on the programme saw substantial reductions in the number of disabled children and those with SEN experiencing bullying, and have ensured that no children with SEN are being frequently bullied. Schools that have done particularly well are often those that celebrate the difference in all pupils in their school, seek to listen to all of their students and work hard to address all types of prejudice. They have shown that it is not inevitable for young people with SEN, who are disabled or who are, or are perceived as, LGBT+ to experience bullying.

Further information

Sophie Keenleyside is Projects Assistant at the Anti-Bullying Alliance, a coalition of organisations and individuals, hosted by the National Children’s Bureau, working to stop bullying and create safer environments for children:

* By LGBT+ the author includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and the + signifies other gender or sexuality identities such as queer, intersex and asexual.

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