Beating bullying: supporting children with disabilities and SEN


Anti-bullying legislation and advice.

All children have the right to go to school without being bullied, but research has consistently shown that the bullying of children with a disability or special educational needs (SEN) continues to be disproportionately high: the latest Government figures show that more than 80 per cent of young people with a statement of educational need or a disability have been bullied, compared with under two thirds for other young people1.

Bullying has an adverse effect on mental health, achievement and self-esteem, and can be a hugely distressing and destructive experience for the child concerned and their families. In January, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the schools minister, wrote to all head teachers and chairs of governing bodies to emphasise this urgent problem and remind them that tackling this type of bullying was a key priority for 2009.

Bullying of children with disabilities or SEN can take overt forms of physical and verbal abuse. Mencap has found that six out of ten children with learning disabilities have been physically hurt during bullying, and nearly eight out of ten have been verbally abused 2. It is also important to note that, although it is usually assumed that behaviour must be repeated or persistent, Government guidance makes it clear that a “one-off” incident can still be dealt with as bullying, particularly if the victim is clearly targeted because of a disability 3.

Staff working in schools should be aware that the bullying of children with disabilities and SEN can take specific forms not experienced by other children. For example, children with learning difficulties can be manipulated into doing things they would not ordinarily do, such as stealing, and children with behavioural and emotional difficulties can be provoked into acting out aggressively. It is important that staff are able to identify where this has taken place, and be open to the fact that this behaviour may not necessarily be the individual’s fault. Identification of bullying can be made more difficult where children with developmental conditions, such as autism, may not recognise they are being bullied. Some children will also need extra support in their preferred method of communication if they are to be able to relate their experience of bullying to adults.

Policy and practice

In 2008 the Council for Disabled Children, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and Young Voice produced the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ (DCSF’s) latest suite of guidance in the Safe to Learn series, specifically relating to the bullying of children with SEN and disabilities. The guidance outlines the accepted model for dealing with bullying: a focus on prevention on the one hand and reacting to incidences of bullying on an individual level on the other. Effective preventative work involves clearly articulating the protections for children with disabilities and SEN in anti-bullying policies, training all staff in recognising and challenging disablist bullying, and planning in partnership with disabled children and young people themselves. Dealing with specific incidences of bullying involves addressing the specifics of the case, including whether the child responsible for the bullying is themselves disabled or has SEN, and dealing with the issue in line with the clearly defined behaviour  and anti-bullying policies developed by the school.

Social isolation and being the victim of bullying are intrinsically linked. Social interaction can often be difficult for many disabled children and children with SEN and they may find close friendships hard to maintain. Without the security of a friendship group, it is more likely that children will be targeted by bullies and, once a child is being bullied, other children become even more reluctant to include them in their social groups for fear of being targeted themselves 4. Where this is the case, breaking this cycle may need an emphasis on the “intentional building of relationships”. Techniques such as the “Circle of Friends”, where children and young people are given structured support and encouragement by their peers, can help to overcome the related problems of  social isolation and bullying.

It is clear that schools are not always addressing instances of bullying as they should. The National Autistic society found that 44 per cent of parents of children with autism who had been bullied say no action was taken by the school 5. However, in terms of legal duties to tackle the bullying of children with disabilities and SEN, schools already have a clear responsibility to promote positive images of disabled people and tackle disability related harassment. In her letter to school leaders, Sarah McCarthy-Fry also writes that a significant proportion of secondary schools are still unaware of the need to implement and publish a disability equality scheme (DES), despite the fact that this has been a legal requirement since December 2006. Developing a DES will help engage and empower children with a disability or SEN, will set a strategy for reducing social isolation and bullying among this group, and will allow schools to monitor their progress towards this goal.

The Government has also committed to introducing legislation in the latter part of 2009 placing a duty on schools to report on incidences of bullying. The Council for Disabled Children would like to see disablist bullying recorded as a specific category within this duty, and to see this information collated by the local authority. While we would not see a value in this information being used to “name and shame” a particular school (indeed, a high number of reported incidences may indicate a school is doing well at identifying bullying behaviour) this data will be an important indicator as to the impact that local and national policies are having on children’s lives. The data will also assist local authorities as they seek to develop comprehensive strategies to target bullying across all settings as set out in Safe from Bullying guidance.


Ultimately, bullying is a social phenomenon and an issue for everyone in the school community. The most effective responses to bullying are therefore those that take a broad and coherent view towards prevention and response, and which occur within the context  of a strong ethos of inclusion for all children. This ethos can be communicated to staff and pupils through training, the curriculum, posters, assemblies and, most importantly, through the positive inclusion of children with SEN and disabilities in all school activities. By challenging bullying where it occurs, employing rigorous prevention and monitoring strategies, and fostering a culture of inclusion, many more schools can take a dramatic step forward in eliminating the bullying of children with disabilities and SEN.

Further information

Matthew Dodd is from the Council for Disabled Children:

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 41: July/August 2009.


1. Department For Children, Schools And Families, Youth cohort study and longitudinal study of young people in England: the activities and experiences of 16 year olds, England 2007, 2008.

2.  Mencap, Bullying wrecks lives, 2007

3. Department For Children, Schools And Families, Safe from Bullying: Guidance for local authorities and other strategic leaders on reducing bullying in the community, 2009

4. Hodges, EVE Malone, MJ and Perry, DG, Individual risk and social risk as interacting determinants of victimization in the peer group. Developmental Psychology, 33, 1032-1039, 1997

5. National Autistic Society, B is for Bullied: Experiences of children with autism and their families, 2006

Matthew Dodd
Author: Matthew Dodd

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