Transforming attitudes to bullying


Nicola Murray sets out positive steps schools can take to prevent bullying involving pupils with SEN

Two new pieces of research have highlighted once again the link between bullying and disability, and remind us that this isn’t an issue that’s going away.

The first, analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study by University of York, found that children with autism are more likely to be bullied by both their siblings and their schoolmates. The second, published by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL), found that disabled pupils and those with SEN experienced disproportionate amounts of bullying and social exclusion compared to their non-disabled peers. 

These reports add to a wealth of research over several years showing that disabled young people and those with SEN are amongst the groups most likely to experience bullying. Although some schools may deny that they have a problem with disablist bullying, we cannot disregard this evidence. We need to acknowledge that prevalence is much too high, understand the issues, and embrace the solutions.

Listening to young people 

Our understanding of bullying and disability has evolved slowly. As is often the case, it is only through listening to the voices of young people that we begin to understand the underlying issues and how we as adults can be part of the problem. From surveys of thousands of young people with SEN, the Anti-Bullying Alliance often heard the perhaps shocking revelation that the attitudes of adults to incidents of bullying are potentially as damaging as the incidents themselves. 

Young people said the bullying they experienced in school regularly went unnoticed and unchallenged. They described how bullying behaviour is not always recognised by teachers as such, and is becoming an “accepted behaviour”. This is particularly the case in relation to verbal abuse or derogatory language about disability in general. This often leads young people with SEN to accept bullying behaviour, blame themselves for what is happening to them, and develop a very negative self-image linked to their impairment. 

The view from young people was reinforced by what was heard from teachers. Incidents of disablist bullying often revealed a barrier in teachers’ attitudes, where they would focus on the pupil’s impairment as being the problem, and try to resolve bullying by changing the victim’s behaviour. They said things such as “they wouldn’t bully them if only they were better at making friends” or “if only he’d stop making that noise”. The perception was that the target of bullying had to change, not the behaviour of those doing the bullying or the approach of the school.

So it is hardly surprising that disabled children and those with SEN are particularly at risk of being excluded due to their involvement in bullying (both as perpetrators and targets). As one young person said, “I got excluded because all the winding up like, it got… it happened so often that I just got really angry and couldn’t control myself anymore. Eventually I ended up taking my anger out on someone… and as a result I ended up getting excluded… because I was considered a ‘health and safety matter’ by the school.”

Changing the school’s culture

Understanding the issues that lead to disablist bullying can help schools re-define their attitudes towards bullying and disability and find solutions.

By adopting the social model of disability, schools can reduce bullying and improve pupil wellbeing. This approach enables teachers to identify the elements of their school’s culture and environment that make disabled pupils and those with SEN more likely to experience bullying in the first place. When bullying does happen, schools can refocus their energies from trying to change the young person who is being bullied, to instead concentrating on changing the behaviours of those doing the bullying.

This change of approach is the basis of creating a positive school climate. There is strong research evidence1,2 that shows that bullying is less likely to happen in schools where pupils feel safe and happy, and where there are good teacher-pupil relationships. The evidence shows this to be particularly effective in preventing bullying of vulnerable groups, such as pupils with SEN.

Changes in school culture and climate must start with school leadership. Schools that have been most successful in reducing disablist bullying have been ones where the senior leadership team monitors data on bullying and reviews action plans on a termly basis. It is important too that schools involve their pupils in developing their anti-bullying strategies, and many have peer support as part of this. These initiatives can be very effective when carefully planned and executed. It is vitally important, however, that peer support schemes are inclusive, with representation from across the student body.

At the heart of successful approaches to reducing disablist bullying is the view that it is everyone’s business. To make a change, we must examine our role in the problem. It is the behaviour we exhibit, the environment we create, and the support we offer that profoundly affects bullying experienced by young disabled people and the impact that it has on them in the long term. 

Anti-Bullying Week 2019

11 to 15 November 2019
Anti-Bullying Week takes place in schools across England each November. This year’s theme is “Change Starts With Us” and the aim is to inform schools and settings, children and young people, parents and carers, that it takes a collective responsibility to stop bullying. By making small, simple changes, we can break the cycle of bullying and create a safe environment for everyone.

For more information, visit:

About the author

Nicola Murray is Head of Programmes at the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which runs Anti-Bullying Week and the All Together Programme: a whole school anti-bullying programme with a special focus on bullying of pupils with disabilities and SEN. 




1. Astor, R. A., and Benbenishty, R. (2019). Bullying, school violence, and climate in evolving contexts: Culture, organization, and time. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

2. Birkett, M., Espelage, D. L., and Koenig, B. (2009). LGB and questioning students in schools: The moderating effects of homophobic bullying and school climate on negative outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 989–1000.

Nicola Murray
Author: Nicola Murray

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