What we can do to prevent the bullying of children with SEN in our schools
Bullying can happen to any child at any time, but children with SEN can be particularly vulnerable.
Many children with SEN will spend all or part of their school lives in a mainstream educational environment. This can be beneficial for the child in terms of their personal and educational development but it can also lead to their being isolated. Bullying can also occur in special schools and this should not be overlooked.
Kay Joel, an NSPCC education consultant, works with schools and colleges to advise them on their anti-bullying approaches in the wider context of safeguarding. She says: “Schools are required to have anti-bullying policies. Many schools and nurseries have excellent policies, some need extra help in getting it right, but all policies need to be part of the whole school culture. Involvement of the whole school community, parents and carers, children and young people help to make the school a safer place.
“A common shared understanding of what bullying is – and what it isn’t – among staff and pupils raises awareness and schools can develop a charter or agreement which states their position and response to bullying.”
Using assemblies, displays, the school council and a playground policy are all ways of getting the message across that bullying is not acceptable.
Personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons, or using models such as circle time and the social and emotional aspects of learning materials, are an ideal opportunity to talk about what bullying is, how it feels, and how children can respond. Peer support systems can also be an effective anti-bullying approach.
Where children are living with SEN, bullying behaviour often originates from the differences between them and other children – in the way they look, speak, or act, or in the way they are treated by adults in their lives.
When children are very young they may start pointing out differences between them and other children from a sense of harmless curiosity, perhaps openly asking questions that adults may find awkward to deal with.
For children with SEN, difficulties with peer relationships are the most common type of bullying and children will often report being ridiculed and called names. They are also prone to cyber bullying. There’s a wide spectrum of bullying from social isolation, to physical and sexual harassment.
Teachers and other staff members need to be tuned in to the things children are saying, gently point out what is acceptable behaviour, and take these opportunities to talk about why it’s ok to be different.
Bullying can also arise where a child with SEND has particular communication style that leads to barriers between them and other children. Language and communication skills, and even subtle differences in ways of communicating, can lead to social isolation.
For example, a child with autism may find it harder to interact socially with their peers, which may lead to them removing themselves from group activity. This can lead to further isolation and potentially their being bullied or developing bullying behaviour themselves.
However, it’s important that teachers and parents alike do not succumb to stereotyping a child with SEN as a victim, as they can also act out bullying behaviour themselves, toward other children with SEN or those without.
It’s therefore vital that all teachers and other adults working in education are aware of the particular ways bullying can manifest itself in relation to children with SEN, and know how best to respond as early as possible.
The NSPCC’s Kay Joel says: “As well as teachers knowing how to spot and deal with bullying, nurturing a positive relationship between the school and the parents of children with SEND is vital.
“Some parents may be already on the defensive about their child, perhaps they have had bad experiences with how bullying has been dealt with in the past. Or they may not be open to the idea that their own child is capable of bullying others.”
Some tips for teachers working with children with SEND include:
- all pupils and staff should know that bullying is wrong, will not be tolerated, and know how to report it and get help
- be aware where children are and if there are certain areas of a building where bullying tends to happen, such as the toilets
- all staff need to be aware of those children who are vulnerable, understand their needs and their behaviour
- be careful not to isolate children with SEND from other pupils. As far as possible keep opportunities for social interaction inclusive so all children at the school become used to being together
- all staff – not just teaching staff – should have at least a basic training in dealing with bullying. For example, lunchtime staff may spot incidents that teachers may miss
- use opportunities such as PSHE lessons to explore issues around difference, and encourage children who want to explain to their peers what it’s like to live with SEN
- there is no one-size fits all solution to bullying – think about and seek advice on the particular issues affecting your particular setting
- never assume the job is done – always be alert to bullying reoccurring in a school, especially at the start of a new school year.
John Grounds is Director of the NSPCC’s Child Protection Consultancy:
National Anti-Bullying Week runs from 14-18 November. More information can be found at: