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Schools need a bespoke approach to combating bullying involving pupils with SEN, writes Simon Pearse

Standing outside the school gates of any school you are likely to hear the term “bullying” being bandied about by parents. Often the conversations centre on just how poorly those involved think the school has dealt with a particular issue that they believe constituted bullying. Whilst in some instances the parents will have just cause to question the school, there will also be many cases where the school has gone above and beyond in its response. Of course, you will very rarely overhear the latter discussed, as positive news doesn’t generally make for interesting  conversation.  

The word “bullying” has arguably become the umbrella term for all forms of unpleasant behaviour purposely directed towards a particular individual or group. A one-off incident of unpleasant behaviour which would previously have been dealt with swiftly by the class teacher is often now seen as an incidence of bullying, needing immediate and often wide reaching action. Reporting in both the local and national press of tragic bullying-related incidents where, for example, a young person has taken their own life, has led to both parents and schools becoming hyper vigilant regarding even the smallest indications of bullying-type behaviour. This in turn has led to the term “bullying” becoming overused and arguably normalised as part and parcel of school life. The impact of bullying, however, can be long lasting and in some cases it can cause irreparable psychological damage. Schools are acutely aware of this, as they are of the impact of a negative public perception of their organisation. The danger is that due to schools dealing with any number of reported and perceived bullying incidences, the level of support and intervention they are able to give to each individual concern is greatly watered down. This heightens the chance that some of the most serious incidences of bullying, which are often hidden and difficult to spot, are overlooked. Ultimately, this means that some of the most vulnerable students are not getting the support and protection they need.

Bullying and SEN

Unpicking issues of bullying with students with additional and complex needs can be difficult. Children with certain types of SEN may not recognise that they are being bullied, or they may not be able to retain information relating to specific incidences of when and where they have been targeted in order to report them. For some children, the process of interpreting and understanding social situations can be an on-going challenge. For example, for children with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) the social world is littered with ambiguity and confusion and this can lead to them being particularly susceptible to bullying. Combatting bullying when it relates to pupils with SEN requires an even more holistic and flexible approach than usual. However, schools still have a duty to teach students with additional needs that bullying is not acceptable. In many cases, a bespoke approach, specific to the particular incident and the specific needs of all the children involved, will need to be adopted.

The level of understanding and support on offer from schools differs greatly. For instance, in mainstream secondary schools general student understanding of ASD will vary a lot. In some settings, where little work has been undertaken to raise awareness of the potential idiosyncrasies a student with ASD may present, there is a greater potential for a student with ASD to be targeted. Gone are the days when social skills and other vitally important so called “soft skills” could be developed and practiced within SEAL lessons. The recent  decline of PHSE, where issues around relationships and bullying could have been explored on a regular basis, means schools are increasingly less likely to explore issues around bullying, SEN and relationships. As a result, mainstream students may be less likely to be understanding and supportive of their peers with SEN. 

Reporting bullying 
During my time inspecting and reviewing schools linked to their personal development, behaviour and welfare provision, I generally began by exploring their anti-bullying provision. I often found that the extent of a school’s anti-bullying provision gave me a good indication as to the quality of the wider pastoral provision. I am continually surprised and saddened that many schools have yet to fully develop their anti-bullying practice. Of course all schools have the statutory anti-bullying policy, but the extent to which schools have developed practice which is bespoke to their setting and overcomes the specific challenges they face is limited. For example the majority of schools, despite modern technology, still rely upon either the child or parent verbally reporting concerns around bullying to the school. This creates numerous issues for students with SEN. For example, for students with speech and language needs or those with high levels of anxiety, the processes of reporting that they feel they are being bullied may be extremely difficult or even impossible. 



Schools have a responsibility to be far more creative and, where they can, allow the student the opportunity to raise concerns themselves, and in their own way. More forward thinking schools have set up specific email addresses managed by school staff, alongside text message systems, to provide other platforms for students to report bullying. Anti-bullying post boxes, break/lunch and after school drop in sessions where students can discuss concerns during designated time slots, can also be useful. As well as developing their reporting mechanisms, many forward thinking schools are beginning to harness the power of social stories to support children with ASD to understand social situations from different angles. Long used in SEN settings, a carefully constructed social story can support the child to make sense of a particular incident and work with the staff member to see how a future similar event could be responded to differently.

Rewarding positive behaviour


Some schools are also initiating a very progressive approach to combatting bullying by taking a conscious decision to pay more attention to, and actively focus on, the positive behaviours and interactions shown by students, both in the classroom and around the school site. This approach can help schools to develop more caring environments. One school scheme, known as “caught doing something good”, allows teachers to award “supportive points” when a student is seen displaying behaviour which is caring and supportive of others. These supportive points are given double weighting when it comes to merging all points within their class/house competition. Giving supportive points double weighting demonstrates to pupils that character traits such as kindness and supportiveness are not just highly valuable, they are core values of the school

Unpicking issues of bullying, in both special and mainstream schools, where the person being bullied or the perpetrator has SEN requires additional time, space and expertise. Without these three components there is a danger that, at best, students receive piecemeal support, or at worst, the instances of bullying may be compounded, causing further damage.



Schools should work to create an environment which is not only caring and supportive but also understanding and tolerant of difference. Building on this firm foundation, anti-bullying policy and practice should be bespoke, reflecting the needs and challenges of the particular setting and its pupils.

Further information


Simon Pearse is a qualified teacher who specialises in behaviour and inclusion. Simon has managed a number of pastoral and inclusion teams as well as working as an advisor for a large multi-academy trust. Simon currently works as an educational consultant.


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