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Kate Sarginson looks at how schools can help prevent the bullying of pupils with SEN and disabilities

Bullying is a distressing phenomenon which is a persistent, but unacceptable, issue in our schools, and indeed our society. The methods and opportunities may have changed with the times, with the rise of more subtle approaches to abuse such as “mate crime” and cyber bullying, but the cruel aims remain the same – to dominate and to hurt.

The statistics concerning bullying of children and young people with SEN are alarming. According to a leading disability charity survey (Bullying Wrecks Lives, Mencap, 2007), 82 per cent of children and young people with a learning disability have been bullied, 47 per cent of those people surveyed had suffered verbal abuse and 23 per cent had been physically assaulted. Around 66 per cent of people were regular victims of bullying, with 32 per cent being bullied on a daily or weekly basis. There is a significantly increased risk of being bullied if you have SEN or a disability. Children and young people with disabilities are reported to be twice as likely to be bullied than people without disabilities (Are Disabled Children and Young People at Higher Risk of Being Bullied?, ioE London, 2014).

Schools and colleges therefore must have a proactive and robust approach to this problem, and develop policies and practice that specifically address the bullying of these students. Sadly, disablist attitudes are a feature of our society and schools have an opportunity to inform children from an early age by addressing the core matter of prejudice, and create an environment of positivity where all children are taught to embrace and value difference. Instead of being shied away from, difference should be openly and visibly celebrated and welcomed in schools. Early and ongoing  intervention is crucial, as some researchers argue that bullying gets worse as children move from primary to secondary school.

Protecting the vulnerable


Some might argue that it is discriminatory to have SEN and disability referred to explicitly in school’s anti-bullying policies, as all children and young people should be protected equally. However, the shameful truth is that vulnerable people provide an easy target and I believe schools need to acknowledge some additional considerations that apply specifically to disablist bullying. It should be seen as an entity in its own right that requires particular approaches to combat it. There needs to be room to respond flexibly and opt for intervention methods that are appropriate to the individual.

Anti-bullying policies usually rely on the identification of the behaviour through pupil disclosure, or though observation, in order for adults to intervene and ultimately stop it. Disablist bullying can go undetected if the victim is unable to understand, recognise and correctly label what is happening to them as being “bullying”. This provides a teaching and learning opportunity, where pupils with SEN and disabilities can be taught about bullying awareness so they know what is wrong, and be supported to find the confidence to challenge behaviour directed towards them that they are unhappy with.

Signs of bullying


Over time, being bullied could become the norm and the behaviour can be an uncontested, yet deeply unpleasant part of life. However, bullying is not something that children should have to learn to live with. This places increased emphasis on adults in schools and colleges to take preventative action. Staff awareness and knowledge of children with SEN is crucial. Adults need to be able to detect bullying behaviour and recognise the effects of it in its targets. 



Signs of bullying can be misinterpreted or missed completely. Changes in mood or behaviour in victims of bullying might be attributed to the condition or disability itself, and therefore dismissed. For some children and young people, communication can be difficult and this impacts on their ability to report incidents of bullying and give a clear account of events. It is therefore essential that when there is a known need, adults work harder to support communication to ensure claims of bullying can be heard and acted on. Anti-bullying policies should recognise these potential difficulties with recognition and reporting that children with SEN and disabilities might experience.

Teachers need to have a clear understanding of what constitutes bullying, so they can assess reports of bullying made by pupils. There may be a temptation to disregard claims and downplay the matter, particularly when the pupil is not seen as a reliable source. Given that disclosure of bullying can be a difficult step to take due to fear of reprisal, there should not be the added risks of not being believed or taken seriously. Many pupils with SEN and disabilities are forced to change schools as a result of  their claims about bullying being ignored by teachers. 



Easy targets


It may be felt that some pupils have characteristics that make them inherently more likely to be bullied. There may stammer or have mannerisms such as twitching which other children don’t understand and mock; so an explanation seems to exist for the behaviour that doesn’t really seem like bullying and therefore excuses it. There is derogatory language that is commonly used in society and therefore innocently copied by children. These attitudes, unless challenged, reinforce a belief that bullying is the victim’s fault because they are different, and is therefore expected and accepted.

It is common for pupils with SEN to experience high levels of exclusion within their peer groups. Making friends can often be difficult for these children and victims of bullying are at risk of becoming withdrawn and depressed. Having a friendship group limits isolation and can be a preventative measure against bullying. Again, educators have a responsibility to support pupils with SEN and disabilities to develop and sustain positive relationships, through activities such as practising social situations via role play and the creation of buddy systems. Sensitivity and awareness of pupil preferences is needed. Children and young people on the autism spectrum, for example, may prefer their own company. Awareness of the rise in “mate crime” bullying – the exploitation of vulnerable people under the guise of friendship – also needs to be included, as being too friendly and trusting can also lead to an increased risk of abuse. The need for specific input into interaction and friendship building should be factored into the whole school anti-bullying policy as a preventative measure, not as a response. By addressing matters such as social skills development following a bullying incident this could, albeit inadvertently, support the view that the victim is to blame.  

Building empathy


There is also the matter of children and young people with SEN engaging in bullying behaviour themselves. Some people find it difficult to understand their own behaviour and how it impacts on others, and require support to do so. If their socials skills are limited, children and young people may not realise that their actions could be seen by someone else as bullying. They may lack empathy and be unable to grasp how someone else might feel as a result of their words or actions. There are also situations where bullying behaviour can arise because children are trying to avoid being bullied themselves, or as an act of retaliation. In all these scenarios, strategies need to be taught to children and young people to help them understand and redirect their behaviour more positively.

Self-esteem in pupils with SEN and disabilities can already be an issue, and being subject to abuse on the grounds of their disability or condition can severely affect self-worth and confidence. The effects of bullying can be devastating and life-long. By addressing bullying against and by children and young people with SEN and disabilities in a clear-cut way, schools can help future generations to respect and value all.

Further information


Kate Sarginson is an experienced teacher and SENCO who has worked in specialist, mainstream, state and independent education. She has a Masters in Inclusive Education and is currently training to become a specialist dyslexia teacher.


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