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Bullying Among Children and Youth

with Disabilities and Special Needs


There is a small but growing amount of research

literature on bullying among children with

disabilities and special needs. This research

indicates that these children may be at particular

risk of being bullied by their peers. For example,

research tells us that:

• Although little research has been conducted on

the relation between learning disabilities (LD)

and bullying, available information indicates that

children with LD are at greater risk of being teased

and physically bullied (Martlew & Hodson, 1991;

Mishna, 2003; Nabuzoka & Smith, 1993;

Thompson, Whitney, & Smith, 1994).

• Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity

Disorder (ADHD) are more likely than other

children to be bullied. They also are somewhat

more likely than others to bully their peers

(Unnever & Cornell, 2003).

• Children with medical conditions that affect

their appearance (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular

dystrophy, and spina bifida) are more likely to be

victimized by peers. Frequently, these children

report being called names related to their

disability (Dawkins, 1996).

• Obesity also may place children at higher risk of

being bullied. In a study of children aged 11–16,

researchers found that overweight and obese girls

(aged 11–16) and boys (aged 11–12) were more

likely than normal-weight peers to be teased or

to be made fun of and to experience relational

bullying (e.g., to be socially excluded). Overweight

and obese girls were also more likely to be

physically bullied (Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett,


• Children with hemiplagia (paralysis of one side of

their body) are more likely than other children

their age to be victimized by peers, to be rated as

less popular than their peers, and to have fewer

friends than other children (Yude, Goodman, &

McConachie, 1998).

Children who have diabetes and who are

dependent on insulin may be especially

vulnerable to peer bullying (Storch et al., 2004).

• Children who stutter may be more likely than their

peers to be bullied. In one study, 83 percent of

adults who had problems with stammering as

children said that they had been teased or bullied;

71 percent of those who had been bullied said it

happened at least once a week (Hugh-Jones &

Smith, 1999).

How does bullying affect children?Bullying can have serious consequences. Children

and youth who are bullied are more likely than

These and other materials are available online at: www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov

other children to

• Be depressed, lonely, anxious;

• Have low self-esteem;

• Experience headaches, stomachaches, fatigue,

poor appetites;

• Be absent from school and dislike school; and

• Think about suicide.Can bullying of my child be illegal?

Yes. Bullying behavior may cross the line to become

“disability harassment,” which is illegal under

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

According to the U.S. Department of Education,

disability harassment is “intimidation or abusive

behavior toward a student based on disability that

creates a hostile environment by interfering with or

denying a student’s participation in or receipt of

benefits, services, or opportunities in the

institution’s program” (U.S. Department of

Education, 2000). This behavior can take different

forms including verbal harassment, physical threats,

or threatening written statements. When a school

finds out that harassment may have occurred, staff

must investigate the incident(s) promptly and

respond appropriately.

Disability harassment can occur in any location that

is connected with school: in classrooms, in the

cafeteria, in hallways, on the playground or

athletic fields, or on a school bus. It also can

occur during school-sponsored events (Education

Law Center, 2002).What can I do if I think my child is being

bullied or is the victim of disability

harassment?• Be supportive of your child and encourage him or

her to describe who was involved and how and

where the bullying or harassment happened. Be

sure to tell your child that it is not his or her fault

and that nobody deserves to be bullied or

harassed. Do not encourage your child to fight

back. This may make the problem much worse.

• Usually children are able to identify when they are

being bullied by their peers. Sometimes, however,

children with disabilities do not realize they are

being targeted. (They may, for example, believe

that they have a new friend, when in fact, this

“friend” is making fun of them.) Ask your child

specific questions about his or her friendships and

be alert to possible signs of bullying—even if your

child doesn’t label the behaviors as bullying.

• Talk with your child’s teacher immediately to

see whether he or she can help to resolve

the problem quickly.

• If the bullying or harassment is severe, or if

the teacher doesn’t fix the problem quickly,

contact the principal and put your concerns in

writing. Explain what happened in detail and

ask for a prompt response. Keep a written

record of all conversations and communications

with the school.

• Ask the school district to convene a meeting of

the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team

or the Section 504 team, a group convened to

ensure that the school district is meeting the

needs of its students with disabilities. This

meeting will allow you to explain what has been

happening and will let the team review your

child’s IEP or 504 plan and make sure that the

school is taking steps to stop the harassment. If

your child needs counseling or other supportive

services because of the harassment, discuss this

with the team.


If your school district does not take reasonable,

appropriate steps to end the bullying or

harassment of your child, the district may be

violating federal, state, and local laws. For

more information about your legal rights, you

may want to contact:

• The U.S. Department of Education Office

for Civil Rights

Phone: (800)-421-3481; or Web:


• The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special

Education Programs

Phone: (202) 245-7468; or Web:



References and Resources

Dawkins, J. L.

(1996). Bullying, physical disability and the paediatric patient. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 38, 603-612.

Education Law Center

(2002). What can you do if your child with a disability is being harassed by other students? (fact sheet). Retrieved August 10,

2005, from www.elc-pa.org.

Hugh-Jones, S. & Smith, P. K.

(1999). Self-reports of short and long term effects of bullying on children who stammer. British Journal of

Educational Psychology, 69,


Janssen, I., Craig, W. M., Boyce, W. F., & Pickett, W.

(2004). Associations between overweight and obesity within bullying behaviors in

school-aged children.

Pediatrics, 113, 1187-1194.

Martlew, M., & Hodson, J.

(1991). Children with mild learning difficulties in an integrated and in a special school: comparisons of behaviour,

teasing and teachers’ attitudes.

British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 355-372.

Mishna, F.

(2003). Learning disabilities and bullying: Double jeopardy. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 1-15.

Nabuzoka, D. & Smith, P. K.

(1993). Sociometric status and social behaviour of children with and without learning difficulties. Journal of Child

Psychology and Psychiatry, 34,


Storch, E. A., Lewin, A. B., Silverstein, J. H., Heidgerken, A. D., Strawser, M. S., Baumeister, A., & Geffken, G. R.

(2004a). Peer victimization

and psychosocial adjustment in children with type 1 diabetes.

Clinicial Pediatrics, 43, 467-471.

Storch, E. A., Lewin, A. B., Silverstein, J. H., Heidgerken, A. D., Strawser, M. S., Baumeister, A., & Geffken, G. R.


Social-psychological correlates of peer victimization in children with endocrine disorders.

Journal of Pediatrics, 145, 784-784.

Thompson, D., Whitney, I., & Smith, P.

(1994). Bullying of children with special needs in mainstream schools. Support for Learning, 9, 103-106.

Unnever, J. D., & Cornell, D. G.

(2003). Bullying, self-control, and ADHD. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18, 129-147.

U.S. Department of Education

(2000). Prohibited disability harassment: Reminder of responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of

1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Retrieved August 10, 2005, from www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html.

Yude, C., Goodman, R., & McConachie, H.

(1998). Peer problems of children with hemiplegia in mainstream primary schools. Journal of Child

Psychology and Psychiatry, 39,


These and other materials are available online at: