Bullying Among Children and Youth
with Disabilities and Special Needs
What is known about bullying among
children 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, &
• 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 &
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,
• 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
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.
• As the U.S. Department of Education (2000)
recognizes, “creating a supportive school climate
is the most important step in preventing
harassment.”Work with the school to help
establish a system-wide bullying prevention
These and other materials are available online at: www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov
program that includes support systems for
• Sometimes children and youth who are bullied
also bully others. Explore whether your child may
also be bullying other younger, weaker students
at school. If so, his or her IEP may need to be
modified to include help to change the
• Be persistent. Talk regularly with your child
and with school staff to see whether the behavior
has stopped.What if the bullying or harassment does
not stop?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
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, 69,141-158.
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, 34,1435-1448.
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.(2004b).
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, 39,533-541.
These and other materials are available online at:www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov