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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: