By Isa Marrs
It seems like everywhere we look we see some terrible outcome from bullying. While most of us find this behavior appalling no matter who it happens to, it is especially offensive when it happens to a child with special needs. Unfortunately studies show that these children are 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers. While they are the most likely to be bullied, they are also the least likely to be helped by the anti-bully programs that get implemented in the schools. To understand how to fix this, we first need to understand what bullying is and why it happens.
Bullying is defined as repeated acts of disdain towards someone in order to gain and maintain power. It can be physical, verbal or relational. The key is that it is being done repeatedly with the purpose of gaining and maintaining power.
Bullying is a consequence of our social nature and not something that will ever go away because within every social group there are hierarchies and within every social hierarchy there are people maneuvering for power. This sets up the conditions for bullying.
Any perceived difference can make a child a target for bullies and every kid has something that makes him different; so, every kid can be a victim of bullying. However, when you think about the fact that any perceived difference can make a child a target for bullying it begins to make sense that the children with special needs are targeted much more often. Unfortunately, being different is not the only thing that makes these children victims of bullying.
When a child has special needs, be it ADHD, Autism or something else, it impacts their ability to deflect a bully’s attack. The reason is because these children tend to have impaired social skills. Social skills refer to the verbal and non-verbal rules that dictate all social interactions. When a child has good social skills they can talk their way out of being bullied or find a group to fit in to that will provide them cover and protection. The child without sufficient social skills can’t do that. This is at the heart of what makes them targets. Bullies pick on them because they know they can. This is also why all of the anti-bully programs fail to help these children – they depend on children having typical to advanced social skills.
“The absolute best way to solve the problem of bullying is to stop it before it begins.”
That brings us back to how to help these children. The absolute best way to solve the problem of bullying is to stop it before it begins. Helping your child develop the social skills to avoid or deflect bullying situations is the best way to do this. For most children with special needs you will need to seek expert help. That means finding a quality social skills program or the right therapist. It is important to keep in mind that anybody can claim to teach social skills, but not anyone can do it. So it is definitely a case of buyer beware when you start looking for a program or therapist.
Something else that should be done is changing how bullying is dealt with and viewed in your child’s school. This means helping to develop programs based on your own research and by bringing in outside experts. Part of that should be setting up a social skills program. Part of it will be training teachers and other staff how to spot the various types of bullying and how to deal with it when they do. When bullying is detected, their goal should be to change the dynamics of the situation. This cannot be done by focusing on punishment.
Focusing on punishment reinforces the bullying dynamic. It segregates children into groups of bullies, victims and bystanders. This is bad because children have a tendency to live up to their labels. These are bad labels to have. Bullies, victims and bystanders each suffer from bullying in their own unique way. That is why the focus needs be on changing the underlying dynamics of the situation instead of punishment.
It is important to keep in mind bullying is a social problem and it takes a social solution. It does not happen in isolation and it will not be fixed in isolation. It is a complicated issue that will take time to fix. Just remember why you’re doing this and keep going. Your children are depending on you.
Isa Marrs is the founder of the Where I Can Be Me® Social Skills program in Briarcliff Manor. She is also an expert in the field and frequently sought after by institutions and therapists to provide training for working with social skills disorders. She may be reached at 914.488.5282.