Exploring bullying in a special education environment

* This article is based on some best practice currently on bullying and was written specifically for dealing with bullying in a special education environment.

Once I was having a chat to someone about bullying, and the person likened the word bullying to the word racism. “It is the new swear word” they said, “it gets used all the time.” However bullying like racism is a serious allegation and is not something one can be flippant about. My interpretation of the message was; one needs to be sensitive in the use of such words, as they carry a lot of weight. The term bullying is often bandied around in describing undesirable social interactions between children.

What is bullying?

The definition of bullying is repeated interpersonal behaviour, which is intended to do physical or psychological harm, typically between children, with unequal power. Three important aspects for me in this definition are; intended, repeated, and unequal power. (Child Trends, Data Bank) What I found interesting in the research was a child’s interpretation of bullying. Children perceive bullying as an act or message conveying rejection and hostility, causing them to feel lonely, isolated and powerless. (Childline, UK) The link between these two interpretations is the power imbalance. Bullying is about a demonstration of superior power. An individual being stronger than the victim or a group being stronger than one can demonstrate this. Bullies are often older and bigger, but not always.

Types and causes:

Bullying can be physical coercion, hostile teasing, emotional bullying, or harassment over the Internet and social media. In the USA targeting a victim around physical appearance and stature is the most frequent type of bullying. This is followed by rumours, hitting, slapping or pushing and subjecting victims to sexual comments or gestures. Negative comments about race or religion are the least noted. Any feature that is different may be used in bullying.

These different features are however, not necessarily the cause of bullying. The causes of bullying are not really known and there is much controversy about this. Our thinking as parents is that usually those that bully come from problem homes or are on the fringe of society. The latest research shows that bullies are often not the psychologically troubled kids, or those who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It can be the kids in middle, at the heart of things, the well-liked popular kids also bully. Often bullying occurs due to power imbalance as already mentioned and sometimes due to loyalty issues, for example when someone falls out of a group, they may be bullied. Bullying also occurs when someone does not conform to social norms. Children feel like they may have to punish those who do not conform, for example in my day the “nerdy child” would have fallen into this category.

Research has also shown a link between bully and victim. A child may be bullied at one school, then move to another school and all of a sudden they become the bully. It is noted that the higher students rise on the social ladder, the more they bully other students, and the more other students bully them.

Was that bullying?

Bullying is a confusing and complex matter but how much of what goes on is actually bullying?

Children often sort their problems out physically. Many of us will remember being at school, running onto the field shouting “b-a-r-n-e-y, b-a-r-n-e-y.” Kids sometimes settle their disputes with a fight. In my school going days, it was common but these days it may be seen as bullying. I am not justifying the physical fights of our childhood and yes sometimes they were children bullying other children. I am questioning how frustrations among friends are dealt with today? If a child hits another, yes it is unacceptable, but is it bullying?

Problems are also resolved with name-calling and with the aim of hurting another person’s feelings. Remember – “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Such an awful saying, as we know this is not true, but it shows fighting once again of our generation. Even though name-calling is nasty and hurtful and also needs to be dealt with, is it always an instance of bullying?

Children play pranks on each other. Some are harmless others are not. They bog-wash, they urinate in bottles and give it to their friends to drink, they stick notes on each other backs saying hit me, all unkind behaviours that should be addressed, but once again is it bullying?

Bullying in special education schools:

In special education schools there are a variety of children with many differences:

  • There are children with social issues such as autism. Children on the spectrum often have no filter and they say things without intending to do harm. Children on the spectrum may also repeat these comments, oblivious to the emotional context.
  • There are children with sensory issues and if they are feeling overwhelmed, cramped for space, things are too noisy, things are too bright and for many other reasons, they may push a fellow student, shout at them etc. in an attempt to get away from the source of their sensory overload.
  • There are children with leaning problems, who may become frustrated easily after a long day at school, resulting in low frustration tolerance and lashing out.
  • There are children with ADD, who may have impulse control issues and hit another child, intentionally, yet actually unintentionally.
  • These are but a few examples

What does it all mean?

It does not mean that pranks, name-calling and physical fights are acceptable and sometimes they need to be addressed, as they can be harmful and hurtful. It does not mean a child with ADD can get away with hitting another child, without some form of a consequence. Such behaviours do need to be addressed in order to teach what is appropriate behaviour. However as a parent, try be sensitive to what is going on. Investigate the event before bullying accusations are made. Assess if the behaviour is repeated and has the intention of hurting others, and the dynamics of the power-imbalance.

What to do in an instance of bullying?

If you feel your child is actually being bullied, here are some tips:

  • First talk to your child and determining whether they have, in fact, been bullied, and ascertain if they feel safe or not.
  • Although it is instinctual, it isn’t supportive to your child to just jump in and defend them without knowing exactly what happened.
  • Investigate the problem or offence with the person on duty.
  • Remember victims, perpetrators and bystanders will not necessarily give an accurate description of events. This occurs for various reasons.
  • Refrain from immediately trying to schedule a meeting with the parents of the child doing the bullying.This can turn into conflict between adults, which can get ugly quickly.
  • Report the incident to the school. They will follow a specific process with regards to bullying, which should be in the schools code of conduct or guidelines booklet. You are entitled to obtain this from the school office.
  • If it is repeated bullying; chronicle what happens, what staff were around and what they did, what the impact has been in terms of emotional distress, how the alleged bullying behaviour may be interfering with the child’s education.

Tips for children:

There are many interventions for bullying, but most success comes from not letting the cycle begin, this can be done by:

  • Engaging with children around the topic bullying.
  • Educating children that bullying is not only destructive but also ineffective.
  • Empowering children to identify issues and solutions. This applies not only if they are being bullied, but also to teaching children ways to effectively handle fights and hurt feelings which can often eliminate the start of bullying.
  • Teaching bystanders to stand up against bullying.
  • Teaching children about the different types of students they attend school with.
  • Normalise insensitive behaviours of others with empathy and not with name-calling or lashing out.
  • The age-old adage, “mind the company you keep”. Research shows when students are aggressive; there’s a higher likelihood that their friends will become aggressive.
  • But there’s also the possibility that positive behaviours can spread through social networks and that kids may be more likely to intervene in bullying situations if they see their friends stepping in to stop things, or if they see their friends discouraging that kind of behaviour.
  • The influence of peer pressure should not be underestimated.

 If your child is being bullied:

  • Empower them and build up their self-confidence, in order to change the power imbalance.
  • Send them to a professional if need be to debrief and learn skills on how to deal with bullying.
  • Sometimes you may need to ascertain why your child is being bullied. There are instances where this is because the victim is actually the instigator. There are instances where a child may be both the victim and the perpetrator.

Oh no my child is the bully:

As already pointed out bullies come from all walks of life and victims can become perpetrators. If your child is the bully, parental involvement is essential in stopping the cycle of bullying:

  • Acknowledge the problem.
  • Be hands on.
  • Decrease violence exposure in the home which includes TV etc.
  • Teach positive behaviours.
  • Teach empathy.
  • Explain how bullying harms and also it is ineffective.
  • Bullies often themselves, suffer from low self-esteem.
  • Seek professional help if necessary.

My aim is to get you to think about bullying in a different, more critical way. I think if parents can engage in the topic with a fresh open process and see all sides of the bullying paradigm then the resolution to bullying can be more effective. Bullying is a sensitive topic and what one thinks is going on may not always be the case.

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