Addressing Bullying Against Students with Special Needs

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Differences That Divide

Unfortunately, tolerance of differences is often lacking, especially in the school setting. The environment for learning can become a daily challenge for students that interferes with academic growth and harms emotional wellness. Bullying with special needs students presents an additional barrier to classroom success. Perpetrators and victims of bullying are increasingly at risk of anxiety, loneliness, depression, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, dislike and avoidance of school, and poor academic performance (Wiener & Mak, 2009). It is essential to recognize that some of the aforementioned risk factors are both effects and causes of bullying. The dynamic of the act of bullying is important to remember so as to not perpetuate the cycle.

Bullying & ADHD

Bullying with special needs students who have ADHD often includes dual roles as both victim and bully due to behavioral tendencies. According to Wiener and Mak (2009), children with ADHD have often been associated with aggression, anxiety, depression, peer rejection, intrusiveness, inappropriateness, disorganization, compulsivity, uncooperativeness and being bossy in their peer relationships. Students with and without ADHD need to learn how to accept peers with differences, especially since all children experience at least one of the above traits in their lifetime regardless of a diagnosis. Children with ADHD often report being bullied more frequently than those without. Teachers and parents support these reports indicating an increased observation of the victimization of children with ADHD. Wiener and Mak (2009) found the rates of victimization were especially high for girls with ADHD and children with ADHD reported higher frequencies of verbal, physical, and relational victimization than did children without ADHD. Adults should support children with ADHD by discussing and exploring their social interactions. The examination of friendships and strained relationships can help a child understand how their behaviors influence social outcomes. This can result in an increased sense of control and heightened confidence for students who fear the navigation of the school social scene.

Targeting Students with Disabilities

It is important to recognize frequent targets when addressing bullying with special needs students. Common behaviors and characteristics can lead to the bullying of special needs students as well as bullying tendencies from those children. Special needs children often have low self-esteem, depend on others for social cues or guidance and may fail to realize dangerous circumstances due to a lack of awareness (Flynt & Morton, 2004). Helping special needs children develop their social skills where deficits exist is a protective factor against becoming a victim of bullying. Inherent vulnerabilities must be compensated for so that children realize that impairments do not define who they are. In the year 1999, assistant secretaries from Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services within the U.S. Department of Education wrote a memorandum stating that disability harassment can have a profound impact on students, raise safety concerns, and erode efforts to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the myriad of benefits that an education offers (Holzbauer, 2008). Students with disabilities already face academic challenges at school and should not be ostracized socially due to peer ignorance and intolerance. The previously cited memorandum concluded by saying that students cannot learn in an atmosphere of fear, intimidation or ridicule (Holzbauer, 2008). Students, regardless of their abilities or needs, have the right to learn and exist in an environment free of bullying.

Students with special needs can also be on the other side of bullying. Flynt and Morton (2004) stated that children with learning disabilities have a greater likelihood of behavior problems than nondisabled peers and if this tendency leads to aggressive, anti-social behavior the learning disabled child may bully others. The referenced behavior problems that lead to anti-social actions are often the manifestation of confusion, frustration and desperation.

In order to help bullies, without consideration of whether or not they have special needs, it is essential to determine what is causing their hostility. Bullies are often defeated victims whose defense mechanism is faulty and harmful to both self and others.


Flynt, S., & Morton, R. (2004). Bullying and Children with Disabilities. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31(4), 330-333.

Holzbauer, J. (2008). Disability Harassment Observed by Teachers in Special Education. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 19(3), 162-171.

Wiener, J., & Mak, M. (2009). Peer victimization in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychology in the Schools, 46(2), 116-131.