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Special Education Students and Bullying: Research and Resources

Study suggests kids in special education likely to be bullied and bully others

Bullying can happen anywhere, to any child. According to a new study, though, some children may be at higher risk than others.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln discovered that students receiving special education services for behavioral disorders, as well as kids with more obvious disabilities (like language or hearing impairments), are more likely than general-education students to be victims of bullying. What’s more, these children may be more likely to bully others.

A study published in the Journal of School Psychology followed more than 800 special and general education students aged 9 to 16 years at nine different elementary, middle and high schools. According to the results, children enrolled in special education were not only more likely to be bullied; they were more likely to bully others. Sixty-seven percent of these students reported they had been victimized by bullies, and over a third (38.1%) admitted they had bullied other students.

The authors indicate that children with observable disabilities may be more likely to be bullied because they seem easy to victimize. They also suggest that these kids may subsequently act as bullies towards others in an effort to seek revenge.

According to the study findings, students who receive special education services are also more likely than others to be sent to the school office for discipline issues.

Another finding: Bullying behavior isn’t limited to one gender. The authors discovered that bullying impacts boys and girls equally.

Potential effects of bullying

We’ve all read the tragic headlines about children and teens ending their lives after chronic, destructive bullying. In addition to the heartbreaking stories in the news, there are many other outcomes of bullying. These may be less likely to appear in the headlines, but they’re critically important to address. For example, children who are victimized by others may experience anxiety, depression, and various health concerns.

Warning signs

Parents, school staff, and other professionals need to be aware of risk factors and warning signs. Some signs that may suggest your child is being bullied include:

–Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares

–Changes in eating habits

–Looking for excuses to avoid attending school

–Unexplainable injuries

–Lost or destroyed items of value (i.e., money, iPod, cell phone)

–Decreased self-esteem

–Increased physical symptoms (i.e., headaches, stomachaches)

–Sudden decline in grades

The presence of these behaviors doesn’t necessarily suggest that your child is being bullied. However, if you have concerns about your child, seek professional guidance.


The authors of this study offer several suggestions in response to their findings. They recommend that anti-bullying programs promoting prosocial skills should be implemented for students in both special and general education classes. They are hopeful that these programs will encourage socially skilled students to serve as positive role models for other students.

In addition, they suggest that teachers and school staff help those students with observable disabilities become better integrated into general-education classes in an effort to prevent bullying behavior.

Ideally, meaningful anti-bullying programming will be introduced to all children, in all grades, as part of a comprehensive curriculum.

Of course, the foundation of respect, acceptance and kindness begins at home. It’s up to us, as parents, to teach our children to treat all people with dignity and compassion. It’s also up to all of the adults in children’s lives to advocate for effective anti-bullying programs and interventions to promote a peaceful, tolerant and respectful environment in our schools and communities.

Additional information

To learn more about how to talk with your child about bullying, and to advocate on behalf of promoting effective anti-bullying programs in schools, here are some resources:



Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Realistic Strategies for Schools, by Susan M. Swearer, Ph.D., Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D., Scott A. Napolitano, Ph.D.

Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good, by Joel Haber and Jenna Glatzer

Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying -- Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World, By Rebekah Heinrichs

Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years, by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

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