While inclusive classrooms are valuable in mainstreaming disabled students, they also present the opportunity for those children to be bullied, threatening their emotional security and academic performance.1
To counter that risk, educators must be trained to deal with bullying and be able to create an inclusive environment in which teachers and students all work together to recognize and minimize bullying behaviors.
All children may be subjected to bullying, but studies have found that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than other children.2 For teachers, this increases the challenge of providing them a quality education.
When a special-needs student is bullied, often the initial reaction is to remove them from the situation by shifting them from the general classroom to a special-education classroom. That action, however, infringes on the student’s right to receive "free, appropriate public education" in the least restrictive environment.
Instead, other strategies must be employed to prevent bullying while enabling students to remain in inclusive classrooms.
Address Bullying Directly and Indirectly
Educators set the tone for an inclusive classroom by modeling desired behaviors. They must become aware of how they treat students. A sarcastic response by the teacher, for example, regardless of how provoked or unintentional, will be considered acceptable behavior by some students who will then repeat that behavior and create a hostile learning environment.
Just as important, teachers have the opportunity to use instructional topics to reinforce ideas of good citizenship including courage, fairness, reasoning, and responsibility. This is an opportunity for teachers to recognize each student’s talents.
In the process of highlighting good citizenship, they may promote the development of personal and social skills and thereby decrease the social differences that often trigger bullying.
Teach Involvement and Empathy
Teachers can encourage shared responsibility for the classroom’s social and physical environment.3
Routine, 10-minute class meetings may help students air concerns. During one meeting, the class may brainstorm a list of bullying behaviors and another of model behaviors. Because the students develop the lists, they are more involved, which helps reinforce positive behaviors.
The teacher then has a responsibility to enforce the rules fairly and consistently. Doing so includes halting gateway behaviors that lead to bullying, responding to students’ requests for help, and knowing when they themselves need to involve others.
Teachers also have an obligation to teach students to stand up for one another and for themselves.4 Strategies may include encouraging students to invite social outsiders into their group, not creating an audience for bullying, and getting help when they see bullying. Standing up for others must become “cool” and bullying “uncool.”5
To help bullied students stand up for themselves, teachers may guide them in distinguishing between acceptable and nonacceptable behaviors that are directed toward them, and how to articulate appropriate responses.
For more classroom strategies to improve the learning environment, check the resource center for Saint Joseph’s University’s online Special Education program. For even more tools to help deliver a challenging, engaging education for students with disabilities, consider completing the online Special Education Certification from Saint Joseph’s University.
1Swearer, S. M., Wang, C., Maag, J. M., Siebecker, A., B., & Frerichs, L. J. (2012). Understanding the bullying dynamic among students in special and general education. Journal of School Psychology, 50, 503-520
2“Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,” http://abilitypath.org/2015/08/15/bullying-special-needs-overview/
3Quiroz, Hilda C. June L. Arnette, Ronald D. Stephens, “Bullying in Schools: Fighting the Bully Battle,” National School Safety Center. https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=c2Nob29sc2FmZXR5LnVzfG5zc2N8Z3g6MTQxNWFjMDkwMmIyNWRkMg
4Cleaver, Samantha. “Safe Zone: 9 Things You Can Do to Keep Students With Disabilities Safe From Bullying” http://www.weareteachers.com/blogs/post/2015/09/08/safe-zone-9-things-you-can-do-to-keep-students-with-disabilities-safe-from-bullying
5“Best Practices in Bullying Prevention and Intervention,” Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/best.practices.bullying.pdf