Block those bullies

Language Warning!
Do not click play if the words n- – – – or
f- – – – offend you.

As the beginning of school approaches, many schools will be considering what to do about bullying, a problem the plagues many students with Learning Disabilities (LD). But, what do we know about the connections between special ed and bullying? Can bullying mess up a student’s IEP? Here’s a little background and some suggested resources.

As one might suspect, one of the difficulties for students with LD is that they are perceived as victims of bullies. Nabuzoka and Smith’s (1993) analysis of sociometric data from ~180 pre-adolescent students, about 20% of whom had LD, showed that those with LD were more likely to be victims of bullying than their non-disabled peers, despite not being judged more aggressive. Estell et al. (2009) reported that teachers considered fifth-grade students with high-incidence disabilities likely to be victims of bullies. However, both teachers and the students’ peers rated them to as likely to be bullies. Those students with disabilities who behaved aggressively were the ones who were more likely to be nominated as bullies.

Contrary to what some might suspect, there does not appear to be a predictive connection between special education status and later bullying. When White and Loeber (2008) examined records for hundreds of students from Pittsburgh, they found clear connections between aggression during elementary years and later bullying but not between achievement or special education identification and bullying.

So, it seems pretty clear that it is the behavior—aggressive actions—that gets the students in trouble. That’s where we need to focus. At the individual level, educators need to identify specific targets for students and teach them appropriate behaviors systematically. For example, we need to teach students not to threaten, taunt, and tease others. Sometimes aggressive behavior by students with LD can be the result of a social misperception and it can also be a consequence of connections with other students in school who participate in bullying events; those social behaviors can become targets for instruction, too. And some students with LD need to be taught how to enter social situations gracefully and politely. Folks who’ve been around for a while or who’ve read the social literature will remember the famous study by Tanis Bryan et al. (1976) about pragmatics problems that took it’s title from what one boy said to others: “Come on,’ Dummy”; that study should give the teachers of some students with LD a hint about helping students learn how to moderate their language to fit social situations.

At the school level, whatever the connection between LD and bullying, we educators we need to develop broad-scope solutions. There are valuable resources available. It’s critical to create a general environment where bullying is not the norm. Reducing the overall level of bullying will make it a lot easier to address the specific instances of aggressive behavior for individual students.

Please don’t wait for some bullying prevention day or week or month. Begin the necessary steps to get a comprehensive program in place right away. Here are a few resources for educators:

  • Stop Bullying resources: See what the US feds have put together at this clearinghouse.
  • PBIS bullying resources: Schools that do not have school-wide positive behavior support systems in place should seriously entertain adopting and implementing one, and incorporating features that address bullying; this is an excellent place to start.
  • Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Dan Olweus was one of the pioneering researchers studying bullying; the long-standing, careful work he and his colleagues have done has led to program that has been endorsed by multiple agencies including the US Department of Ed. and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • US National Bullying Prevention Center: The PACER Center hosts a site dedicated to resources about bullying. There’s lots about awareness; for example, October is promoted as a month for awareness activities.

Now, that’s only part of the story. As promised, there’s a legal side to the matter of bullying and Learning Disabilities, too. Administrators, listen big: Failing to prevent the bullying of students with LD is tantamount failing to provide them with FAPE. What if you could be found liable for that failure? More on that possibility in a later post right here on LD Blog.


Bryan, T., Wheeler, R., Felcan, J., & Henek, T. (1976). “Come on dummy”: An observational study of children’s communication. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 9, 661-669.

Estell, D. B., Farmer, T. W., Irvin, M. J., Crowther, A., Akos, P., & Boudah, D. J. (2009). Students with exceptionalities and the peer group context of bullying and victimization in late elementary school. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18, 136-150. DOI: 10.1007/s10826-008-9214-1

Nabuzoka, D., & Smith, P. K. (1993). Sociometric status and social-behavior of children with and without learning-difficulties. Journal Of Child Psychology and Psychiatry And Allied Disciplines, 34, 1435-1448.

White, N. A., & Loeber, R. (2008). Bullying and special education as predictors of serious delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 45, 380-397. DOI: 10.1177/0022427808322612

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