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It’s all about the diagnosis. Or it could be the lack there of. Or maybe it’s only about lagging social and communication skills. It could all even be an epic misunderstanding.

In so many ways, bullying situations involving kids with special needs seem about as clear as mud.

Studies show that children with disabilities, particularly those with learning disabilities, emotional-behavioral disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, are often the victims of bullying.

Yet minimal research exists about how children with disabilities respond to bullying situations.

“It really depends on the temperament of the child,” said Joy Arceneaux, a native of Waukesha who currently substitute teaches for the behavioral ward of a school district in Texas.

“You can’t just go and categorize all special education students as bullies,” Brookfield native Danielle Schnitker added. “Depending on their diagnosis, some (special education) students are more aggressive and are the bullies, and some are targets for bullies.”

Schnitker, a fifth-grade teacher in Eagle River, pointed to early intervention as the best first step to dealing with bullying in general.

“We are a small school so usually it’s easy to see what’s going on and put a stop to things,” she said. “Structured settings are best for most students, including special education students. When they are given freedom, their poor choices come into play.”

How victims become bullies

Dr. Chad Rose, a bullying expert and assistant professor of special education in the Missouri University College of Education, has done several studies on the topic.

In his most recent study, Rose and his research team found that students with disabilities, when victimized by bullying, are more likely to respond aggressively either through bullying or fighting.

The study evaluated the victimization and perpetration rates of 6,531 students in grades three through 12, including 16 percent with disabilities, over the course of three years.

“Results showed that students with disabilities experienced greater rates of victimization and engaged in higher levels of perpetration than their peers without disabilities over time,” said Rose, who is a believer that every student should be able to go to school in a safe, bully-free environment. “What my team and I believe is students with disabilities also represent as reactive perpetrators. They experience victimization over a prolonged period of time and respond the way they know how.”

Oftentimes that response may be aggressive in nature, based more on what is familiar to them as opposed to what is appropriate for a given situation.

“If they don’t have the necessary response skills, they’re going to rely on something they know,” said Rose. “In many cases, that means they use aggression as a means of communication, again, because it’s something they know, in an attempt to save themselves from being victimized.”

Rather than allowing the victims to become automatically classified as bullies, Rose suggests early intervention to help empower students with disabilities with the tools they need to communicate more effectively over time.

“One of the first things we teach any kid is what to do, what to say and who to tell to enable them with the skills they need to deal with a bullying situation appropriately,” Rose said. “The goal is for any student, with disabilities or otherwise, to know what to do, how to assess the situation and know when, or when not, to walk away.”

Bully vs. reactive perpetrator

Based on his definition of bullying as a repeated imbalance of physical or emotional power with the intent to cause either physical or emotional harm, Rose said the title of “bully” often is applied inaccurately to children with disabilities.

“We see them more as reactive versus proactive perpetrators,” said Rose.

Whatever the situation, Rose said all students should receive instruction on self-awareness, social awareness, decision-making skills, relationship skills and self-management.

“Social skills and communication skills are the two biggest factors in why a child is involved in bullying” said Rose, who added that early intervention by educators and parents alike is another component to combatting the bullying issue in schools overall.

Bullying as a social dynamic

Understanding the role parents, teachers and students each play in bullying is a focus of Act Now!, an initiative launched by Children’s Hospital in 2010 for students in four-year-old kindergarten to eighth grade.

Act Now! is an e-learning continuum of bullying prevention courses that support and enhance Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Last year it serviced 92,000 students in 37 counties statewide.

“The program is really about educating staff, parents and students in an engaging, interactive and applicable way,” said Jenny Nichols, Children Hospital’s e-learning representative and liaison to Milwaukee Public Schools. “The curriculum is designed for every grade level and does not necessarily differentiate for students with special needs, but we find that the e-learning format of it does really lend itself well to different learning styles.”

The classroom instruction and staff instruction components, as well as the parent portal, are all free resources offered through the program.

“Where bullying is concerned, we really have a comprehensive approach, which is necessary to make sure there is a unified, consistent approach to understanding bullying and reacting to bullying situations appropriately,” said Judy Wendorf, program research and development supervisor for Children’s Hospital.

Despite differing opinions on the matter, bullying situations involving special needs children don’t have to be clear as mud. Instead, a unified approach from all the key players can help with both prevention and addressing the situations after the fact.

“I believe that bullying is developed from interactions within a complex system of relationships and situations that surround an individual student,” Rose said. “Every student is unique and different, but that much is the same, so if we make an effort to empower them with the knowledge of what to do, what to say and who to tell that is a good start.”

Ty Schmidt is a Lake Country freelance writer and mom of two boys.

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