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Michele Borba
BY Michele Borba

10 Bully-Proofing Strategies to Help Children with Special Needs


Bullying is in the news all the time lately, and as a former special education teacher I know that children with special needs are targeted all too frequently. And they are so for a number of reasons. Special needs kids may be less mature than peers, exhibit quirky behaviors, or have a difficult time reading facial expressions, body language or verbal cues. They may be quick to anger or have poor impulse control. And sadly, kids who seem vulnerable or “different” fall victim to a bully’s cruelty.

Studies find that students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are especially vulnerable to bullying. One large survey found that children attending regular public schools with ASD are bullied at a rate of nearly 50 percent more than kids in private school or special education settings. Another study discovered that students entering first grade with signs of depression and anxiety or excessive aggression are at risk of being chronically victimized by classmates by third grade.

Research also shows that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies. Whatever the reason, bullying should never be tolerated, and parents play a key role in helping to assure their children’s safety.

The first step to stopping bullying is to understand the definition. Bullying is not mere teasing. Bullying is intentional, negative behavior and never an accident. It always involves a power imbalance: the bully targets a child who has “unequal footing” (or cannot hold their own) due to less power, status, or size. And bullying is almost always repeated, and this is why it must be stopped.

So what can a parent of a special needs child do to prevent bullying? Here are ten tips.

1 | Check your child’s school anti-bullying policy

All 50 states have passed anti-bullying policies and your child’s school must have one. Ask for a copy of the school’s policy.

2 | Find where to report bullying

Check your school’s website and handbook for where parents and students should report bullying. If there isn’t a policy, share your concerns with the principal.

3 | Explain bullies’ behavior

You might explain that bullies often pick on those who are smaller or weaker to feel powerful or better about themselves. Stress that bullies usually love reactions: “So try to be calm and don’t react, so the bully recognizes that his antics won’t work.”

Then, practice ways for your child to appear calmer (even though he’s trembling inside). And develop a phrase your child can say inside his head to counter the taunt: “I don’t deserve this” or “Stay cool!

4 | React calmly

Targeted children worry that parents may make things worse by insisting the bully is disciplined (which could mean retaliation). Reassure your child that you will help, but don’t promise to not tell adults in authority. You may need to advocate for his safety.

5 | Develop a bully-proofing strategy

A plan might be to say: “Stop that!” or “Cut it out!” in a firm voice to the tormentor (and loud enough to get the attention of a nearby adult). Walk towards an adult or supportive group of peers.

Or, develop a private code so your child can feel safe notifying his teacher. Practice repeatedly so your child is ready with things to say or do.

6 | Create a safety plan

Bullying is almost always a repeated pattern and usually happens at the same place and time. Identifying “when and where” the bullying happens will help you create a safety plan for your child. For instance, if it’s bullying is: In the back of the bus, “Sit in the front.” On the playground: “Stand closer to the supervisor.” At the locker: “Carrying your books in your backpack.”

7 |  Don’t try to go alone

Get the help of other adults in the child’s life – be it a teacher, grandparent, school counselor or coach. Success is always more likely when all adults are onboard together to support a child and use the same behavior intervention.

8 | Track evidence

Keep an ongoing record of times, dates, witnesses and locations of any bullying incidents. Share those with your child’s teacher. Reinforcing the same bullying prevention plan with school personnel is crucial for success.  

9 | Surround the child the supportive people

Make sure your child knows which staff members and peers he can go to for support. Every child needs an ally-especially one with special needs.

10 | Be Vigilant!

If a school is unable or unwilling to provide your child with proper support, or if he continues to be targeted, consider changing schools or homeschool. But keep in mind that your child will still need to a repertoire of skills to navigate the all-too vicious social jungle.

For more, check out: The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect (Free Spirit Press) by Dr. Michele Borba. 

Has YOUR child been bullied?

Please leave your comments below!


10 Bully-Proofing Strategies

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Michele Borba

Written on August 25, 2016 by:

Dr. Michele Borba, is an educational psychologist and expert in bullying and character development. She has appeared on TODAY, Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, CNN, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and The Early Show, among others, and author of 24 books including UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. For more information, visit Michele at, and on Facebook, and Twitter.
  • beth

    Sometimes the. school staff can be the worst bullies. All adults are not mature, even your ” educated teachers ” This kind of behaviour is always known by adults. Eyes wide shut

    • fcmichigan

      Hi, Beth – thank you for taking the time to leave your feedback, we appreciate it!

    • Eva

      I absolutely agree with you Beth. I also have to point out that a lot of parents will defend their child’s bullying by saying,”Boys will be boys!” or “That’s just the way girl’s are at this age!” How do I know this? I just received a newsletter from my daughter’s elementary school stating that these unacceptable responses from parents needed to STOP when they were being told that their child was bullying another child (where, yes, my daughter has been bullied quite slyly….at recess,”We will play with you in a bit after we play/talk with each other on the other side of the playground. You have to stand by this tree until we come and get you so we can find you!” They never returned. My daughter fell for it twice because they were so apologetic about “forgetting.” (We never reported it as at that time we were taking our 14 year old son who has Aspergers out of middle school for bullying that was a lot more serious. And really, it was so sophisticated that there was plenty of wiggle room for the girls to have an excuse for it. If they were really smart, and I believe that leader is, they could have said they were planning a surprise for my daughter.) This whole wait by the tree thing was said by the lead bully who has been in my daughter’s class since she was in kindergarten. This happened last year and from about 1st-3rd grade, among many other increasingly skilled “mean girl” manipulations against my daughter. The bully can now control a posse. I am seeing a possible future in politics for her…or the mob. This year, I gave a heads-up to the teacher after the first couple of weeks and the teacher already had the “lay of the land” so to speak, thank goodness. I was very laid back about it as I didn’t want to come off as a helicopter mom but I am grateful that my daughter seems to have a very involved teacher this year.

  • Pingback: Preventing Bullying: Tips for School Counselors - Confident Counselors Connection()

  • Both general and special education schools need to be more strict about bullying. While there will always be that one person who thinks that bullying makes kids tough for the future, I’d like to say that it will always cause more problems with all the negative implications it has on children.

  • Bullying can never have a positive effect on children. It just scars them. My son (he has ASD) had his share of being bullied just because he was different from others. And I couldn’t do anything but enroll him in a different school, a special needs one for that matter, because the teacher wasn’t too concerned and he was too scared to go back to school.


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