Tackling the bullying of pupils with SEND

Written by: Sophie Keenleyside | Published:
Image: iStock

Disabled students and pupils with SEN are more likely to be bullied – a hard truth that is too often overlooked. Drawing on work by the Anti-Bullying Alliance to develop effective practice to tackle this kind of bullying, Sophie Keenleyside offers some practical advice to primary school leaders

In the typical classroom, 10 children will report that they have been bullied in the last year, and about six per cent of children suffer persistent bullying, experiencing it every day – which equates to about one in every class of 30 children.

But disabled primary school pupils are twice as likely to suffer from persistent bullying as their non-disabled classmates, and more than twice as many children with SEN said they experienced bullying “all the time” at age seven, than those without SEN.

In secondary school, 15-year-olds with SEN were significantly more likely to be frequent victims of threats or acts of physical violence and theft, even when other factors that increase the risk of bullying were taken into account.

Over the past two decades schools have made laudable progress in dealing with bullying. However, the picture should be better for disablist bullying. The prevalence of disablist bullying in schools is partly a reflection of disablist attitudes in society. When the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) surveyed 1,000 adults in 2014, words like “spastic”, “retard”, or “mong” had been used by 44 per cent in casual conversation.

These statistics, of course, do not mean that such words or disablist attitudes are justifiable in the classroom. In the same survey, nearly 70 per cent of teachers had heard children using such words, almost mirroring the 65 per cent of adults who said they had heard others use these terms. “No child should ever say or hear these words whether used in conversation or as an insult,” said children’s minister Edward Timpson at an Anti-Bullying Week event. He added that under the Equality Act 2010, “schools have a responsibility to ensure that children can learn in an environment free from prejudice”.

The way we think about disabled children and those with SEN can often prevent school staff from perceiving incidents as bullying and can make pupils less forthcoming about reporting bullying. Sometimes adults may talk as if a child brings bullying on themselves and it wouldn’t happen if “he didn’t make that noise”, if they “could talk about the things the other pupils want to talk about”, or if “she didn’t fly off the handle”. Have you ever heard similar statements being said in a school environment?

Such statements can make disabled learners and those with SEN feel as if they are at fault, as if they have to change or as if bullying is just inevitable. In addition disabled pupils or a pupil with SEN may be less able to disclose bullying or be unaware that they are being bullied due to the nature of their impairment.

Disabled pupils and those with SEN can be more vulnerable to the negative consequences of bullying, such as suffering poor mental health, becoming socially isolated, performing worse at school and becoming bully-victims (those who are bullied and also bully others). The ABA’s own research has shown that disabled children and those with SEN are more than three times more likely to be bully-victims than their non-disabled peers.

Given these negative outcomes and the on-going requests for support from schools to help them address disablist bullying, the ABA has pioneered effective practice in this area. Our three-year programme, delivered in conjunction with partners Achievement for All, Contact a Family, and the Council for Disabled Children, has delivered anti-bullying training to thousands of schools.

This training brought together a whole-school approach to reducing bullying with the social model of disability. The social model of disability came from the disability rights movement and can change people’s way of thinking about disability, which, in turn, can remove the barriers that disabled people face in the form of prejudice and discrimination.

The social model says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. A school which has more of a social model approach to disability will look to include a disabled child, develop solutions to potential barriers and value diversity.

Attempting to change the behaviour of the person who has been bullied as opposed to those who have perpetrated bullying may not take into account the nature of some people’s impairments. For example, a young person with autism who struggles to connect with their peers will generally spend time alone and, as a result, are more isolated from their peers and more likely to experience bullying.

While a young person with autism may need some support to develop social skills, this should never be offered in response to a bullying incident. The message this sends is that the bullying is your fault and that you need to either change or put up with bullying.

A school with a social model approach would send a message that everyone has equal value in school and should be respected. You might not understand someone’s behaviour, some behaviour might annoy you or make you laugh, but it is never an excuse to treat someone badly.

In the last year, the ABA has delivered training via its All Together programme to 550 schools, including 100 trainee teachers, in addition to nearly 500 children’s workforce professionals and almost 200 parents and carers.

These training days have been offered to parents and professionals in “Champion Areas” across England, comprising of 12 local authorities and one academy chain. Champion Areas have recognised that disablist bullying is a challenge for them and, over the course of 2015/16, have received training and support from the ABA and partner organisations to become leaders in the field of reducing the bullying of disabled children and those with SEN.

Schools that took part in the training were encouraged to monitor the progress of their school’s anti-bullying practice with a pupil wellbeing questionnaire. In just three months, the schools are showing results: some have seen substantial reductions in the number of disabled children and those with SEN who are bullied and, by the end of the programme, have ensured that no SEND children are being frequently bullied.

Many of the schools had seen a marked improvement in disabled pupils’ experiences at school.

By March 2016, in contrast to the beginning of the programme, disabled children and those with SEN in a number of the schools were as likely as all other participants to feel safe, have good relationships with teachers, and enjoy going to school. This improvement in pupils’ experiences at school is one of the first steps to a healthier school environment, where the rate of bullying is low.

The ABA wants to see similar change in every school across the country. We are offering CPD-certified online training for professionals as well as a comprehensive Information Hub with classroom resources and guidance for practitioners to challenge prejudice and disablism in schools.

Guides available include advice for teaching assistants on preventing bullying, how to involve disabled children and those with SEN in your response to bullying, and tackling disablist language. There are numerous classroom resources for key stages 1 to 4 and links to post-16 resources. For parents, there is an interactive information tool online, which schools can promote.

The ABA’s programme has sought to include the voice of disabled young people and those with SEN as much as possible in its resources and training. On YouTube you can see some of them give their tips to teachers on what would help stop disablist bullying in the classroom.

Schools can also abide by the 10 key principles that the ABA advocates for reducing the impact and incidence of disablist bullying. A good school:

  • Listens – all pupils, parents and carers are listened to and influence strategies and approaches to prevent, report and respond to incidents of bullying.
  • Includes all – all pupils, including those with SEN and disabled pupils, are included, valued and participate fully in all aspects of school life.
  • Respects – all school staff are role-models to others within the school in how they treat others.
  • Challenges – disablist language is taken as seriously as homophobic or racist language.
  • Celebrates difference – difference is actively and visibly celebrated and welcome across the whole school.
  • Understands – all parents and carers, pupils and school staff understand what bullying is and what it isn’t.
  • Believes – all pupils, including those with SEN and disabled pupils, along with their parents and carers, are acknowledged, believed and taken seriously when reporting incidents of bullying.
  • Reports bullying – all pupils within the school, and their parents and carers, understand how to report incidents of bullying.
  • Takes action – the school responds quickly to all incidents of bullying. Pupils, including those with SEN and disabled pupils, participate fully in decisions made about them and help to formulate appropriate action to respond to incidents of bullying
  • Has clear policies – the school’s anti-bullying policy reflects these principles and is embedded within other school policies. They are widely and actively promoted to school staff, pupils and their parents and carers.

The ABA wants to tackle all forms of discriminatory behaviour in school. A whole-school approach – in which everyone in the school community has equal value, is aware of all types of bullying, the impact it can have, and what they can do to prevent and respond to it when it happens – is paramount to achieving an environment where all children and young people are safe to learn. 

ABA Guides and resources


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