Protecting Your Special Needs Child from Bullying

Published on in Trisomy 21 Update

Though bullying is essentially a form of abuse, the word implies aggressive action inflicted by a peer who perceives an imbalance of power and repeats the act over time.

Bullying can involve:

  • A threatening physical act, such as hitting, tripping, kicking, spitting or pushing
  • Verbal intimidation, such as taunting, teasing, name calling or threatening
  • A social attack, such as spreading rumors, manipulating relationships, causing embarrassment, or demanding money or property
  • Intimidation through cyber-bullying, which involves humiliation through texting, social media websites and email

Unfortunately, some students face high levels of bullying. For example, more than a third of students with behavioral and emotional disorders report being bullied. Additionally, about 1 in 3 students with autism, 1 in 4 students with intellectual disabilities, and 1 in 5 students with health impairments also report bullying.

Children with Down syndrome may face significant risk of bullying, but caregivers can help students make friends, pursue their interests and hobbies, build their confidence, and protect them from bullying behavior.

Tips for parents to address bullying

Talk to your child

Encourage your child to discuss incidents they had with peers at school, at after-school activities or in the community. Ask questions until you understand the who, what, when, where, why and how of the event.

Provide support

It's important to dispel a child’s feelings of shame and blame. Your child should understand that you will partner with him or her and enlist school authorities to address the matter through official channels. Embrace your child’s input so they feel you are willing to listen, that their opinion is valued, and they can achieve a greater sense of control over the situation. You should not advise your child to retaliate in any way and you should not confront the bully or their family yourself.

Know your child's rights

Become familiar with the legal protections in place for students with disabilities. Disability harassment is defined as conduct that creates a hostile environment that limits a person with a disability from participating in or benefitting from school activities or services. It can be perpetrated by peers and by school employees, such as teachers and administrators.

Disability harassment is prohibited under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As a result, the school must investigate and respond to any concern about bullying that you bring to their attention.

You should put your concerns in writing and submit the document to your child’s teacher or principal. (See the resources below for a sample letter.) It is best to keep a detailed record of all communications with your child's school.

You may also wish to ask for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting, so your child’s team can review steps to stop the harassment and implement counseling or support services. Related IEP goals should focus on:

  • Building social skills
  • Developing positive interpersonal relationships
  • Developing self-advocacy skills

If your child's school district does not take appropriate steps, it may be in violation of federal, state and local laws and you should seek legal advocacy.

Advocate for school-based bullying prevention programs

Currently, there is no federal mandate that obligates a school to provide curricula or staff training regarding bullying. But, structured bullying prevention programs have been shown to decrease bullying by up to 25 percent in schools that provide them.

Teaching children to recognize bullying and how to get help when they witness it fosters an atmosphere of kindness and protectiveness among peers. Nearly 60 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes; a student telling another student to stop bullying can have a powerful impact. 

Additional resources

More safety tips