Special Needs and Bullying

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Special Needs and Bullying

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Caring and Courageous Kids was started in 2009 because of my students being bullied at school! As a speech-language therapist I saw too many of my special needs students being negatively impacted as targets of bullying, and too many students joining in or standing by not knowing what to do in the elementary school where I taught. Unfortunately, too many adults were not effectively responding. I have a dream that one by one, family by family, classroom by classroom people will become inspired to stand up to bullying, while contributing to a more compassionate culture, one caring and courageous choice at a time. My movie Which Team Will You Choose?  was made to help increase compassion in the school where I worked at the time, so children would stand up for students with special needs challenges who were being bullied, and perhaps become more aware of how hurtful their choices to bully were. The concept of being a “bucket-filler” was also easy for my students to understand. Of course the mission began to include, not just my students with special needs, but for all children to help each of us feel that there are things within our control to help break the cycle of bullying to feel safer and happier in our homes and schools.

Children with disabilities or special needs are mainstreamed in general education classrooms more and more. The National Council on Disability states “Like bullying in general, bullying of students with disabilities represents both a civil rights and public health challenge. Amongst the possible effects of bullying the U.S. Department of Education (DOE, 2010) includes lowered academic achievement and aspirations, increased anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, depression and post-traumatic stress, deterioration in physical health, self-harm and suicidal thinking, suicide, feelings of alienation, absenteeism and other negative impacts, both educational and health related. While both students with and without disabilities face significant negative emotional, educational and physical results from bullying, students with disabilities are both uniquely vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by the bullying phenomena. Despite this, there exists a dearth of both research and policy focusing on eliminating the bullying of students with disabilities. Furthermore, evidence suggests that existing legal and policy tools available to address bullying against students with disabilities remain significantly under-utilized.” (from Briefing Paper, “Bullying and Students with Disabilities“)

See the most recent statement from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on Bullying and Disabilities: click here

Bullying has negative effects on all its victims, but kids with special needs are especially vulnerable, according to Nancy A. Murphy, M.D., FAAP and chair of the AAP Council on Children with Disabilities Executive Committee. “Since these children already struggle with self-esteem issues,” said Dr. Murphy. “Bullying has a greater impact and they desire to fit in, and are less likely to stand up for themselves.”

I can help!!!

  • This may be as simple as purchasing our book/dvd to be used in the classroom, in a youth program, or at home;
  • Develop a Circles of Compassion program for your child’s classroom or school to help everyone become more Compassion-Fit in helping to stop bullying, including awareness and kindness for others with special needs (create a program that meets your budget and needs – from a one-time visit to ongoing classes (in person or online) to consulting;
  • Private coach and consultant (in person or online assistance) to help you and your child to develop and practice the skills needed to be happier and safer, and more resilient when dealing with the pressures of social relationships and bullying. The definition of a coach is someone who takes you from where you are to where you want to be! Don’t forget to write in protections in your next IEP to keep the team and school reinforcing these plans and skills;
  • Presenter for your next workshop for parents and/or educators or at your next conference!

Contact Dee DiGioia for assistance


Let me back up ~ in 2005 while working as a Speech-Language Therapist in Mammoth Lakes, I worked with a student in high school who had Asperger’s syndrome. Jeremy was going through a horrible period, having been bullied and ostracized since middle school. It was becoming intolerable for Jeremy. His mother tried going through all the proper channels of getting the school to provide a safe environment for Jeremy to no avail and he ended up finishing his senior year at an alternative school to escape the cruel treatment of others.

These were the seeds which were planted for beginning my bullying prevention program a few years later.  Ironically I was also experiencing bullying in my personal life by an “ex-”. When I became aware that some of my elementary students with special needs, including Asperger’s Syndrome, were experiencing bullying at school I knew that I needed to do something to help them, and help break this horrible cycle of bullying which is so pervasive in society. I began working on self-esteem and empowerment skills but I realized that there was so much more to it. I can try to teach my students these things but if the bullying continues, and if peers continue to stand by, and adults continue to ignore the problem then we are just spinning wheels. Also, many targets of bullying, because of their special needs, may not have the communication skills or cognitive skills to protect themselves. Many special needs children have triggers or “buttons” that get pushed quite easily and react in extreme ways which is often the reason they are targeted. This is where teaching compassion comes in. In order to protect “my” students, I realized I needed to work with the entire student body because those were the students who were either bullying, or standing by when there was bullying. At the time, there was no foundation for a bullying prevention program in our school to teach the children, and no consistent, effective plan in place (it was each teacher and staff member handling it in their own way, no consistency, no counseling, no curriculum, no consistent consequences, etc.) A whole-school culture needs to be transformed through teaching and practicing these skills on a regular basis if there is to be any change and to help minimize the problems of bullying.

Caring and Courageous Kids helps you get Compassion-Fit!


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Additional articles and resources:

Disability Rights California website

“Spreading the Word: Speech-language pathologists work to raise awareness about bullying in schools”7/23/2012 Article by Danielle Bullen, Advance for Speech-language Pathologists and Audiologists (I was interviewed and featured in this article!)

“Asperger Syndrome and School Bullying” by Karen Plumley

“Bullying and Victimization of Students with Special Needs” by LauraL MSW

Personal Safety Skills Empower and Protect People With Special Needs

“The IEP: Addressing bullying with a Child’s IEP” By Deborah Stephens and Matt Villano

Special Education Law and Bullying Harassment

The Targets: Why children with special needs are frequent targets

DVD: No Arms, No Legs, No Worries

DVD: JJ’s Journey, A Journey about Autism  (This documentary is about Jeremy, my student I mentioned at the top of the page. I am also interviewed in this DVD as his speech-language therapist. A portion of the movie addresses the bullying problems that JJ faced from middle school through high school.)

Social Thinking, Michelle Garcia Winner

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