Bullying and the Child with Disabilities

Bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior intended to cause physical or emotional harm as a way to intimidate or control others. The behavior can include teasing, insulting, shoving, hitting, excluding, or gossiping, and it usually involves an imbalance of power.
Bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere. Although no one factor puts a child at risk of being bullied, children with disabilities are both uniquely vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by the bullying phenomenon. One study shows 60% of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly, compared with 25% of all students.
Children who are bullied may feel upset, afraid, ashamed, embarrassed, and anxious about going to school. Longer-term effects include 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. (DOE, 2010)
Children with bullying behavior may also have serious, lasting problems. Sometimes children who have certain emotional or behavioral disorders, or limited social skills, act in a way that is mistaken for bullying. Whether the behavior is intentional, or due to disability, it still needs to be addressed.
Bullying usually continues unless there is intervention, but recognizing when it is occurring can be difficult. Children will not always tell you they are being bullied. Possible signs are:
  • Changes in behavior
  • Unusual episodes of acting out
  • Sleep problems
  • Bed-wetting
  • Crying or sadness for no known reason
  • Unusual “clinginess” to family and caregivers
  • Fear of leaving home or returning to school or usual daily activities
If you notice any of these with your child or other things that are not typical to his or her behavior, ask your child lots of questions and investigate more.
Children may not necessarily know they are being bullied. Sometimes children may believe they have made new friends when actually those friends are making fun of them. Children with special needs may be more trusting and vulnerable in social situations. Ask your children about their day, who they were with or talked to, and who their friends are.
If your child has indicated that he or she is being bullied, contact the school to discuss this with the teacher, principal, and if your child has an IEP, involve the team to immediately create strategies for your child to cope and let adults know what is happening.
Children with disabilities are protected under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and schools are required by law to make sure they are addressing their needs and resolving harassment or bullying issues.
In all cases, bullying is a public health challenge. Additional focus is needed on intervention and prevention of bullying of students with disabilities, both as part of a general strategy of bullying prevention efforts and as a specific area of focus in policy and practice.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Bullying and Harassment of Students with Disabilities
From Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center.

A Report and Guide on Bullying and the Child with Special Needs (PDF Document 3.7 MB)
Walk a Mile in their Shoes: Bullying and the Child with Special Needs, a report and guide from

Bullying and Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Care Needs
Creating a safe environment for youth with disabilities and for youth with special health needs from

What if Your Child IS the One Showing Bullying Behavior? (PDF Document 88 KB)
Children who bully can be affected as much as those they target; from the Pacer Center.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial Publication: May 2016;
Current Authors and Reviewers (click on name for bio):
Authors: Tina Persels
Jennifer Goldman-Luthy, MD, MRP, FAAP
Authoring history
(Limited detail is available on authoring dates before 2014.)
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer