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Bullies and Children With Special Needs

Bullying is an issue that affects many children, especially those with special needs. It’s no secret that children who are different from the norm are often subjected to taunts, and tormenting by other children. This is an issue that is being discussed on a global level. From Australia to England to the US there are frequent newspaper reports about bullying.

A frequent question is “What do we do?”

Some argue that we should do nothing. They believe that bullying is a natural part of growing up. However, it would seem a majority disagree.

Anti-Bully Legislation The Answer?
In the United States alone thirty-five states have passed some form of “anti-bully” legislation. I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand bullying is a problem in many schools. On the other hand, laws have a funny way of causing unintended consequences.

Connecticut seems to be trying to head off one unintended consequence, false labeling. The idea is that the accused bully and his/her family would have a chance to make their case against the charges. I’m shocked that there is even a question about that. Connecticut’s effort stems from a case in which a ten year old boy was officially labeled a bully. He and his family denied the charges and said he should not have been labeled. They claim he was retaliating against someone who was bullying him.

I don’t know if he is guilty or not, but he should have had a chance to make his case.

Labels Lead To Problems
I also question the judgment of giving children an “official label”.

Anyone who’s been in our practice knows we don’t believe in rushing to labels. You can treat something “as if” without making it official. Labels put our children into boxes. Once that is done it is difficult to see alternatives that don’t fit nicely into the box. To put it another way labels often do more to prohibit change than they do to encourage it.

Kids have a funny way of living up to their labels. Also, when a child is labeled their reputation precedes them. The other children and the adults have a tendency to not let them live it down. In other words, they reinforce the child’s label and therefore they encourage the labeled behavior.

I have seen this first hand because I was labeled. Not for bullying and not for anything that’s relevant to this story other than to say I lived up to the expectations of my label from the 6th grade until after I left home.

Instead of labeling children we need to look for solutions to the causes of bullying. The reality of bullying is that it is a symptom. What it is a symptom of varies. It could be a symptom of the local culture, problems at home or even of some sort of special need. Children who bully are doing it for a reason.

The Core reasons
Unless we address the reasons children bully we are only putting a band-aid on the problem. We are not fixing it. It will not go away. It may even become worse or create an even greater set of problems due to unintended consequences.

I don’t deny that bullying needs to be addressed. Children who are bullied suffer all sorts of problems ranging from becoming bullies themselves to committing suicide. I have personally known people who did both. Bullying is a problem. The complexity of the issue and the space limitations here prohibit a real discussion of what the solution may be. However there are alternatives to new laws and giving children negative labels.

The Federal Center for Mental Health Services recommends teaching children how to resolve problems, ignore routine teasing and how to respond to bullies.

If you read their list, almost every item is related to improving your child’s social skills. The reason is because both the victims and the perpetrators of bullying typically have social skills deficits.

Effective social skills give children the ability to interact in constructive ways and not resort to bullying. They also give children the ability to deflect the attempts of a bully when needed.

States that prohibit bullying and harassment in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity: California, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, States that prohibit bullying and harassment in schools based on sexual orientation: Massachusetts, Washington, Wisconsin. States with school anti-bullying and harassment laws that do not list categories: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia.

About the author: Jason Marrs is the Director of Research and Awareness for the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program.