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Cerebral palsy and bullying too often go together. Studies concerning childhood bullying suggest that children with disabilities are often the target of harassment, typically during school. There are several ways parents, teachers, and caregivers can help combat bullying, which is especially important for kids with cerebral palsy, who may be at increased risk of being bullied.
About Cerebral Palsy and Bullying
According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) entitled, “Experiences of social exclusion and bullying at school among children and youth with cerebral palsy,” kids with cerebral palsy are often the target of bullying during school hours.
There are several reasons why bullies hone in on children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, some of which include:
- Children with cerebral palsy may stand out from their other classmates.
- Bullies often think children with cerebral palsy cannot defend themselves.
- Children with special needs may have a lower “social standing” in school, making them easy targets.
- Low frustration tolerances lead to children with disabilities having meltdowns easier, something that bullies tend to target.
- Problems with motor skills and physical limitations, such as not running fast enough, make children targets of some bullies.
- Children with assistive devices may be perceived as “weird or strange.”
Bullying can take forms in several ways. The same study states that children with cerebral palsy are often called derogatory names and excluded from social groups and activities. Teachers, too, sometimes exclude children with cerebral palsy, which heightens bullying.
They’re also physically harassed, which makes them more worried about being safe in school when compared to kids with no disabilities (see below for more information).
Why Do Kids Bully Others?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are generally a set of characteristics that children prone to bullying others will display:
- Getting angered and frustrated easily
- Defiance towards adults, including parents and teachers
- Difficulties showing empathy towards other children
- Physically stronger than the kids they bully
- Immature social skills
- Strained relationship with parents or caregivers
- Inconsistent home discipline
The effects are often devastating. According to Ability Path, a non-profit organization, bullying disabled children typically starts just like bullying anyone else. The impact is far more severe.
For example, a few children in an elementary school thought it would be funny if they tied a boy’s shoelaces together so he couldn’t walk properly. The boy had cerebral palsy. Not only did he fall, but he sustained serious injuries. In another bullying incident, a child with special needs was forced to eat dog food, while bullies tied a shirt around his eyes so that he couldn’t see.
Bullying isn’t always physical. Emotional bullying appears to be just as present as physical bullying, and in many cases, has a far longer impact. For instance, bullies taunt disabled children by calling them stupid and tease them when they have to go to special education classes.
Bullies can also make fun of a child’s appearance, coordination issues, the way they talk, and even the way they eat in the lunchroom.
Bullying Can Inhibit Learning Significantly
The effects of bullying have far-reaching implications. Although bullies may not taunt and ridicule other students directly in front of teachers, it still has a powerful effect that can hinder the victim’s ability to learn during class.
According to a number of psychologists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), high levels of being bullied are consistent with victims receiving lower grades.
Even worse, some children, generally those in middle school and high school (although it can happen with younger children as well), simply drop out and stop coming to school at all.
Other kids who continue with school may start to resent learning and being in an academic environment because they associate it with being bullied. This makes it difficult for them to want to participate in learning, which makes any kind of teacher instruction ineffective.
According to the study, many schools go for a “quick fix” situation when bullying occurs, which has proven over and over to be ineffective in the long run. One solution may be a comprehensive training program for all teachers that thoroughly teaches them how to address bullying in a way that can show long-term, positive results.
How to Help Children With Cerebral Palsy Who Are Bullied
Public schools in the U.S. offer an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to every student with special needs. An IEP is created with the help of parents, teachers, therapists, psychologists, and school officials to identify a child’s unique school needs and, in turn, create a plan that will help them succeed in school and feel safe.
An IEP helps keep children safe from bullying by placing them in classes where teachers can watch over them more carefully while teaching them social skills with peers and how to deal with emotional outbursts.
However, as hard as they may try, teachers cannot always catch bullies in action, as many of them are often sneaky and bully other children when they know the teacher isn’t looking. In most instances, students with an IEP are taught how to report bullying as soon as it happens.
Some children may have a difficult time discerning when bullying takes place. An IEP plan helps them learn how to detect bullying, report it, and the difference between keeping someone safe and “tattling.”
Parents must address and handle bullying incidents at home as soon as possible. To begin with, parents need to stress to their children what bullying consists of. For instance, children should learn that name-calling, taking lunch money, teasing, and taunting are inappropriate actions by other children and should be reported immediately.
Children with cerebral palsy and other special needs should also understand that it’s okay to tell a teacher or adult at school when other kids are being mean to them.
In addition, building up a child’s confidence at home will help tremendously with how they handle bullies at school. Studies indicate that bullies tend to target children with low self-esteem and those who are unwilling to stick up for themselves.
A child with a good sense of well-being, regardless of their disability, will come across as confident and will be less likely to get bullied.
If bullying reaches the point of physical abuse that harms the child, parents should always step in and contact the child’s teacher. If you feel that the teacher isn’t doing enough to help your child, contact the school’s principal or the school board administrator.
When physical violence occurs, even among schoolchildren, it’s considered assault. Never be afraid to reach out to whoever it takes to protect your child.
National Bullying Prevention Month
Every October, many schools nationwide participate in “STOMP Out Bullying” during “National Bullying Month.”  Each week, students, staff, family members, and the community are asked to participate in different activities to help raise awareness about the impact of bullying and the devastation it can cause.
- The first Monday of each week in October is “Blue Shirt Day.” As its name implies, you should wear a blue shirt each Monday. Any blue t-shirt will work, but the official “Stomp Out Bullying” shirts are available to purchase (see sources below) for anyone interested. Regardless of which shirt you choose, the goal is to create a “sea of blue” each Monday to help stand up to bullying.
- The week of October 10 is primarily for students. The goal is to make friends with someone you don’t know by introducing yourself, inviting them to sit with you at lunch, or hanging out with them after school. This is especially important for anyone that may feel isolated at school.
- The week of October 17 is “STAND UP” week. During this time, students should be on the lookout for anyone being bullied. If you see it happening, take a stand. However, if you ever feel unsafe, it’s important to reach out to an adult immediately.
- The week of October 24 is all about showing off your creativity in a way that can bring awareness to bullying. Students, parents, teachers, and anyone else can participate by making colorful artwork about bullying prevention, creating powerful videos, writing songs, or passing out flyers about bullying.
Civil Rights and Bullying
There isn’t a direct federal law that addresses bullying. Still, in instances where children with special needs are bullied, it falls into “discriminatory harassment,” which addresses bullying and harassment based on race, sex, disabilities, national origin, or religion.
Federally-funded schools must step in and stop bullying and harassment once it’s been detected or reported. Bullying and harassment must be persistent, create a hostile environment, and serious enough that it interferes with the student’s school performance and ability to participate in activities. Once the bullying has been confirmed, the school’s administration must:
- Immediately investigate the incident(s).
- Interview both the victim and the bully.
- Talk with the bully (or bullies) and relay how their actions are affecting the child or children they are harassing. Take the necessary steps to end the bullying and create an effective plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
- Routinely check in to ensure the harassment and bullying has ceased
If the steps above aren’t taken, the school may be in violation of the following federal laws:
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
- Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Unfortunately, some schools fail to correct the problem, despite parents complaining frequently. If your child is being bullied and you feel the school isn’t taking the appropriate steps to help stop the harassment, you have the legal right to file a formal grievance, not only with the school district but also with the U.S. Department of Education (Civil Rights Division) and the U.S. Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division).
U.S. Department of Justice Contact Information:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone: (202) 514-4092 or 1-877-292-3804
U.S. Department of Education Contact Information:
- Online Complaint Form: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/complaintintro.html
- Phone: (800) 421-3481
- Email: OCR@ed.gov
- Lindsay S and McPherson AC. (n.d.). Experiences of social exclusion and bullying at school among children and youth with cerebral palsy. - PubMed - NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21870932
- School bullying is nothing new, but psychologists identify new ways to prevent it. (2004, October 29). American Psychological Association.
Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/research/action/bullying
- AbilityPath – Support for parents of children with special needs. (n.d.). AbilityPath – Support for Parents of Children with Special Needs.
Retrieved from: https://abilitypath.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes.pdf
- Victims of bullying suffer academically as well, UCLA psychologists report. (2010, August 19). UCLA.
Retrieved from: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/victims-of-bullying-suffer-academically-168220
- Guide to the individualized education program. (2019, August 30). U.S. Department of Education.
Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html
- Standing Up Against Hate, Racism And Discrimination. Changing The Culture With Inclusion, Equality, Civility And Unity Becomes Our Destiny. (n.d.). STOMP Out Bullying.
Retrieved from: https://stompoutbullying.org/