A number of studies have shown that kids with special needs are at higher risk for educational and behavioral problems. Other studies have also shown that being bullied is associated with a number of negative long term outcomes. Yet, less is known about the long-term effects of bullying on children receiving special education services. For example, are these kids at an even higher risk for developing emotional disorders in response to bullying? Or on the contrary, are these kids more resilient to the effects of bullying than kids not in special education?
To answer this question a research team from the University of South Florida surveyed 1,439 middle school children attending schools in Florida. 155 of these kids (approximately 11%) had a special education classification (specific learning disorder, speech disorder, or emotionally handicapped). These kids were assessed in 2003 and then 4 years later in 2007. The authors examined:
Bullying behavior (history of being a bully or a victim)
Discipline records (number of referrals and suspensions)
Among the kids with a special education classification, 14% were victims of bullying, and 8% were bullies. Among kids with a regular education status, 12% were victims and 5% were bullies. There was no difference in the rates of victimization or bullying between kids in special education and those in regular education.
At time 1, being a bully was associated with more discipline referrals, suspensions, and lower GPA. However, the association between bullying on discipline referrals appeared to be stronger in the non-special education kids.
Also at time 1, being in special education was associated with higher discipline referrals and higher suspensions.
When compared to their time 1 levels, victims of bullies in special education had better GPAs than victims in regular education.
Also when compared to time 1 levels, bullies in special education showed a reduction in referrals while bullies in regular education showed an increase in referrals.
There are two very salient findings. First, there was no difference in the rate of bullying between students in special education and those in regular education. This is a bit surprising as past studies have shown that kids with special needs (for example learning disabilities) are at higher risk for being victimized (see for example Faye, 2003 for a review). Why the discrepancy? One possibility is that the rates of bullying may be changing. Specifically, most data on special education and bullying comes from studies conducted in the 90s. It is possible that the rates of bullying (or at least the self-report of bullying) in general education classrooms is increasing and now stands equal (about 10-15%) than among students in special education. Another possibility is that previous studies were conducted with very small sample sizes and that this study more accurately reflects the rates of bullying in general population.
A second surprising finding is that both bullies and victims in special education seem to perform better overtime than bullies and victims in regular education. Why? This effect may reflect the effectiveness of the special education program. That is, it is likely that kids in special education receive more targeted interventions that help them modulate the harmful effects of bullying.
The References: Feldman, Gesten, Rojas, Totura, Smith-Schrandt, Alexander, Scanga & Brown (2009). A longitudinal evaluation of bullying and victimization among adolescents of varying exceptionalities. Poster presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. San Francisco, May 2009.
Mishna, Faye (2003). Learning Disabilities and Bullying: Double Jeopardy Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36 (4)