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Section 4
Approaches for Bullied Students with Learning Disabilities

Question 4 | Test | Table of Contents

The scant research on bullying among children and youth with LD (learning disabilities) suggests that they are vulnerable to being victimized. Not all children who are victimized are rejected, and conversely, not all rejected children are victimized (Boivin, Hymel, & Hodges, 2001; Olweus, 2001; Perry et al., 1988).

Still, children and adolescents with LD seem at risk of being rejected and unpopular with peers and of experiencing victimization at the hands of their peers. Furthermore, the problematic characteristics, behaviors, and psychosocial problems of many children and adolescents with LD resemble those used to describe children who are victimized (Thompson et al., 1994).

Approaches for Students with LD
Social Skills Training. Clearly, interventions should aim to reduce risk factors and to enhance protective factors--including individual, interpersonal, and environmental elements--to improve the social functioning and peer relationships of students with LD (M. Miller, 1996). Social skills training is the standard approach used with children and adolescents who have LD (Forness & Kavale, 1996; Kavale & Forness, 1995; Lewandowski & Barlow, 2000).

However, social skills training has had inconsistent and limited success, including a lack of generalization of gains to the student's life (Forness & Kavale, 1996; Kavale & Forness, 1995; McIntosh et al., 1991). Because children spend a great deal of time in school, educators are in an ideal situation to foster social skills. The real-life setting of the classroom should encourage the generalization of skills.

This is supported by the centrality of classroom activities in school-based antibullying interventions (Garrity et al., 1994, 1997; Pepler et al., 1994). P. K. Smith and Shu (2000) found that older children were more likely than younger children to report using effective strategies when bullied (e.g., ignoring). Younger children, however, were more likely to use less effective strategies (e.g., crying or running away).

Across developmental phases, children with LD need adult assistance and support in developing effective strategies in response to bullying. This should occur through direct instruction and social skills training. Also, teachers and parents should use actual problematic situations and experiences as opportunities to intervene.

Individual, Group, and Family Interventions. Other interventions to increase social competence and improve peer relations include individual, group, and family treatment (Dyson, 1996; La Greca, 1997; Mishna, 1996a, 1996b; Wiener & Sunohara, 1998) as well as case management and advocacy (Astor, 1995). Schoolwide antibullying programs typically have mental health professionals available, such as social workers and psychologists, to deal with more severe bullying problems (Stevens, de Bourdeaudhuij, & Van Oost, 2001).

Along with preventive programs, therapeutic approaches that address the bullying involvement of students with LD are important. This includes help for children who may be either victims or bullies and, as there is some evidence to suggest that children with LD may be more likely to belong to this group (Nabuzoka & Smith, 1993), for provocative victims or bully/ victims. The use of counseling is supported by a meta-analysis of school-based interventions with the aim of increasing the self-concept of children and youth with LD. This meta-analysis found that students in middle and high school were responsive to counseling (Elbaum & Vaughn, 2001).

As Cosden (2001) suggested, however, it is essential "to consider how the counseling process itself may differ for individuals with and without LD" (p. 357). These approaches may need to be modified to accommodate the LD--for instance, simplifying language, allowing more time, and helping the child or youth to verbalize his or her reactions. Parents may require help to listen both to what the child says and to what he or she cannot express.

The parents, therapists, and educators must all be alert to signs and symptoms of bullying involvement. Individual counseling offers a student with LD a safe environment in which to deal with concerns (Dane, 1990; Rosenthal, 1992). Cosden (2001) stressed that these children's affect states must be "understood in the context of their real problems, including their social isolation and poor employment possibilities" (p. 355). The professional can offer empathy in addition to examining the student's ways of thinking and responding.

Group treatment helps individuals to realize that they are not alone in dealing with a particular situation and to receive feedback from peers and to learn and practice social skills (Dane, 1990; Mishna, 1996a, 1996b). Group interventions may be a particularly effective way to intervene with bullies and bully/victims, as they offer constructive limits and the opportunity for group members to observe others interacting and to receive peer feedback without humiliation or punishment (Mishna, 1996a, 1996b).

Family intervention may facilitate the family's ability to cope with the child's LD and bullying involvement (Dane, 1990). For example, a therapist may enlist the parents to respond to the child's or adolescent's reports of victimization and, at the same time, acknowledge the parents' pain. Indeed, an important role for practitioners consists of helping children, adolescents, and their families to acknowledge the children's pain and the seriousness of their bullying experiences. This includes dealing with feelings that arise (e.g., sadness, anger, and shame), all the while without minimizing the impact of this experience on the child and family.

Other Considerations for Professionals. It is essential to be aware of how family patterns and characteristics affect children's involvement in bullying, either as victims or as bullies (Oliver et al., 1994; P. K. Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998). At the same time, mental health professionals and educators should understand the effects of children's bullying involvement on their families; otherwise, the professionals may blame parents.

Factors to consider include individual characteristics such as LD, attachment patterns, parenting and disciplinary styles, and bullying among siblings (P. K. Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998), as well as environmental factors (Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996; P. K. Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998).

A finding of concern is that reported bullying invariably underestimates the problem, precisely because many children do not want to admit to being victimized (Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Pepler et al., 1994; Sharp, 1996). Possible reasons for this underreporting are shame, fear of retaliation, the inherent secrecy of bullying, and the children's beliefs that they themselves are to blame, that they should handle the problem on their own, and that telling others simply will not help (Boulton & Underwood, 1992; P. K. Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998). Similarly, students with LD are less inclined to seek support than their peers without LD (Wenz-Gross & Siperstein, 1997).

The lack of social skills displayed by many children and adolescents with LD, their reluctance to seek help, and the disinclination of children to report bullying further attest to the need for adults to intervene. Professionals involved with students with LD (e.g., social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers) must actively but subtly question them about bullying (Dawkins & Hill, 1995).

When exploring problems, the therapist or educator can investigate contributing causes of psychosocial difficulties that may occur in the school and in the peer environment. For example, problems such as school phobia may be a response to aspects of school such as bullying (Whitney et al., 1992), which may only emerge through sensitive probing. It is the responsibility of adults to monitor student interactions and to intervene (Sabornie, 1994).

This is especially pertinent because of the evidence that the problems associated with LD start young, as does bullying. Indeed, preschool children who are later identified as having LD are more rejected by peers and show less social understanding and greater alienation and isolation (Margalit, 1998; Vaughn, Hogan, Kouzekanani, & Shapiro, 1990).

Once a group rejects an individual, the group tends to retain a perception of the individual as rejected (Coie & Cillessen, 1993). Consequently, rejected children who change may still have trouble being accepted (Coie & Cillessen, 1993; Perry, Williard, & Perry, 1990). This process further highlights the need for adult support, both to help the group proactively in order to prevent rejection or victimization and to help the group accept the child who has already been victimized.

It underscores the need for interventions that change the classroom and school environment in order to improve peer group interactions and to support changes made by the child in his or her social functioning (Wenz-Gross & Siperstein, 1997). Interventions must provide "systematic opportunities for classmates and teachers to recognize the targeted students as valuable members of their class and school" (Pearl & Bay, 1999, p. 460). It is especially timely and crucial that teachers and other education personnel intervene in the group process as it unfolds.

- Mishna, F. (2003). Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(4), 336-347. doi:10.1177/00222194030360040501

Guide for Preventing and Respoding to School Violence

- Guide for Preventing and Respoding to School Violence. (n.d.) International Association of Chiefs of Police. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Farrell, A. H., & Dane, A. V. (2020). Bullying, victimization, and prosocial resource control strategies: Differential relations with dominance and alliance formation. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(3), 270–283.

Gini, G., Thornberg, R., & Pozzoli, T. (2020). Individual moral disengagement and bystander behavior in bullying: The role of moral distress and collective moral disengagement. Psychology of Violence, 10(1), 38–47.

Grant, N. J., Merrin, G. J., King, M. T., & Espelage, D. L. (2019). Examining within-person and between-person associations of family violence and peer deviance on bullying perpetration among middle school students. Psychology of Violence, 9(1), 18–27.

According to Mishna, what are three reasons why adults need to be especially alert for signs of victimization in students with LD? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 5
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