Beat Bullying

With children with special educational needs and disabilities twice as likely to experience bullying, how can SEN schools tackle the issue? We found out 

Bullying is a problem in schools across the UK. The 2017 Ditch the Label report, which surveyed 1,020 young Brits aged 12 to 20, found that 54% of young people had been bullied at some point. That’s more than half of children in our schools. One in five children had been bullied in the last year, while one in 10 had been bullied in the last week.

When asked why they felt they had been bullied, half said it was because of their appearance, and 8% said it was because of a disability that they have.

This isn’t good enough. Which is why this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is seeking to challenge these attitudes.


From 13 to 17 November, this year’s Anti-Bullying Week theme is ‘All Different, All Equal’. Difference is sometimes what causes a child to be targeted by bullies – the wrong trainers, a different religion, a different skin colour, a disability. Anti-Bullying Week, coordinated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, is asking teachers, parents and young people to join forces against bullying – and to really celebrate what makes us different.

“We do a survey every year asking young people what they want the theme to be, and we had a much bigger response than usual,” explains Nicola Murray, senior programme lead at the Anti-Bullying Alliance. “What we came out with was that they wanted it to focus on issues like disability, sexuality and gender, and race and faith.”

Children with special educational needs are twice as likely to be bullied than mainstream children. One report from learning disability charity Mencap estimates that eight out of 10 children with learning disabilities have experienced bullying.

“With disabled children, or those with SEN, there can be many things that mark them out as ‘different’,” points out Nicola. “Whether that’s about their impairment on a day-to-day basis, taking longer to get from one class to the other, language and communication difficulties, or if there’s a hidden impairment as well – unfortunately, these are all things that make them more vulnerable to experience bullying.”


Tackling bullying in an SEN environment can present different challenges. When working with children with learning disabilities or autism, for instance, their comprehension may differ from their neurotypical peers – so they might not understand that they’re being bullied, or that their behaviour could constitute as bullying. If communication is a difficulty, getting children to open up to you about what is happening can be hard.

Nicola recommends, however, that SEN schools tackle bullying in the exact same way as mainstream schools – that means taking a whole-school approach.

“Everyone who’s a part of the school, no matter what their role is, should understand what bullying is, how to respond and how to address it,” Nicola explains. “There are sometimes other things to address – potentially around communication needs, for example. Does the staff member understand the child’s communication needs? Does the child understand the staff member? Have they had time to calm down and fully tell you what they want to do? Do they need a supporter? It’s a lot around communication needs, but we do still say that there needs to be this whole-school approach.”

The Anti-Bullying Alliance recommend following the social model when it comes to dealing with incidents of bullying. In other words, bullying occurs not because of something the bullied child has said or done, or the way they are – it’s a consequence of their environment.

“We hear from school staff saying things like, ‘They wouldn’t be bullied if they didn’t make that noise,’” Nicola says. “Instead of focusing on trying to change the behaviour of the person that’s being bullied, it’s about looking at all the factors that are contributing to it. It’s not just around this traditional view of the victim of the bullying – there’s actually a host of different roles that people can play. It’s very rarely just these two people involved. You’ve actually got a lot of people who are actively allowing it to happen. Sometimes it can be that focusing on those areas can help to stop the bullying rather than going along with traditional measures.”


There are various tactics you can employ in your school to help reduce instances of bullying, and to support children who are being bullied.

“That could be using the ‘circle of friends’ approach to discuss sensitive issues,” Nicola says. “And being really clear about how we behave with each another and how we should treat one other. Doing empathy-building can be preventative as well as how you respond to bullying. Also role-modelling behaviour is really important – especially for children with autism, when they’re involved in bullying. These sorts of approaches can work really well.”

It’s all about supporting children to understand what’s right and wrong, what sort of behaviour is acceptable – and, most importantly, varying your approach based on each individual child’s needs.

“The social model isn’t about treating everyone the same; it’s about treating everyone differently to get the same result,” Nicola adds. “It’s essentially using things like the social model approach, whole-school approach, looking at things like communication issues and comprehension issues, and addressing it on a case-by-case basis.”

When it comes to developing anti-bullying strategies and policies for your school, the Anti-Bullying Alliance have a host of resources available online. Their All Together platform gives schools access to support, and they can also audit their current anti-bullying practices. The charity works closely with the Council for Disabled Children, so many of the resources are tailored towards disability and SEN. There’s online training available too, to help staff learn how to tackle bullying.

“One thing that you don’t hear any more, which you used to hear a lot, is that ‘our school doesn’t have bullying’,” Nicola says. “It does show a shift in attitudes from schools. They realise that this is going on. They see this shift in this way of dealing with it – you don’t just have a bully and a victim and deal with it when it happens. The schools are much more aware that they need to do more to prevent it.”

MORE information

The Anti-Bullying Alliance