How to Handle Bullying of Special Needs Kids

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

As teachers, we take bullying seriously, but sometimes we don't know how to handle it. This lesson helps you understand what you can do to address bullying of special needs students.

The Challenges of Bullying

Mr. White feels terrible. As a fifth grade teacher of an inclusive classroom, or one where students with special needs learn alongside typically developing peers, he thought he had a nice classroom community going. Yesterday, though, he found out that two of his students have been getting bullied.

Robert, who has autism, gets teased relentlessly at recess for not knowing how to play games properly. Janie, who struggles with speech and language, reported this to Mr. White and also told him that other kids have been pushing her around, calling her mean names like 'stupid.' Janie cries as she tells this to her teacher, and Mr. White can see that her self-esteem, or concept of herself as a person, is being profoundly impacted by this bullying. He decides to learn as much as he can about methods for addressing bullying of special needs students.

Developing Empathy

Mr. White understands that as a teacher, it is his job to have empathy for his students, trying to understand where they are coming from, how they feel, and what motivates them to act as they do. This means developing empathy for his students with special needs, even when they seem very different from himself. It also means trying to empathize with the students who bully them, even when their actions seem abhorrent. Mr. White uses certain strategies to work on his empathy:

  • He asks his students questions about how they feel.
  • He tries writing in a journal from their points of view.
  • He plays through different scenarios, imagining how the scenarios would look and feel to different students.

From doing these exercises, Mr. White comes to understand that students with special needs in his class might feel like they are less valued than their peers. He also wonders whether other students might bully these students out of fear, lack of understanding, and feelings of superiority. This empathy helps Mr. White develop other action strategies.


Mr. White realizes that much of the bullying that happens with special needs students occurs because their typically developing peers do not have a good enough understanding of human diversity and why some people learn and act differently from others. He establishes a curriculum devoted to demystification, or helping all students understand their own minds, how they learn, and how they might be different from others.

As part of this curriculum, Mr. White teaches students about different diagnoses that can impact students' appearances, behavior, and learning. He helps his students see that these differences are part of what makes people unique, just as other forms of diversity do. Now that his students understand their differences more, they are less likely to go on the attack.

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