June 16, 2024
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Bullying and the “Hidden Disabilties”

Yosef, a quirky and socially awkward young boy enters the restroom at school. A group of boys who are a little older follow. The older boys are laughing and joking around. Yosef goes to the sink to wash his hands and the older boys speak to him. Yosef sees that they are laughing and thinks to himself they must be having fun. He thinks that they are inviting him to join the fun by speaking to him and that they must be his friends. One of the boys tells Yosef to eat a paper towel. Yosef doesn’t understand why they are telling him to eat a paper towel, but complies, as these are his new friends! He doesn’t feel good about it and is a little scared. Then the boys call him names and run out of the restroom laughing. Yosef goes back to class afraid and ashamed. He tells no one at school what happened, but acts out in class for the rest of the afternoon. A call from the teacher leads Yosef’s mother to question him, at which point he tells her what happened.

This scenario, unfortunately, is based on real events. While all children are susceptible to bullying, children with more visible disabilities tend to be offered “protection” by peer groups. It is often the children with “hidden disabilities” like ADHD, learning differences, or high functioning autism who are the most frequent targets. These are also the children who may not understand social cues and may not even be aware they are victims of bullying. Rather, they may think they have made new friends, but it just doesn’t feel good or exactly right.

Bullying can take several different forms. Emotional bullying includes name calling, teasing and threats. Social bullying includes deliberate exclusion from group activities, ostracism and rumor spreading. Physical bullying includes the infliction of bodily harm by one child upon another. All forms of bullying are damaging to the victim and can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Victims of bullying often exhibit behavioral problems, academic issues, problems sleeping and physical symptoms such as headaches.

Most current school anti-bullying programs stress the need for bystanders to take responsibility for the situation, either by attempting to stop the bullying from occurring or by reporting it. Basically, bystanders become as responsible as perpetrators. Some programs stress the need for reparations to be made to victims by the bully. Many programs require that the bully write letters of apology to the victim.

While most schools have anti-bullying policies in their handbooks, many school administrators have no real procedures in place with which they can use to effectively prevent bullying. It is not enough to have a “zero-tolerance” statement. Rather, administrators, teachers, parents and students must work together to identify potential victims and potential perpetrators. A proactive approach is needed to help improve social skills for both groups such that they understand the impact of their behavior on others. Appropriate supervision must be available at all times—in hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds and buses. Staff must be well trained in order to identify those at risk of bullying or being bullied. Appropriate referrals must be made so that children and families can get help before damage is done.

In particular, students with “hidden disabilities” must be offered social support in school. Some possible supports include special lunch social groups, playground “buddies” from older grades, pairing with peers in activities or situations that require more awareness of social cues and a heightened awareness of those children by all staff. Likewise, students who are identified as potential bullies must be offered sensitivity and social skills training and closer supervision of their activities should be undertaken by all staff. Parents should be offered training with real-life scenarios and the opportunity to speak with both former victims and perpetrators.

Bullying is a very real and damaging occurrence in local schools and shuls. It is incumbent upon every member of our society to become more aware of what is happening around us, particularly among our youth. Children, regardless of ability, need good role models, proper identification and support in order to be successful and to feel safe in their environments. As the adults in their lives, we have the opportunity to educate ourselves so that we can provide that for them.

Avigael (Stephanie) Wodinsky, Ph. D. , M. Ed. is a social skills therapist who works with children individually and in groups at Teaneck Speech and Language Center. She can be reached at a.wodinsky_teaneckspeech.com.

By Avigael (Stephanie) Wodinsky, Ph. D. , M. Ed.

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