There are calls for an overhaul of schools’ well-being programs following research showing that special needs students are being increasingly targeted by bullies.
The research, conducted by Flinders University, surveyed nearly 2,000 students aged 11-16 in seven mainstream schools across the three school sectors.
More than a quarter of the 172 students who identified as having “limitations, impairments or special needs” reported being bullied at least once a week, compared to one-in-five of the remaining participants.
They were also more likely to be targeted by bullies “most days or every day of the week”, at a rate of 8.4% compared with 5.4% for other students.
Researchers are calling on schools to do more to build the social and emotional skills of struggling students and fight prejudice among their peers.
Dr Grace Skrzypiec, the study’s lead author, told The Educator that that while finding a solution to this issue was difficult, schools could help alleviate the problem by giving special needs students the opportunity to exercise “self-efficacy and agency” in their lives.
“This is not an easy thing to do, particularly since, as is a natural reaction, parents wish to protect their children with special needs from harm. We need to realise that students with special needs just want to be like everyone else. As such, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so,” she said.
“In my opinion, an effective approach would be for parents and educators to work together with special needs children from an early age to determine how they can strive for the same goals as other non-special needs young people.
“Sometimes decisions are made by others about what special needs young people can do and different, often "lesser" goals are set for them.”
In terms of bullying, Skrzypiec said it was well known that special needs children were being targeted by bullies. Part of the definition of bullying, she added, was the power imbalance between bully and victim.
“Clearly young people with special needs would be perceived by bullies as being weaker. Schools can support special needs young people who are victims of bullying by developing a school culture of acceptance - from the bottom up,” she explained.
“In each classroom students, teachers and parents can work together to treat each special needs child as one of their own, as well as achieve socially and academically. As they all work together, solutions that fit in that classroom and with that child, can be found.”
The study, published in the International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, did not ask students to specify their special needs.
Across Australia about 90% of students with a recognised disability attend mainstream schools.