Special educational needs


 ‘The reason ( we get bullied is) because you’re in a wheelchair and they pick on you because you’re not like them, do know what I mean?’

  • The phrase ‘special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities’ covers a broad range of conditions (including, for example, autism  spectrum disorders, physical disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD) that make it harder for children to learn or access education than most children their age. While they are grouped together to make discussion easier, these conditions vary considerably and it is helpful to remember that children may be living with more than one difficulty. Because their abilities and needs differ so widely, there is no single way of approaching the bullying that they may suffer or perpetrate.
  •   The Social Model of disability focuses on how society can be organised differently, rather than on the individual’s difficulties.
  •  They are not isolated cases: Almost one in five children – around 1.5 million – have some form of Special Educational Needs (SEN) (Department for Education and Skills statistics 2002 and 2003).
  • The UK has more than 770,000 disabled children (Council for Disabled Children)



BIG advises extensive youth participation in all anti-bullying work. If any anti bullying approach is to succeed it must be owned by the children and young people.  ‘Top down’ strategies imposed on children rarely work. But including everyone can sometimes  be challenging. We welcome submissions from those who have found some successful methods. Here are some of the suggestions we have collated. Inclusion and participation approaches for work with children who have special needs or disabilities.

Communication is the key to anti-bullying work

  1. Communicating clearly – advice from Mencap on visual communication Am I making myself clear?
  2. Resources for communicationdownload pdf
  3. Illustrated questions: Where were you bullied? download pdf
  4. Mencap illustrated questionnaire on bullying download pdf

Bullying is widespread

‘I didn’t know I was being bullied until my teacher explained what was happening with people I thought were my friends.’

This issue has impacts beyond the school playground: Barriers to education mean that disabled people are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no formal academic or vocational qualifications. (ONS Labour Force Survey summer 2003)

38% of young disabled people surveyed said that they had been bullied at secondary school. (Disability Rights Commission 2002)[1]

Eight out of ten children with learning disabilities have been bullied at school and six out of ten have been physically hurt. (MENCAP, 2007)

Statement of principles

  • Every child has a right to safety
  • Every child has a right to learn
  • Every child has a right to participate
  • Every child has a right to have their views heard[2]

Risks online: The Cybersurvey is an online survey exploring young people’s online lives. It has run annually since 2008. Throughout we have found that children and young people with special needs are at risk online in different ways to their peers and their online safety education should be sensitive to this with short clear and practical sessions to help them. They report higher rates of being cyberbullied and can believe content that is less than truthful or even dangerous. But above all, they tend to get tricked into buying things within apps or are subjected to scams in other ways. They are exploited and often left to play online games for hours on their own. This is high risk if they can communicate with other players.

[1] Gray, P. (2002) Disability Discrimination in Education: A review of the literature on discrimination across the 0-19 age range. Disability Rights Commission.


[2] UNCRC 1989, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Salamanca Statement (1994) Every Child Matters (Children Act 2004)  Disability Discrimination Act (2005) SENDA (2001)  Removing Barriers to Achievement, (DfES/0117/2004)


We need to do more!

‘I couldn’t remember everything and I was scared too. So I just got upset when my teacher asked me about it.’

What can be done?
Download our helpful  TIPS
Steps you can take in a school:

    • Preventative work on difference – see our BIG Resources for assemblies and lessons where you will find a range of anti-bullying sessions.
    • Circle Time
    • Drama and role play (rehearse what to do)
    • Providing safe ways for bystanders to report any bullying they see happening to other children
    • Changing the ethos so that it is seen as unacceptable to bully
    • Surveys to include the views of everyone – try using this illustrated sheet – download pdf
    • Welcome booklets using signing or images
    • Support groups of peers
    • Transitions: View the other setting or site using a webcam or have friendly visits from peer supporters before the move.
    • Posters
    • Anti-Bullying songs
    • Prepare parents in advance so that they know signs to look for and how to report anything that concerns them.
    • Help all staff to understand the extent to which a learner’s behavioural difficulties and needs may lead them to bully others and how to address this.
    • Be alert to changes in learners’ behaviour
    • Provide quiet rooms or alternative spaces during playtime
    • Ensure the staff understand the children’s communication needs
    • Don’t expect children with special needs to report bullying. Some schools don’t act unless a ‘victim’ reports it. This is unrealistic. Some children do not realise they are being bullied, while others have memory difficulties.

Recent Research: The Anti-Bullying Alliance was commissioned by government to investigate ‘what works’ in tackling the bullying of children with Special Educational Needs and disabilities following the Lamb Inquiry into Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence. The resulting project has looked at both the literature on this topic as well as existing practice. Read more here where you will find a full list of all the papers.


The law

Since December 2006 all public authorities have been required to publish disability equality schemes, the legal basis for this being the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

From April 2011, the Equality Act 2010 began its implementation process and schools are required to be proactive in tackling discrimination on the grounds of disability. All previous discrimination legislation is gathered into one Act in a clear way. This is an opportunity to improve your practice.

For a quick overview of the Equality Act 2010 and what it means for public bodies (including schools) view our Equality Presentation. or read a guide to the act by Robin Richardson of Insted.


Children with special needs and those with a disability require particular attention. Schools and local authorities have specific duties to ensure that pupils’ special educational needs are identified, assessed and provided for and that they are not discriminated against because they have a disability. Furthermore a new proactive response is outlined in the Act. There is more about the law as it relates to bullying here

How does this form of bullying differ?

Children with SEN and disabilities:

  • May not recognise that they are being bullied (or bullying others).
  • Are less likely to be able to report it
  • Could be more isolated with fewer friends
  • Find it more difficult to resist or rebuff bullies
  • May not be able to use ‘fogging’ or other verbal techniques
  • May struggle to remember details of incidents or identify bullies

Types of bullying seen are:

* Manipulative bullying – taking advantage of the child’s inability to understand that they are being used

* Exploitative bullying – exploiting particular sensitivities to ‘wind up’ a pupil or upset them by deliberately and repeatedly doing something that they cannot cope with. (This can be seen if a child is sensitive to smells, lights or sound and for those on the Autistic spectrum this is a frequent form of bullying.

* Conditional friendship – allowing someone to ‘be in the group’ on condition they let other group members do humiliating things to them.

Pupils with Special Needs also report being targeted online and via mobiles in numerous ways by bullies. Their understanding of how to stay safe online and when using mobiles may be low, or incomplete. They appear to be experiencing high levels of homophobic insults. This is possibly because students feel they can get away with this type of insult, rather than insults directly to do with disability. Is the bullying persistent and serious or violent? It might be classified as a hate crime. Bullying left unchallenged can escalate into crime and bullies left unchallenged can come to believe they can always act this way – with implications for their future as they come up against the law.

The impact of being bullied

Having friends and interacting with peers helps with social development and is crucial to children with difficulties. Bullying can not only hurt these children just as bullying impacts on all children, but it can have a double impact as it sets back their development if they are afraid, isolated or rejected. The learning they might have gained from interacting with other children is lost. Research describes this as ‘Double Jeopardy’.(Study by Mishna 2003) 


I like it at my school because you make friends and go to the shop with them and go home together.’

 ‘Socialising gives me confidence.’

 ‘I like wearing my fireman’s suit learning about windmills in Suffolk.’

 ‘Disabled children always come first at my school.’

 ‘Young able-bodied people started to treat me the same as everyone else – I felt equal.’

 From research by Richard Reiser and Lucy Mason quoted in the report of The Secretary of State 2008 on progress towards disability equality across the children’s and education sector.

Film with extra chapters and resource booklet

The DVD Make Them Go Awayis intended for Key stages 2 and 3.

The accompanying booklet contains various lesson plans and ideas for groupwork as well as a table of links to the curriculum, showing how anti-bullying work can be embedded into the work of a school across several subject areas. This DVD and booklet is useful for staff training as well as for use with children and young people. Download pdf

Preparation for moving between settings transitions are difficult and care should be taken to prepare children as they move between a special unit and mainstream classrooms or from primary to secondary school.