The Teachable Moment: Opportunities in the classroom to educate


Finding opportunties in the classroom for teachers and students to disable stereotypes and bullying

teachable-momentsWhen Juliette Wallen, a mother in San Marcos, Calif., heard that her son, “J,” was being bullied at school, she quickly reached out to people at, who provide presentations and one-on-one training sessions to assist students like “J” to feel more of a part of the classroom community.

“They came in and helped everyone understand why a lot of these kids did the things that they did,” Wallen explains. “That kind of insight is invaluable; all of a sudden, some of the bullies were saying, ‘Oh, OK. The bullying isn’t even fun anymore.’”

Finding these teachable moments also helped Julie Hertzog. Currently, Hertzog directs PACER’s National Center for Bullying Prevention, which educates communities nationwide to address bullying through creative, relevant and interactive resources. Hertzog led the development of PACER’s interactive and innovative Web sites, and, designed to inspire students to end bullying.

Hertzog’s own personal experience as a mother to a child with Down syndrome inspires her current work with PACER’s efforts. “My 14-year-old son, David, was born with Down syndrome,” Julie said. “Before he turned 3, he had undergone three open heart surgeries and a tracheotomy, and his breathing required a ventilator. Heading into kindergarten, David was nonverbal, had delayed cognitive abilities and received his nutrition from a feeding tube. There was no doubt about it; my son wasn’t like his peers.”

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“Because of his differences — and research showing children tend to single out peers with characteristics like his — I feared that David could become a poster child for children expected to be the targets of bullying. We live in a small community, where David has known all of his classmates since kindergarten and will eventually graduate high school with most of them. They have the same classes, eat lunch at the same time and attend field trips together.”

“For all of these reasons, I decided the best way to address my concerns about David would be to become his advocate — not only with adults, but with his peers. During his first year of school, I started visiting David’s classroom to talk with his classmates about Down syndrome. I discovered that most children weren’t concerned about his cognitive issues; they were actually more fascinated with why he didn’t talk. At this time, I also networked with his teachers, his paraprofessionals and even made sure the lunchroom workers knew me. I hoped the more these people felt comfortable with me, the more information they would share,” said Hertzog.

Now, years later, David has just started the eighth grade. He’s not bullied, and more than that, he loves school. It’s the place where his peers give him high fives in the hallway, ask him to sit by them at lunch and, best of all, genuinely accept him. Parent Toolkits and Resources for Bullying and Special Needs

“The concept sounds simple, but because my son can’t tell me what happens during the day, I depend heavily on these peers to act as his voice,” said Hertzog. “Now, what started as four kids in sixth grade has evolved to a school wide project with more than 40 students volunteering to become peer advocates so they can help David and other students who are different. I know all too well that not every parent of a child with a disability has this good fortune. Although I’ve found that power comes from sharing and being direct, I realize this approach won’t work in every classroom where bullying exists. But there are always ways that parents, teachers and students can develop strategies and begin to teach young people the importance of inclusion, acceptance and — most important — respect.”

An important strategy for parents to implement with their children whom are victims of bullies is to help them communicate. Many parents rehearse scripts that children with special needs can recite to bullies after an incident. Others encourage their children to tell a teacher or aide the moment that they feel uncomfortable.

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Create teachable moments in the classroom

Julie Hertzog and The PACER Center For Bullying Prevention recommend the following to create teachable moments in the classroom:

  • Help educate classmates about a child with special needs specific disability, or disabilities in general. Resources that provide information on disabilities or special needs include, and
  • Disability awareness is often not considered when taught to children about respect, but it should be. Insist that the school creates a campus environment that is sensitive to disabilities.
  • Provide curriculum strategies and resources that value diversity, including disabilities. Learn more about Social Emotional Learning and strategies that are working in classrooms and community by reading: Do Anti-Bullying Programs Work For Children With Special Needs?
  • If the school’s current anti-bullying/respect programs are not addressing the specifics of disabilities, look to other programs that will do so including PACER Center. A good program will be utilized school-wide on an on-going basis and weave or embed disability education into the classroom curriculum and throughout the school’s culture.
  • Encourage the school to have up-to-date and timely in-service training for staff to help them best handle and recognize bullying problems and potential disability harassment. It’s not only important for staff to know how best to intervene, but also to understand the impact of their role as role models. Make sure that the training sessions include areas specific to the particulars of student disabilities and that all the relevant staff, including teachers, yard duties assistants, bus drivers and sport coaches receive training.
  • Suggest that your school consider using student surveys. These surveys often reveal problem areas and allow students to anonymously express their concerns or fears.
  • Know the school’s anti-bullying/harassment policies and procedures. Find out if they are adequately and appropriately communicated to parents. Work with the school to make sure that all parents are informed of these school policies. Learn more about your rights by reading: The Law: Parent’s rights in the fight against bullies.
  • Encourage a school program that has student involvement. A general lack of leadership by youth to prevent bullying and teasing contributes to the problem (Bowman, 2001). A good program should include empowering bystanders to speak up. In many instances, bystanders, and even the bully’s followers, though not directly targeted, are also victims of the bully.
  • Encourage the creation of new class/school-wide rules. Teachers can work with their students to develop rules against bullying. Challenge the teacher who says, “We’re all friends here,” this may be an incomplete picture of the social climate in his/her classroom.
  • Ask the school to provide a social skills or “life skills” group, if they don’t already have one. Even if such a group isn’t appropriate for your child, it may benefit others, including the bystanders who may be afraid to speak up.
  • Raise awareness of bullying in the school community by speaking at PTA meetings or before your school board. Prompt the creation of an anti-bullying or diversity oversight or coordinating group, either school- or district-wide. This group can generate anti-bullying materials and strategies as well as review, manage and evaluate policies.
  • If a special education class isn’t appropriately integrated into the school’s physical settings, convene a meeting to discuss how the campus/classes can be reconfigured. By isolating certain classes, schools may inadvertently be providing a potential bully with an ‘exclusion is o.k.’ message, as well as negatively impacting the self-esteem of the special education students.
  • The school may recommend peer mediation in order to resolve bullying incident(s). This strategy is not appropriate as the bullied child is the victim of an imbalance of power. The child’s special needs may also make mediation more stressful and unequal. Even with adult supervision, facing the bully is usually an intimidating experience and unlikely to produce a healthy outcome.

Learn more by visiting

Your Child’s Learning and Education

The IEP: Addressing bullying with the child’s IEP

Please help continue to bring national awareness, quality information, and a voice to the issues of families with children of special needs by donating today.