AUTHOR: Deborah Stephens and Matt Villano


The Anti-Bullying Program: Do Anti-Bullying Programs Work for Children With Developmental Disabilities?

Programs and approaches that work in schools, communities and homes to disable bullying

Across the nation, entire industries of consultants and businesses have formed with curriculums, workshops and pep talks to combat bullying in schools. Although well-intentioned, a new “war on bullying” will have limited success for the same reason our earlier “wars” have come up short. Such “wars” lack a coordinated strategy. They focus on symptoms instead of causes and short-term interventions instead of the needs and capacities that emerge throughout the long arc of a child’s growth and development.

In fact, a thorough examination by Rachel C. Vreeman and Aaron E. Carroll in the Pediatric Adolescent Medicine Journal demonstrated only four out of 10 most widely-used anti-bullying curriculums decreased bullying (2007). While the evidence shows that much more scientific research needs to be done to develop effective ways to reduce bullying of the child with developmental disabilities, there are tools and programs that show promising results. Here are examples of programs or approaches that demonstrate success in reducing the rate of bullying against children with developmental disabilities through coordinated efforts. Which leads one to ask, what works?

Social and Emotional Learning Curriculums (SEL)

Social and emotional learning (SEL) assists children to develop fundamental skills to effectively handle school, relationships and personal development. Examples may include managing emotions, caring for others, decision making and handling situations ethically. New research provides dramatic evidence that social and emotional learning can be taught, just like geometry and Spanish.

Child Development published the most scientifically rigorous review of research ever done on social and emotional learning interventions for children aged 5-18. The review, by a team of researchers from Loyola University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), synthesizes the results of more than 200 independent studies on the impact of SEL programs and represented a group of 270,034 students (2010). 

The findings showed great promise. High-quality SEL programs led to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional skills, in attitudes about self and others, and in classroom behavior. Programs were also associated with substantial decreases in conduct problems and emotional distress such as anxiety and depression—all of which are part of the bullying phenomenon. Academic scores also improved significantly—by as much as 11 percentile points. Educators realized that SEL doesn’t interfere with academic learning but helps it.

Your Child’s Social and Emotional Development

Because social and emotional components factor into why children bully other students, the ability to teach them behavioral skills, many of which are part of SEL, can reduce the incidence of bullying – no matter if the victim is a child with developmental disabilities or neurotypical student. Vreeman and Carroll (2007) concluded in a report that the most effective anti-bullying programs are those that take a “whole-school approach” such as SEL. Social awareness and relationship skills also aid in the prevention of bullying, either by the better understanding of a student’s differences or intervention by bystanders to support the victim.

The state of Illinois was one of the first to institute SEL in their classrooms (2011). Illinois established three broad goals towards their Social Emotional Learning Standards: develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success; use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships; demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school and community contexts. Team members felt SEL was vital not only towards a child’s behavior but also in preparing them for a 21st Century workforce. Pilot schools’ results demonstrated students were “calmer about things” with significant drops in behavior referrals.

School and staff support is critical towards the success of SEL programs. For Illinois, 75 percent of school principals supported SEL; more than 90% in the late stages of implementation. CASEL’s findings also concluded it was not only the execution of SEL programs, but well-executed programs that demonstrated the best results. These strong findings and case studies have led other states to follow Illinois’ lead – Washington, Kansas, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma – despite budget shortfalls and programs cuts.

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Inclusive Community Programs and Organizations

Bullying expert Jodee Blanco, author of the New York Times best-selling book “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” first took steps to ‘walk in the shoes’ of children with developmental disabilities as a 17-year-old high school student.

“It began in high school,” Blanco said. “At that time, children with developmental disabilities were taught in separate classes and I volunteered to tutor many of them. The majority were young teenagers with Down syndrome and I discovered, in conversation, that they wanted to attend the high school prom. Naturally, I believed that certainly the school would let them attend. I was wrong. The principal said that the students could not attend and so I decided to help them have their own prom. As a result, the local press covered the prom that we created, much more so, than the regular high school prom. Much to my surprise, I was ostracized by my classmates for helping to create it. Several days later, in my high school, I witnessed one of the students with Down syndrome being tormented. Two students were kicking dirt into his face. I intervened and, later that day after school, a group of students ambushed me and I was beaten for defending the child with Down syndrome.”

Bianco says that what she experienced in high school has led to her lifelong efforts to reduce the bullying in lives of children with developmental disabilities. She advises parents and advocates to:

  • Form a coalition of concerned parents by reaching out to all others who are parenting children with developmental disabilities. Meet monthly to discuss concerns and bring the concerns as one voice to the PTA, school board and community.
  • Understand the 504. (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). This important piece of federal legislation outlines rights to a safe learning environment for a child.
  • Demand that anti-bullying policies be in place in the school district and that the issue of children with developmental disabilities be addressed in all outreach.
  • Make sure that the parent aggressively seeks out all forms of social outlets in the community and schools for their child to participate in. These events help foster a child’s social skills and offer opportunities for him/her to foster friendships. Such things can help a child become less of a target for bullying.

Beyond individual actions such as Bianco’s, a majority of cities offer existing programs that are a great resource for families with children with developmental disabilities to engage in their communities. Two great examples are Special Olympics and Best Buddies.

Special Olympics provide the “dignity, acceptance, and chance to reach one’s potential.” By empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities in more than 180 countries to participate in sports, they not only provide opportunities for the athletes, but engagement with the community to see the humanity and joy of these individuals. Their programs break down myths and fears that are associated with disabilities.

For children, the playing field can sometimes serve as a unifying place when it doesn’t occur on the playground. Neurotypical children can connect to the same love of sports that they may see when watching children with developmental disabilities participate at a Special Olympics event. Encouraging children of all abilities to attend and support these events, in person or on television, brings awareness to students. Through their school outreach program, Special Olympians visit thousands of students each year to educate them on what “different abilities” they offer. Special Olympic events also provide volunteers, both youth and adults, to work side-by-side with individuals with disabilities and better understand their needs and behaviors.

Name calling, such as the use of “retard” which is all too often used as a descriptor of children with developmental disabilities on the playground and in schools is both hurtful and dehumanizing and reinforces existing stereotypes. Most recently, Special Olympics launched the “Spread the Word to End the Word” Campaign to change the conversation and eliminate the demeaning use of the word “retard(ed).” In lightning speed, this awareness campaign spread like wildfire. As a result, both children and adults now think twice before uttering this hurtful word.

“It’s not so much that the word is such an important thing, but it’s finally a chance to talk about humiliation,” stated Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver in an interview with the Washington Post. “This ‘thing’ has gotten more attention for the underlying issues than anything. A Rosa Parks moment or a March on Washington moment — this population hasn’t had that anywhere.”

Research shows that when children with developmental disabilities are included as friends in their social environments, bullying can be reduced. Programs such as Best Buddies can break down the barriers in building such friendships. Best Buddies is a global nonprofit that creates one-to-one friendships, employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This internal organization positively impacts 700,000 people worldwide each year. Their programs may be found on middle school, high school and college campuses. Perhaps the program with the most potential to grow is e-Buddies, an e-mail pen pal program for children with disabilities ages 10-year-old and older. These children are paired with peer mentors through a secure online setting that helps foster social, literacy and computer skills.

Successful Tools at Home

The best practices for preventing bullying towards a child with developmental disabilities may start at home. Parents such as Kim Stagliano, recommend including children in as many activities as possible in the community and neighborhood.

“I’m a big fan of inclusion,” said Stagliano. “I believe that the more a part of the community and classroom we are as a family, the less my children will be vulnerable to bullies. The teachers know me. The school administrators know me. The kids know me.”

“I know firsthand that being the mom to a child with developmental disabilities makes it doubly difficult to ‘get out,’ but you have to. Go to church and involve your children in the church. Be a full participant in your community and get your children involved, too. Hillary Clinton was right when she said it takes a village to raise a child. I count on that village every single day to help protect my children when they are out in the world.”

Communicating with a child is an important tool in detecting and preventing bullying. Some children with developmental disabilities may not recognize they are being bullied, while others may be afraid to tell a parent. Asking the right questions and recognizing changes in behavior may present the first signs that a problem exists. Experts recommend asking questions including “Do your friends have nicknames for you?” or “Who do you spend time with at school?” which may lead you to the discovery of bigger issues.

PACER Center is one of the leading experts and resources regarding bullying and children with developmental disabilities. Their website,, provides coloring books, contests and videos for parents to share with their child. Through a series of cartoon characters and interactive games including “Pip’s Clever Clue Clarifier,” a child can learn what it means to be bullied. The child guesses different “clues” that in the end adds up to a score and provides advice if the child is a victim.

The games and contests are interactive with parent participation to encourage communication and dialogue between parent and child. The website isn’t just for children with developmental disabilities, but for any child, including youth that may become bullies. The website’s ability to help children recognize signs as well as learn about their difference, provides an effective tool for parents, all within the confines of their home.

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