AUTHOR: Deborah Stephens and Matt Villano


The Signs: What every parent should know about bullying

Parents must be the primary managers and advocates of their child with developmental disabilities.

Parents should familiarize themselves with the different forms of bullying that a child with developmental disabilities may experience:

Manipulative bullying: This form of bullying occurs when a child with developmental disabilities is actually being coerced and controlled by another student.

Conditional friendship: This form of bullying occurs when a child thinks that someone is being their friend, but the times of “friendship” are alternated with times of bullying.

Exploitative bullying: This form of bullying occurs when the features of the child’s condition are used to bully them either by other classmates or via technology and social media networks.

The Matrix Parents Network, a nonprofit in Marin County, Calif., serves as a resource to parents in the education and prevention of bullying. It was founded in 1983 when three mothers gathered around a kitchen table to share the challenges, heartbreak and frustrations of raising children with developmental disabilities. At that time, no organizations existed for a family in crisis to turn to for compassion, encouragement, support or information. Forming a network of parents, they decided to educate, support and encourage families who were facing the same challenges that they had faced alone.

Stephanie Steiner, the director of The Matrix Parents Network stated that “without timely and appropriate intervention, students with disabilities who experience bullying will have increased problems that will likely make it more difficult to meet their developmental disabilities. Parents must always intervene.”

Matrix was founded upon the belief that parents can and must be the primary managers and advocates of their child with developmental disabilities. It is one of 100 Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) nationwide, which provide training and information to parents of infants, toddlers, children and youth with all types of disabilities – physical, cognitive, emotional and learning.

The following are best practices for parents recommended by The Matrix Parents Network:

  • Be aware that students often feel that adult intervention is infrequent and unhelpful and, as such, fear that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies.
  • Be observant of a child’s behavior, appearance and moods, particularly if one thinks that a child is ‘at risk’ for being bullied. If a child is reluctant to attend school, investigate why and consider a negative social experience as one reason.
  • If a parent suspects something is wrong, talk with the child. Children can be reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation or because they don’t want to “tattletale.” Whether it’s a parent or the child who initiates the conversation, speak openly and honestly – and listen! Keep the conversation at a level a child can understand. Remember that every child is different, what may not bother one child, might be extremely detrimental to another.
  • Don’t blame the child. Be supportive, loving and patient. Take his/her story seriously. Let him/her know that it’s not his/her fault and that appropriate action will be taken.
  • Get details from the child about the incident(s). Try not to direct his/her responses, but ask pertinent questions about what happened and how he/she felt/feels. Let the child know that appropriate confidentiality will be kept, but that keeping bullying a secret is not good for anyone. Tell the child that he/she has the right to be safe.
  • Stay focused on the child and the issue. Though a parent will likely be upset and/or angry for the child, over reacting (or under reacting) can make things more stressful for a child. Allowing emotions to ‘take over’ can also make an objective assessment of the situation more difficult. Keeping an emotional response in check will help one better support and advocate for the child.
  • If appropriate, problem solve or brainstorm intervention strategies with the child. Giving him/her relevant information, such as the definition of bullying, at a level he/she can understand, can be helpful as well.

Intervention Strategies

  • Bullying should never be ignored. Intervene immediately. Children are easily emotionally wounded and often have few skills to cope. Follow up with the school as soon as possible. If needed, seek help from outside sources.
  • Talk with all pertinent school staff. Find out what they know and what actions, if any, they’ve taken. Make sure that they understand the child’s disability and the possible impact his/her disability might have on the social dynamics which set-up the bullying. The staff may not be aware of a problem, but, once they are, work collaboratively on how best to help the child. On-going communication and the continued monitoring of resolved bullying issues is often necessary.
  • Make sure that the staff speaks with the bully and victim separately. Depending on the age and needs of the child, a parent may want to be a part of the initial discussion that the staff has with the child.
  • If needed, ask for a general or an IEP meeting to discuss the situation and solutions. Document the incidents in writing. Include the conversations with the child, staff, etc.
  • Record dates, who was involved, what was said, names of possible witnesses, the adverse effects on the child and the school’s responses and interventions. Stick to the facts.
  • A written complaint to the district may be appropriate if the problem proves to be severe.
  • Seek the help of outside professionals, such as a pediatrician or mental health provider. Depending upon the degree of the problem and your child’s vulnerability, utilizing professional assistance sooner rather than later may be important.
  • Consult with outside organizations. Violence prevention agencies can provide information on how to protect the child. Organizations familiar with the child’s disability and its unique characteristics may have some specific intervention ideas.
  • If physical signs of the bullying exist (torn clothes, cuts, bruises, etc.), take a photo; police involvement may be needed.
  • For the younger child, volunteering in his/her classroom might help one better understand the social dynamics and the underlying problems.
  • Discuss the issue of bullying with other parents, individually or in a support group. Talking with the parents of the bully, or the bully him/herself, is not recommended.
  • Continue to assess and monitor the child. Is he/she physically and emotionally safe? If not, what further steps need to be taken? Provide on-going opportunities for continued open discussions, checking in with the child regularly. If the child becomes more withdrawn, depressed or reluctant to go to school, and/or you see a decline in his/her academic performance, then take the issue back to the school. If the school does not use appropriate actions, then one may need to go higher up in the administration or take other actions, such as making a formal complaint.


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