The Bully-Victim Relationship and Children with Disabilities

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The Student Perspective

Previous studies have suggested a positive correlation between students with special needs and an increased likelihood to both bullying others and victimization. In other words, kids with disabilities are more likely than their non-disabled peers to be bullied by other children, and they are also more likely to bully others. Findings from investigations of these relationships thus far, however, have been based solely on teacher and parent reports. Therefore, a group of researchers decided to examine the relationship between children with disabilities and the bully/victim relationship from the perspective of students (Swearer, Wang, Maag, Siebecker, & Frerichs, 2012), which they contend is a much needed perspective in the canon of research around this topic.


Understanding Self-Awareness

In 2006, Van Cleave and Davis analyzed data from the National Survey of Children’s Health and found that “Students with behavioral, emotional, or developmental problems were two times more likely to be a victim of bullying, three times more likely to bully others, and three times more likely to be a bully–victim than children without special health care needs” (Swearer et al., 2012, p. 504). The recent study conducted by Swearer et al. (2012) was an attempt to confirm the aforementioned statistics through students’ self-reports and thereby also better understand participants’ self-awareness about the bullying dynamic.


Types of Disabilities

Participants in the study included children and adolescents in grades 5 through 9 among elementary and middle schools in a Midwestern area. Special education status was determined through school records, and participants in this category were further specified by type of disability and whether the disability was visible or invisible. Visible disabilities include speech, language, and hearing impairments and mild mental handicaps. Participants were given the Paci?c-Rim Bullying Measure (PRB) (Taki et al., 2006) by teachers and researchers during the school day and were subsequently categorized by researchers as bullies, victims, or bully-victims (those who both bully and are victims of bullying). Children who reported no incidents of bullying or victimization were not categorized as any of the aforementioned.


Implications for Preventing Bullying/Victimization

The results of the study described herein (Swearer et al., 2012) are consistent with previous research based on parent and teacher reports; the data show children with behavioral and visible disabilities as most likely to bully others and be victimized by bullies. Students with invisible special needs, such as learning disabilities, report less bullying and victimization than students with behavioral disabilities; however, they consistently report higher rates of bullying and victimization than their peers in general education. These findings have significant implications for prevention and intervention programs, such as the importance of fostering a school culture that is accepting, positive, and inclusive for all students. Teachers and administrators should exercise caution not to single out or further alienate students in special education.





Swearer, S., Wang, C., Maag, J., Siebecker, A., & Frerichs, L. (2012). Understanding the bullying dynamic among students in special and general education. Journal of School Psychology, 50: 503-520.


Taki, M., Slee, P., Sim, H., Hymel, S., Pepler, D., & Swearer, S. M. (2006). An international study of bullying in five Pacific Rim countries. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Melbourne, Australia.


Van Cleave, J. & Davis, M. M. (2006). Bullying and peer victimization among children with special health care needs. Pediatrics, 118: 1212–1219.



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