Peer Advocacy Programs Reduce Bullying of Special Needs Students

Bullying is destructive and hurtful no matter the age of the victim. From young children on the playground to adults in the boardroom, bullying causes low self-esteem, depression, poor performance and a whole host of other issues.  

The Menace of Bullying – Adapted to the Modern World
Being a victim of bullying can have a profound effect on your confidence and for the one in four teens who have experienced this menace, this makes them much more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol and experience depression.

The unacceptable act of bullying has been adapted for a digital age and victims are now most likely to endure the attentions of a bully via something like social media sites like Facebook or perhaps through a series of text messages on their mobile phone.

Cyberbullying is the term given to this form of abuse that can have a devastating impact on the victim, but the roots of these odious actions can easily be traced back to the sort of traditional bullying that children of previous generations have experienced.

One of the many worrying issues attached to cyberbullying, is the fact that the victim could be suffering in silence without any physical evidence of the torment they are going through, because the taunts and acts of bullying are being conducted online, rather than in the playground.

Most states now have established bullying policies and if you are a parent of a teenage child or a young adult experiencing cyberbullying, it is important to take action and report any acts of cyberbullying, as no one should have to put up with the sort of electronic harassment that so many young people are vulnerable to.

Looking elsewhere, when the victim has special needs, the effects can be even more devastating. According to the Interactive Autism Network, more than 60 percent of children on the Autism Spectrum have been bullied at some point. Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are particularly vulnerable to bullying; the behaviors associated with ASD, including poor social interaction skills, repetitive behaviors and emotional outbursts are common targets for bullies who want to establish power over someone else. Children with ASD have experienced everything from teasing and taunting to behaviors designed to trigger an outburst, all for someone else’s amusement.   Increased awareness of ASD has gone a long way toward curbing bullying behaviors, but concerned educators and parents realize that there is much more work to be done. One of the most successful means of stopping bullying behavior among young people involves going right to the source: the children themselves.

Peer Advocacy In a Nutshell
Educators who work with special needs students have an in-depth understanding of ASD and how best to work with these children. Other students do not have that understanding, but what they do have, in most cases, is an innate sense of right and wrong, as well as a natural propensity for compassion.   That’s why some advocates have developed peer advocacy programs specifically designed to give students the tools they need to stop bullying behaviors. Essentially, peer advocacy means that one (or more) students acts on the behalf of another. The action might include telling the bully to stop, reaching out to the victim to offer support or calling a teacher or other adult for help.   Experts believe that peer advocacy is so effective because not only are children more likely to see bullying behavior than adults, but there is great power in their influence. A fellow student telling you to stop teasing someone, or advisingthe victim to tell an adult, likely has more impact than an adult offering the same advice. In addition, training kids to identify and respond to bullying behavior helps educate children on what is and is not acceptable and might prevent them from doing or saying things that could be considered bullying themselves.

The Basics of Peer Advocacy
An effective peer advocacy program requires more than simply telling children to tell a bully to stop or to notify a teacher when they see bullying. Particularly in the case of special needs students, children may not be able to effectively identify all types of bullying or how to respond appropriately.   For those reasons, special needs–focused peer advocacy training should involve:  

  • Explaining what bullying behavior is, and how it affects victims. Children should understand why they intervene, so when they see bullying they will feel more compelled to take action.

  • Improving understanding of the group for which they are advocating. For example, children with ASD often have trouble interpreting facial or verbal cues and therefore may misinterpret awell-meaning remark. Again, improving understanding not only helps peers adjust their own behavior, but it also helps them identify a problem. If they know that a classmate begins moving their arms in a certain way when they are upset, and they see that happening on the playground, they will know to investigate and intervene rather than stand idly by.

  • Training in the options for intervention. Sometimes children do not act on another’s behalf because they aren’t sure what to do. By outlining the various options for getting help, they will be better equipped to help when need be.

Many schools are implementing peer advocacy programs as a part of a larger school-wide anti-bullying or zero-tolerance program. However, because the needs of ADS students are so unique and specific, it’s important for such programs to have specific measures in place to handle bullying cases that involve them. Training and encouraging students to advocate for their peers is a good place to start and will make a significant difference in reducing the amount of bullying overall as well as producing compassionate, kind and responsive individuals.

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