University study links disability characteristics to bullying

By Jacqui Ogrodnik

A new University study suggests that psychosocial problems associated with disabilities serve as risk factors for bullying and victimization.

The study focused on psychosocial factors, such as depression, aggression, anxiety and hostility, that can predict bullying and victimization among students with disabilities.

“My goal is to improve interventions for teachers and administrators within schools to support students who may have characteristics that place them more at risk for involvement in the bullying dynamic,” said Chad Rose, one of the lead authors of the study and professor of special education at the University of MissouriColumbia.

One of the main goals of the study was to raise awareness of the issue regarding how students with disabilities are over-represented as both bullies and victims in other studies of peer aggression.

“There are several manuscripts out there that look at mental health issues in bullying among students without disabilities,” he said. “This is one of the first times we tried to look at mental health and psychosocial factors directly related to bullying among students with disabilities.”

Rose said not all students with disabilities are at risk of involvement in the bullying dynamic. It’s not the disability itself that serves as a predictor, but the characteristics associated with the disability.

“If I stop saying students with disabilities are at risk and start saying … the characteristics associated with that disability serve as risk factors, then it can start to lend itself to more appropriate and effective interventions within the schools,” Rose said.

Rose, along with his co-author Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at the University, surveyed 1600 students over a period of three years. These students took the survey five times: once in sixth grade, twice in seventh grade and twice again in eighth grade.

Of the 1600 students who were surveyed, 138 students had high-incidence disabilities, meaning these students had disabilities that were proportionally higher in terms of disability diagnoses as a whole.

In terms of bullying prediction, students who reported that they engaged in delinquent behaviors were 17 times more likely to bully others. Those who reported higher levels of hostility were about seven times more likely, and those with depressive behaviors were about six times more likely.

For victimization, students who reported higher levels of hostility and those with depressive symptoms were about four times more likely to be victimized.

“One interesting finding we had in this study was that self-esteem did not serve as a significant predictor for bullying or victimization for students with high-incidence disabilities,” Rose said. “This is interesting because this is not necessarily the case in studies of students without disabilities.”

Rose said his next step will be continuing to publish these results and also moving his research along. Along with his colleague in Texas, Rose has collected data from about 15,000 students in the southwest which he will use to compare results with this study, while also focusing on subgroups of students with disabilities, such as emotional behavior disorders and health impairments.

Katherine Earl, counseling psychology doctoral student in the College of Education, believes bullying should be prevented through promoting and providing relevant education, understanding and support.

Earl said because children are often bullied based on noticeable differences, children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied.

“When a child has a disability they can become an easy target to be picked on for their ‘difference,’” Earl said in an email. “There is a lot of stigma surrounding disability which fuels the fire. I think children with disabilities are more likely to be picked on because of a lack of education and understanding surrounding topics of differences and disability.”

caregiving adults such as counselors, teachers and parents, need to look for times when a child is frightened or intimidated by other children and recognize ways to support that child, said Kevin Elliott, CEO of Kevin Elliott Counseling.

“It is also important to remember that the child who is being intimidated and picked on might be unwilling to ask for help,” Elliott said in an email. “So parents should look for changes such as unwillingness to go to school, changes in appetite, change in sleep habits or depression.”

Elliott said when the adult finds out about the bullying, it’s important to tread lightly and support the child while also letting that child have input on how to handle the situation.

“This will help empower them,” he said.

Rose’s data for the study has yet to be published, but the implications of the study has been published in the Theory into Practice journal .

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]