Eleven-year-old Brian has mild cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. Until a few months ago, he had a “sunny” disposition and loved going to school each morning.
Recently, Brian became unhappy on school days, and his parents had difficulty rousing him out of bed in time to catch the bus. He rarely discussed the events of his school day. He frequently had a morning stomachache, and he began to beg to stay home from school.
Fortunately, Brian, while reluctant, eventually told his family what was happening to him daily. He revealed that he was the object of constant teasing by several classmates.
“All children need a school environment that is safe and supportive for learning,” said Virginia Richardson, parent training manager at PACER. Telephone calls from parents to PACER Center indicate that Minnesota children with disabilities often encounter teasing at school. “We want to give families some tools so that a child is not consistently made miserable by teasing,” said Richardson.
Unfortunately, teasing is often part of the school experience. It lies along a continuum that ranges from friendly bantering to bullying to harassment.
Dictionaries draw distinctions among teasing, bullying, and harassment. Teasing involves pestering or making fun of someone. Bullying is when someone is cruel or overbearing toward another person who may be weaker physically or mentally. Bullying is also the constant teasing that makes life miserable at school. Harassment is the most severe of the three and involves severity, persistence, and pervasiveness of the behavior.
In real life, explained Richardson, teasing, bullying, and harassment may overlap. A frequent scenario of unwanted teasing is when one student leads in “picking” on another child, and other children join in, she said. If that happens, schools can send a message that “we are a school family and need to show respect for each other, and we don’t make another’s life miserable by teasing,” she suggested. The leader may not quit teasing, but many of the followers will, because most children do not want to get in trouble, Richardson said.
In the end, said Richardson, the expectation is not that schools can prevent all teasing, but that the adults at school consistently send a message that harmful or unwanted teasing will not be tolerated. In schools where this occurs, parents notice diminished teasing. Parents can take steps if a child is taunted constantly or incessantly, said Richardson. She recommended the following:
- Listen to your child and observe any changes in behavior. Realize that each child is an individual. What may not affect one child may extremely distress another.
- Discuss the situation with your child.
- Teach your child specific words to use in response to the teasing.
- Look at ways your child can stay away from the children doing the teasing. That may include sitting in a different location in the lunchroom, participating in different activities on the playground, or sitting in a different place on the bus.
- Keep a record of what your child describes as happening at school. Include a) dates, b) who was involved, c) what was said, and d) the name of someone who might have seen or heard the incident.
- Discuss with your child what the next step might be, such as your speaking to the teacher about what has happened. (Be aware that your child may not want you to tell the teacher for fear of retaliation or being labeled a “tattletale.”)
- Inquire if your child’s school has peer mediations. If so, have your child request mediation with students involved.
If you speak to the teacher about the teasing or bullying and the issue is ignored, send the school principal a letter containing a) the date on which you spoke to the teacher, b) your concerns, c) specific information about the incidents, and d) the adverse affects of the taunting on your child. Ask for a meeting to discuss the situation.
Inform the principal that you expect school staff to send the message to all children that teasing and bullying will not be tolerated.
If the principal does not intervene, send copies of the letter you sent the principal to the chair or members of the school board and the superintendent of schools requesting a written reply on the action the school will take. Include the date you contacted the principal and his or her response.
If parents and school staff intervene appropriately, it is likely that teasing and bullying will not escalate to harassment.
In response to the large number of calls from parents regarding bullying, PACER Center has developed a new, innovative curriculum entitled, “Is Your Child a Target of Bullying? Intervention Strategies for Parents of Children with Disabilities.” Using research-based practices, PACER developed this one-of-a-kind curriculum that offers common sense information and encouragement to families who experience bullying.
This engaging and superbly produced curriculum is meant for professionals and parent leaders to present to parents at meetings, workshops, trainings and myriad other occasions. The curriculum is available from PACER for $15 in CD-ROM format or $165 with overhead transparencies and printed script. State and local taxes are additional. To order, contact PACER Center at (952) 838-9000 or (888) 248-0822 or visit http://www.pacer.org and click on the What’s New button.
Patricia Bill is the Communications Coordinator at PACER Center. PACER Center is a training and information center for families of children and youth with all disabilities: physical, cognitive, learning, emotional, and others. PACER is located at 8161 Normandale Blvd. Minneapolis, MN 55437-1044.