Mainstreaming leads to bullying
One of the unfortunate side effects of mainstreaming – integrating special needs students into regular classrooms with age-related peers – has been bullying. Special needs students may have difficulty gaining acceptance by their peers because they are visibly different from classmates in some way. Differences in physical appearance, speech patterns and physical or intellectual ability are obvious to most school‑age children, even to children in a kindergarten or nursery program at age 5 or younger. These differences set the special needs child aside from classmates; even with appropriate guidance from teaching and support staff, special needs students can become a target for bullying.
Pervasive developmental disorders like autism or Asperger’s syndrome are also associated with social differences. Children with these disorders may have trouble carrying on a conversation, taking turns at a game, looking at people directly when speaking to them, or even understanding a joke. They may be rejected, taunted or even physically harmed by other students who take advantage of their awkwardness. The fact that the autistic child may have strong emotional reactions to minor disappointments – yelling, crying, breaking things or having a temper tantrum – makes matters at school even worse.
Special needs students as bullies?
It would be hard for anyone who has seen an aggressive outburst from a special needs student to deny there is a potential for violence, or for other students to be injured. And yes, this is a good reason to examine whether a specific student should be mainstreamed. It may even be an argument against the whole institution of mainstreaming special needs students. But are we really talking about bullying?
Dan Olweus is one of the most prominent researchers in the area of bullying in schools. He identifies three conditions that define an act of bullying: 1) “Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions”; 2) “Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time “; and, 3) “Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.” While the uncontrolled outbursts of a special needs student may meet the first criterion, and repeated outbursts would meet the second as well, the third criterion is perhaps the most important. It is also one we tend to overlook when we are upset about a pattern of unacceptable behaviour on the part of a special needs student.
Olweus’ list of the reasons kids bully can help us determine whether that third criterion has been met. Kids bully, he says, because of three related motives: 1) A desire for power and dominance; 2) Satisfaction in harming others; 3) Material or psychological rewards derived from the act of bullying.
If the child is unaware of how his actions impact other children around him, it is highly unlikely that he is a bully. If he gains no power through the act, and takes neither satisfaction in causing harm nor material or psychological reward from the outburst, his motives do not match the known motives of bullies. Interventions intended for students who bully will have little effect on such a child, whose aggression is part of a completely different phenomenon and must be addressed in a different way.
It is inaccurate to call all aggression bullying, and pointless to treat it as such. The unique cause of each incidence of violence must be tracked down in order to treat each unique problem with the appropriate remedy.
“What is bullying?.” Olweus Bullying Prevention Program