APS Convention Report #5

This post is part of a series of reports on research presented last weekend at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.

During the past few months I’ve discussed a couple of studies on bullying, including an examination of the relationship between bullying and psychotic symptoms, and a study exploring the factors that make kids more likely to be bullies or victims. Today I report on a related study that was presented at the APS convention last weekend. The authors of this study examined the long term effects of bullying on children receiving special education services.

A number of studies have shown that kids with special needs are at higher risk for educational and behavioral problems. Other studies have also shown that being bullied is associated with a number of negative long term outcomes. Yet, less is known about the long-term effects of bullying on children receiving special education services. For example, are these kids at an even higher risk for developing emotional disorders in response to bullying? Or on the contrary, are these kids more resilient to the effects of bullying than kids not in special education?

To answer this question a research team from the University of South Florida surveyed 1,439 middle school children attending schools in Florida. 155 of these kids (approximately 11%) had a special education classification (specific learning disorder, speech disorder, or emotionally handicapped). These kids were assessed in 2003 and then 4 years later in 2007. The authors examined:

  • Bullying behavior (history of being a bully or a victim)
  • Attendance
  • GPA
  • Discipline records (number of referrals and suspensions)

The results:

  1. Among the kids with a special education classification, 14% were victims of bullying, and 8% were bullies. Among kids with a regular education status, 12% were victims and 5% were bullies. There was no difference in the rates of victimization or bullying between kids in special education and those in regular education.
  2. At time 1, being a bully was associated with more discipline referrals, suspensions, and lower GPA. However, the association between bullying on discipline referrals appeared to be stronger in the non-special education kids.
  3. Also at time 1, being in special education was associated with higher discipline referrals and higher suspensions.
  4. When compared to their time 1 levels, victims of bullies in special education had better GPAs than victims in regular education.
  5. Also when compared to time 1 levels, bullies in special education showed a reduction in referrals while bullies in regular education showed an increase in referrals.

There are two very salient findings. First, there was no difference in the rate of bullying between students in special education and those in regular education. This is a bit surprising as past studies have shown that kids with special needs (for example learning disabilities) are at higher risk for being victimized (see for example Faye, 2003 for a review). Why the discrepancy? One possibility is that the rates of bullying may be changing. Specifically, most data on special education and bullying comes from studies conducted in the 90s. It is possible that the rates of bullying (or at least the self-report of bullying) in general education classrooms is increasing and now stands equal (about 10-15%) than among students in special education. Another possibility is that previous studies were conducted with very small sample sizes and that this study more accurately reflects the rates of bullying in general population.

A second surprising finding is that both bullies and victims in special education seem to perform better overtime than bullies and victims in regular education. Why? This effect may reflect the effectiveness of the special education program. That is, it is likely that kids in special education receive more targeted interventions that help them modulate the harmful effects of bullying.

The References:
Feldman, Gesten, Rojas, Totura, Smith-Schrandt, Alexander, Scanga & Brown (2009). A longitudinal evaluation of bullying and victimization among adolescents of varying exceptionalities. Poster presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. San Francisco, May 2009.

Mishna, Faye (2003). Learning Disabilities and Bullying: Double Jeopardy Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36 (4)

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5 Responses to Effects of bullying on children with special needs

  1. zayzayem says:

    Great discussion.

    Was there a change in victim/bully status of children over four years? Presumeably some kids stop/start bullying and stop/start being victims.

    • Thanks Zayzayem. Actually there was no report on trajectory of bully involvement. But you are correct, some will start/stop being bullies and victims. This reminds me of the research on adolescent girls who are victimized in high school and then are able to re-invent themselves if they attend a college far away from home with few of her original classmates. Probably transitions such as that are necessary for kids to be able to shake the label (both of bullies and victims).

  2. Bonnie Murphy says:

    Great article, actually I would suggest that special needs kids become more withdrawn and don’t report the bullying. Is it possible they just take the bullying as something else they cannot do or is bad about themselves? What is really interesting to consider is a lot of bullying is caused by ignorance, special needs children where there is no physical appearance of their disability i.e. autism spectrum….yet the individual will appear different to their peers and often promote bullying unintentionally. My wish is for general education of the embracing of the differences in individuals without crossing the lines of any individual. Being the parent of a child on the Autism spectrum, I don’t support my child crossing any line of another individual and bothering their space or classroom time….in return I hope for the same with my child. What is so frustrating is how do we accomplish this?

  3. Alex G S says:

    I believe that, at least in Australia, with assistance of the internet and changes in expectations and active parenting, School Principles can now now be more active in stamping out bullying. Schools in Canberra Australia are required to have anti bullying policies and processes.

  4. Fantastic article and articles

    its great to see that someone puts alot of time in studies like this one.

    all the written information below belong to me and can not be reproduced or used without my permission

    i am 22 years old myself and i have been bullied in longer and smaller periods of my life from the age of roughly 7-8 years old until 18 years old.

    And i also had special needs in my studies i had a very hard time to learn to read and write. so had special classes with a personal teacher from third grade.

    i can write a big book about it all but il try to tell you the biggest points of my own experience that supports the study.

    as mentioned earlier i had special needs. but it was also a culutural problem i am 100% norwegian with white skin. But my dad has been doing Motorsports from before i was born and i was with him every second weekend.

    So i was talking about doing offroad driving and such all the time while the rest of my class had much more normal mid class parents you know soccer and normal sports.

    and i also mowed with my mum and stepdad and little sister from one neighborhood to another at the age of 6-7 at the same time as i started school.

    So then thing was set for a very interesting childhood. The worst phase was during 7-13 years old. During that period of time i was constantly bullied and very much of it was very serious. And i isolated myself with computer games because i luckily got a computer from my school because of my study problems in 1997-1998 that probably saved my life. because in online communities you are never judged or bullied.

    when i finished the first school at 13 i got to the next mandatory school in the norwegian system. i had it better there with anew class but also then i had to face bullying from people that had been in higher classes at my old school. but during this period i also luckily finnaly got some help from an psychiatrist.

    there has been little bullying after this but some other shit that i dotn want to eloberate to much on.

    fast forward to this day

    i will finish my operational maritime engineering studies at university in 5 months the studies im conducting now i started out in 2010 after i had served two years in the navy. and one year working on shore.

    i also had two years of studies before the navy after mandatory 9 years of school.

    and all this time even in the navy i have been suffering from the bullying in many ways that i only now recently have started to understand since i had to endure 2 years of school again which i deep down fear like hell.

    one of the worst effects is that im socially handicapped with enormous mental barriers avoiding me from establishing long time and deep relationships.

    it can be explained in a way that whenever i get to know someone well i fear that they will turn on me. But then again i can easily talk casually to anyone one on the street everywhere in the world and even stand on stages in front of hundreds of people and entertain them.

    and recently i wasent able to even sit in class at my studies now even if i havent been bullied at all an also like the teacher and the studies. it was the mentals blockades telling me i shouldent be here. i think at least.

    Thanks for reading hope this adds some insight into how it is from the thoughts of a victim of bullying

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