Working with parents

Bullying is one of the most difficult experiences a parent or carer of disabled children/children with special educational needs (SEN) can experience. They already face a unique combination of emotional, social, physical and financial pressures that impact on their family lives.

For example, they may struggle to come to terms with the news of a child's impairment; experience poor health exacerbated by caring responsibilities; or struggle with a lack of time for themselves and each other. Other problems arise from balancing the demands of work and caring: finding appropriate childcare, arranging for flexibility in working patterns and getting regular time off, all of which potentially increase the risk of hostility from colleagues. There may also be financial pressures due to the additional costs of raising a disabled child.

Parents and carers often report feeling that they experience a lack of support and understanding from professionals and the wider family network and community. This is compounded by feelings that professionals do not act on their concerns about their child's development; that there may be a lack of suitable services; and that it takes considerable effort to access those available. In face of these wider contexts, the additional stress of having to deal with the bullying of a child in school can be considerable. How effective responses to bullying are can have significant impacts on a family life.

Testimonies of parents and carers have revealed that, while bullying of their child is always distressing, the response of schools can influence the extent of the damage significantly.

ABA and Achievement for All have written a short resource for schools about working with parents and carers after a bullying incident. 

Parents and carers advise teachers in dealing with this issue to take the following steps

1. Listen to the person reporting the bullying

Parents stress that it is essential that if their child reports bullying to another adult in school, the appropriate response of the teacher is to believe that they are telling the truth. The consequences of a child reporting bullying to an adult at home or at school and feeling that they are not listened to or believed are damaging and far reaching.

2. Listen to the parents

Parents are the experts in their child’s behaviour and disability and know when something is wrong. Parents are usually the first people to be either told about the bullying or spot the signs of it through changes in their child’s behaviour. When they report bullying to the school, they want to be believed and listened to, not labelled as ‘causing trouble’ or being ‘overly sensitive’.

3. Listen to both sides

Recognise that bullies often have their own problems. Parents know that many children deal with difficult situations and that their bullying may be a consequence of feelings provoked by other wider events. They want all children to be listened to and supported.

4. Develop good communication

Parents believe this would help to solve the distrust between parties involved in these situations. It helps all those involved to feel that they are working towards a solution, even when this takes time. Developing good communication applies to all the people involved, that is, between parents and school staff, between pupils, and between the parents of the child suffering the bullying and those carrying out the bullying acts.

5. Respond quickly, once a concern has been raised

Many parents reported investigations that took many weeks or months, during which time the child may continue to be bullied or be excluded from activities. This often left parents feeling ‘in limbo’ and as though nothing was being done. It is important that some tangible action or investigation is seen to happen.

6. Take action against the bullies

Many parents reported that nothing had happened once they had raised a concern and that no actions were taken against those who had been bullying. Parents suggested appropriate actions could include speaking to the individuals, getting them to acknowledge their actions and apologise; or for the bully to be moved into another class. Other possible actions could be for teachers to use warnings and exclusions (selectively), so that the bully knows they cannot continue with this type of behaviour. Some actions may only need to occur once, and others may require longer term support.

7. Use active support techniques

Support the child by, for example, using the circle of friends; a buddy scheme; and safe zones, for when the child is distressed or needs some time alone. Other suggestions include the use of communication cards, which a child in class can use to let the teacher know if they are upset, feeling stressed or in need of support or time out; and offering support to the child in corridors, which would ensure that bad behaviour does not occur between classes.

8. Have a positive school-wide ethos towards all forms of disability

Actions could include running awareness sessions on different types of disabilities and the behaviours associated with them, and encouraging better understanding of how and why different people behave in different ways. This could be facilitated by bringing experts in to talk to the school; or getting students to study famous people who have had a disability.

9. Be seen to actively discourage bullying

Run a range of school-wide activities: discussions in class; question-and-answer sessions; projects on bullying and its effects; and anti-bullying assemblies.

10. Ensure that all teachers and staff have training in disability awareness

Include guidance on spotting the signs of bullying, as well as techniques for managing the situation when it occurs. Guidance on how to effectively offer support to those involved would also be helpful.

11. Develop effective and well-publicised policies on dealing with bullying

Get all children, staff and parents to sign up to them. Make them an essential part of the school’s Code of Conduct, as well as the discipline and behaviour guidelines. All parents should be made aware of these in order to know what their opportunities for recourse are if they are not happy with the ways that the policies are being implemented. There should be opportunities for regular monitoring and reviewing of these policies, involving parents and children, including disabled children / those with SEN.

12. Offer help for the parents and siblings to cope with effects of the bullying

This could include better signposting to local and condition-specific support groups and links to parent/carer forums.

13. Educate the wider community

Include other parents, so that they better understand disability and difference.

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