For more than 40 years, bullying in schools has remained relatively stable and today is recognized as a serious social problem. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Education released the first federal standardized definition of bullying, which includes unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition. In addition, the CDC and Department of Education acknowledged direct and indirect modes of bullying and four types of bullying that school-age children can experience: physical, verbal, relational and damage to property.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2015), approximately 1 in 4 students in the United States reported having been bullied at school. However, evidence suggests that school-age children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than are their peers without disabilities (for more, see the three-volume set Disabilities: Insights From Across Fields and Around the World). It is absolutely critical for professional counselors to assist those who are targeted and support proactive interventions that decrease bullying for students with disabilities.
Intervention strategies that are grounded in social learning theory and established on client-centered, community-based and experiential methods have been shown to be successful with children who have disabilities. Such interventions have a positive effect on children’s self-efficacy, self-determination and social skills. Furthermore, counselors can adapt experiential-based activities to provide these students with opportunities to learn new skills, make decisions, experience successes and take calculated risks. Finally, counselors need to recognize the strengths of students with disabilities, teach them to feel comfortable with who they are and empower them to implement bullying prevention skills.
This article will outline proactive prevention in terms of experiential group activities that focus on self-efficacy, self-determination and social skills training when working with school-age children with disabilities. The experiential group activity we will be describing was originally developed by Able SC, an empowerment and advocacy organization in Columbia, South Carolina, for people with disabilities. We collaborated with Able SC and tailored the activity to meet the needs of middle school and high school students with disabilities.
The experiential activity includes four primary objectives that positively affect self-efficacy, self-determination and social skills. The objectives are to help students:
1) Identify and understand various bullying behaviors
2) Recognize the warning signs when a person is being bullied
3) Learn strategies to manage bullying
4) Learn steps to take in the here and now to address bullying
Prior to engaging group members in the experiential activity, several preconditions should be met. First, counselors must have a strong therapeutic alliance with the participants before engaging them in the group activity. Second, counselors should provide proper accommodations to address the unique needs of the group members. Third, counselors must be willing to be creative and flexible to adapt the experiential activity to the individual strengths of the group members. Fostering a strengths-based approach is imperative when helping school-age children with disabilities to explore their self-efficacy. Finally, counselors must display competence with multicultural social justice counseling before working with children with disabilities.
The first part of the group facilitation process involves assisting group members with understanding the various types of bullying (i.e., physical, verbal, relational and damage to property). The role of the group leader is to facilitate a discussion about these various bullying types, which may prompt group members to recognize specific examples. Additionally, the group facilitator should discuss the importance of recognizing real or perceived power imbalance and determining how often the power differential occurs. In other words, was this a one-time incident, or was it done repeatedly to hurt the individual? The group facilitator must guide students in understanding these two concepts that help to define bullying: observed or perceived power imbalance and repetition of behaviors. The group facilitator should also assist students in understanding the confusing distinction between when someone is joking versus when someone is actually engaging in bullying behavior.
To foster another mode of understanding, the group facilitator can also engage group members in a role-play demonstration to act out the different types of bullying. If the participants find it difficult to participate in the role-play, group facilitators can provide examples of the types of bullying to ensure support for students during the demonstration. In addition, it is important to identify the individuals involved with the bullying episode (i.e., bully, target and bystander) to provide clarity during the role-play. For instance, the group facilitator should discuss with group members how the bystander can be the most influential person in the situation either by acting as a solution to the problem or by instigating the bullying. Finally, the group leader encourages group members to identify characteristics of being a bully.
This will help students to recognize these traits so they can avoid engaging with those who display such behaviors.
The second part of the experiential group activity consists of identifying warning signs that an individual might be being bullied. These signs include:
- Physical signs (e.g., cuts, bruises, scratches, headaches or stomachaches, damaged possessions, missing possessions)
- Emotional signs (e.g., withdrawal or shyness, anxiety, depression, aggression, suicidal ideation)
- Behavioral signs (e.g., changes in eating or sleeping habits, nightmares, no longer wanting to participate in school or activities that he or she once enjoyed, bullying siblings)
- Academic signs (e.g., changing the manner in which he or she gets to school, being driven to school instead of riding the bus, having a noticeable drop in grades)
After determining the group’s understanding of the warning signs, the group facilitator can propose an experiential group activity in which the group members identify strategies to manage bullying. The group facilitator can engage the students in a role-play scenario in which the target initially fights back. The facilitator should then prompt a dialogue on the positive and negative consequences of engaging in this approach. Next, the group facilitator encourages the group to identify nonviolent strategies that the target can use in the same scenario. This will prompt group members to recognize how implementing a nonviolent approach to bullying can be an effective option.
Next, the group facilitator needs to co-construct with the group members prevention strategies to manage bullying behavior. A few general prevention tactics include:
- Telling an adult
- Walking away
- Ignoring the bully
- Avoiding the bully by interacting with friends or avoiding places the bully is known to be
Group members should be taught to understand the differences between the roles of bully, target and bystander and recognize appropriate prevention strategies that they can use if they find themselves in any of these categories. For example, the group facilitator could encourage the group members to identify effective prevention strategies specifically for the bystander role. These strategies include telling the bully to stop, helping the target to walk away, recruiting friends to intervene and getting an adult.
To reiterate, it is important to provide group members with specific scenarios to ensure that they understand the differences between the three roles and know which prevention strategies are appropriate for each scenario. Furthermore, have group members share times when they have fallen into the specific category of bully, bystander or target to guarantee that they are addressing their personal experiences with bullying.
Additionally, the group facilitator can engage the group in a role-play exercise to review the three categories and to collaboratively identify:
1) The bullying behavior
2) How the target reacted to the bullying
3) How the bystander(s) reacted
4) How the bully responded to the situation
5) Whether the bullying was managed in an effective way
6) How the bullying scenario could have been handled differently
7) How the group members would feel as the target in the scenario
This role-play provides group members with a greater sense of self-awareness as it relates to self-determination, self-efficacy and social skills. In addition, the role-play increases empathy toward others because group members vicariously experience the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of the target.
Finally, the group facilitator can engage the group members in personal action plans to reinforce what was previously reviewed and to address steps to manage bullying (for a detailed figure outlining the personal action plan, see Katherine A. Feather’s 2016 article “Antibullying interventions to enhance self-efficacy in children with disabilities,” published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health). The facilitator asks the group members to independently acknowledge personal situations in which they have been bullied; their thoughts, feelings and reactions to the experience; how they handled it; and what they could have done differently. Once they have completed the chart, group members are prompted to share their stories if they feel comfortable. The personal action plan is an important part of the experiential activity because it gives group members something tangible they can take with them to remind them of what they have learned and that they can reference in the future.
Finally, at the discretion of the group facilitator, group members are encouraged to discuss assertive communication and the various communication styles, such as the difference between “I” and “You” statements. This particular discussion can transition into recognizing the importance of self-advocacy and one’s ability to make informed choices. The group facilitator can end the session by reinforcing individual empowerment and emphasizing the group members’ potential to manage bullying. The tools used to combat bullying speak to the group members’ self-efficacy, showing them that they have the ability to exert control over their own behavior, motivation and social environment (as explained by Albert Bandura in his 1977 article “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change”).
Modifications to the process
Counselors who use this experiential activity may wish to adapt the group in the following ways:
1) Assess whether a particular student would be a better candidate for individual counseling and modify the activity for individual, rather than group, counseling.
2) When implementing the experiential training, augment the activity to meet the needs of the group participants. For example, for the personal action plan, participants can use numerous mediums to complete the activity (e.g., act out the steps, cut out pictures from a magazine, draw, write, use note cards with words, use assistive technology, discuss steps verbally).
3) Delivery of the experiential group activity must be based on students’ presenting characteristics to ensure full understanding of the material. For example, counselors need to address a comprehensive range of needs among students with disabilities. Therefore, counselors can provide additional scenarios of the components for the activity. This will encourage repetition and opportunities for practice. Counselors are also encouraged to collaborate with school personnel to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the student and integrating all necessary interventions to promote student success.
4) This experiential group activity may not be applicable for all students with disabilities. We suggest that counselors consult and collaborate with school staff to gauge the appropriateness of the intervention for individual students.
Counselors must intervene in a timely manner by recognizing, assessing and engaging students in activities that will combat bullying and provide them with the skills to be successful in the school environment. However, counselors must be sensitive to group membership. Therefore, counselors may want to consider making the group available to peers without disabilities. Inclusive practices may buffer against bullying by providing peer models to students with disabilities, as well as by promoting social competence among all students. Isolating students with disabilities does not provide them with the practice and validation they need to develop appropriate social skills. Thus, combining students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities fosters an inclusive approach and ultimately enhances a community of knowledge and understanding.
Finally, prior to implementing this experiential activity, we encourage counselors to become familiar with the social model of disability and the capabilities framework versus the medical model of disability. The social model of disability is a different way of viewing the world and challenges the typical attitudes toward disability. Fostering a capabilities approach validates the ideologies of inclusion that stress equality, acceptance and valued participation. The capabilities approach is a holistic social justice initiative that assesses disability on the basis of one’s abilities and functioning within society. Counselors need to recognize the impact that society has on the individual and the barriers that students with disabilities face on a daily basis.
Helpful resources for counselors
- PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center (pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities)
- StopBullying.gov page on bullying and youth with disabilities and special health needs (stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/special-needs)
- “Bullying and Disability: An Overview of the Research Literature” (tinyurl.com/BullyingAndDisability)
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Katherine A. Feather is a licensed professional counselor in Arizona and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University. Contact her at Katherine.Feather@nau.edu.
Tiffany M. Bordonada is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at the University of Scranton. Contact her at Tiffany.Bordonada@scranton.edu.
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