There are many contextual factors - support staff, poorly differentiated activities, and separate teaching - may lead to children with SEN and/or disabilities not being able to have the right opportunities to create social links that would protect them from bullying.
Studies have shown that primary students with SEN and/or disabilities are almost twice as likely to experience bullying before entering secondary school. Around 12% of children with SEN reported being bullied before age 7, compared to just 6% of their peers and 62% of children who went on to access CAHMS services stated that bullying was one of the main reasons for needing to access support.
So what is bullying? The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bulling as...
“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face-to-face or through cyberspace.”
Teaching Assistants (TA’s) or Learning Support Assistants (LSA’s) are critical to supporting children and young people in schools, and whilst their main focus is helping improve academic attainment and delivering therapies, there is a lot that TA’s can do to facilitate social development as well.
Why are TA's important?
Children and young people have reported that having a TA to support them in class made them feel confident to access activities and learning that were adapted to meet their individual needs. TA’s who are experienced in supporting children with additional needs are able to break lessons down into accessible chunks, incorporate sensory and movement breaks for children who are easily overwhelmed and can also deliver individual therapies to support speech and language, physical movement or emotional support.
Having a TA can make children also feel safe in school, and many young people reported that having a TA meant that they had that one consistent person in school whom they could talk to about personal issues and difficulties, including bullying.
However, young people have also reported that having a TA can actually hinder their ability to form friendships with their peers. Having a secure friendship group or stable group of peers is one of the largest protective factors against bullying. So what can TA’s do differently or be aware of to ensure they aren’t isolating children from their peer groups?
Support in group activities where possible
Many children and young people have reported or have been observed to be largely taught away from the rest of the class or on a 1:1 basis. This can make children feel isolated from their peers and marks them out as 'different', which can lead to some children (certainly the younger ones) being wary of approaching them and trying to make friends. Instead, TA’s could support students to take part in group activities in the classroom (where possible) and help them integrate with the rest of the class. If your child is non-verbal, find alternative ways in which they could communicate ideas and thoughts to the group, such as PECS or a whiteboard. If there is a group craft project, have your 1:1 take ownership of a task they can complete for everyone in the group, such as the glueing or cutting out. They will feel a greater sense of achievement and integration compared to completing the whole task on their own.
Don't be glued to their hip!
Some children with SEN do not need support all the time. Whilst they may need support in accessing learning materials, they could be very capable of playing either independently or with other children in the playground. There may be some children who need gentle encouragement to play with others, but they do not need a TA glued to their hip all the time!
Give them responsibilities
Another way in which TA’s or teachers can help children with SEN integrate into the class is by giving them class responsibilities where appropriate. If there is an opportunity for a child to hand out snacks or books, support that child in picking 1 or 2 other children in the class to help out and this can help facilitate relationship building and communication between peers.
Pair up effectively
Finally, when pairing children up for pair work or creating groups for learning, be mindful to also pair children based on common or mutual interests as well as academic ability. Having something in common to talk or communicate about will help children with SEN feel safer and, certainly for children with Autism who often have a fascination with a certain topic, will gain self confidence and social skills being able to speak about their passion with a fellow classmate.