Bullying Among Disabled Students Reduced After Social-Emotional Learning Program

Instances of bullying decreased by 20 percent among students with disabilities after they participated in a social and emotional learning program, according to a new three-year study led by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne.

According to earlier research, students with behavioral disabilities are more likely to be identified as bullies by their teachers and peers than are other students. The researchers hypothesize that the higher amount of peer aggression among these students may be a function or manifestation of their disabilities — perhaps an aggressive reaction to social stimuli — and whether they are placed in restrictive classrooms.

“The significant reduction in bullying perpetration over this three-year study is a notable finding, because much of the existing literature suggests that students with disabilities are overrepresented in the bullying dynamic,” said researcher Dorothy L. Espelage, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of child development and Hardie Scholar of Education in the department of educational psychology.

“Evidence suggests that this may be because they are more likely to have social and communication skills deficits, and these are foundational skills taught in the Second Step program.”

More than 120 students with disabilities from two Midwest school districts participated in the research, which was part of a larger three-year clinical trial of the program Second Step, a widely used social-emotional learning curricula.

About 47 percent of the teens in both the intervention and the control groups had learning disabilities, while the rest had cognitive, speech/language, or emotional disabilities and/or health impairments.

Participants in the intervention group received a total of 41 Second Step lessons in grades sixth through eighth. The classes addressed bullying, emotional regulation, empathy, and communication skills.

At the beginning of the study, students were asked to report on any experiences of bullying, victimization by peers, or fighting. Students were surveyed during each of the three subsequent spring terms. Self-reported bullying significantly decreased over the course of the study among students in the intervention group.

The potential impact of educational placement is an important issue, the researchers said, because more than 39 percent of students with behavioral disorders are placed in restrictive school environments, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

In a 2009 study, current study co-author Chad A. Rose from the University of Missouri at Columbia and his colleagues found that students with disabilities who went to school in a restrictive environment were twice as likely to be bullies compared with peers without disabilities.

They were also 1.3 times more likely to bully peers compared with students who had similar disabilities but were placed in more inclusive environments.

The study is published in the journal Remedial and Special Education.

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign