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When Adults Bully Kids

Posted in ChicagoNow, October 28, 2013

We are nearing the end of both National Bullying Prevention Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Schools all across the country have had their assemblies. Every day this month, we have read tragic stories of bullying, often exacerbated by Internet bullying, that drove children to despair and even suicide. We have also read inspiring stories about people with disabilities who have succeeded. While most of us no longer accept the “kids will be kids” excuse for children, what if the bullying is more subtle and done by adults? What if the victims are children with special needs?

Bullying involves several factors. Among them are: a real or perceived power imbalance and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Nancy Willard, founder of, defines bullying as “hurtful ... acts that have caused severe distress, and are pervasive or persistent, and have caused physical harm to the student or his or her property, or significant interference with the students’ educational opportunities.”

At Cherry Preschool, which I founded and directed, we included children with special needs to ensure they had the same educational opportunities as other preschoolers. To make this understandable to the children, our first rule came from the Vivian Paley book of the same name: You can’t say you can’t play. Pretty simple but highly effective. If it is the basic right of every child to play, no one is subjected to exclusion or bullying.

Unfortunately, there are still many adults who have much to learn about bullying and including everyone. Here’s a story about an adult who bullies a child with special needs by excluding her from an educational opportunity. He clearly believed only typically developing children were capable of creating “art.”

The child’s mother was totally honest with the adult in charge of the summer art program. Her child would need one to one support, although it did not have to be a specially trained person. A kind middle school age helper would be fine. Her child just needed someone to show her what to do if she didn’t understand the directions or help her if she needed a break. Her child loved art but ceramics was new to her. The mother asked if she should find the helper. Not necessary, replied the adult in charge. The art program would find someone.

At the end of the first day, the child was waiting with her helper on the grass outside of the building. They were drawing with markers together. Was there a problem, the mother asked? Not really, the helper responded. The child made a mug but then did not want to do any more ceramics so they decided to draw together instead. The mother asked if it would it be okay to continue in this way for the rest of the week, and the helper said it was no problem.

Then came the call every parent of a child with special needs dreads. This is a form of bullying that is so hurtful. Please don’t come back tomorrow, the adult in charge stated. We need the helper to manage the behavior of other children in the class as well. Your child just doesn’t fit in because she needs too much of the helper’s time.

Let me share a bit of advice with that art program director and with the many other “persons in charge” like him:

  • When a parent tells you about her child’s special needs, listen and believe her. Be honest and work with her. If you accept the child, you need to try to make it work.

  • That child who couldn’t come back for the rest of the week desperately needed structure, and you pulled the rug out from under her and her family. She spent the rest of that rainy week out of sorts and dragging along to take her siblings to their activities.

  • That child who couldn’t come back for the rest of the week has feelings. Even though her mother told her camp was over, she knew the score. So she wondered what she had done to merit being asked to leave. Signing up for an art camp was an effort to build up her confidence and self-esteem, but being asked to leave had the opposite effect. She definitely felt like the victim of bullying.

  • Remember, even you can’t say you can’t play.

As an aside, I find it ironic that art instruction can be an unfriendly environment for a child with special needs. Aren’t artists often characterized by being different, dreamy, creative, and marching to the beat of their own drums?

How sad that the adult in charge of this art program excluded a child with special needs for having, well, special needs. But there is a happy ending to this story. The child is now having an extremely positive experience taking art instruction from an empathic, caring adult who can look beyond her special needs to see the special person inside. And the child is creating beautiful art.


by Laurie Levy
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