Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) covers a diverse population of children and young people with a range of physical, learning, behavioural and sensory needs. 

Children with SEN and disabilities are adversely affected by negative attitudes and perceptions of difference including forms of discrimination which often involves bullying. A 2007 Mencap survey found that eight out of ten respondents had been bullied and six out of ten had been physically hurt.

While children and young people with SEND have many skills and talents, they also have a wide range of very different needs. Because of the complexity of these needs, it is harder for them to learn or access education or build the same friendships and relationships than most children of the same age, leaving them vulnerable to isolation and social exclusion.

What is bullying involving children with special educational needs and disabilities? It is probably more helpful to use the Anti-Bullying Alliance easy-to-read definition of bullying when dealing with bullying and SEND because for all children with SEN and disabilities, discrimination based on their needs can be a constant challenge.

People doing nasty or unkind things to you on purpose, more than once, which it is difficult to stop.

What distinguishes bullying involving special educational needs and disabilities?

Some children and young people may not recognise bullying behaviour; that they are being bullied, that their own behaviour may be seen by someone else as bullying, or that they are being provocative and therefore inflaming bullying situations. Here work with bystanders and ongoing proactive work will be most productive

Some children and young people may have difficulty remembering things so it may be necessary to act very quickly while the child/young person can remember what bullying took place

It may be harder to resist bullies as they may already be more isolated, not have many friends and not understand that what is happening is bullying. They may have specific difficulties telling people about bullying or reporting it; staff need to provide extra support including the need for staff to carefully check their understanding. Many children with autism for example are assumed to understand much more than they do in social situations


SEN and disability needs should be addressed with a whole school anti-bullying policy which reflects the duties established through the Equality Act 2010 and provides a consistent ethos and framework that challenges prejudice and sets out agreed standards on behaviour. It is also important to recognise that all children and young people are potentially vulnerable to bullying and that children and young people with SEN and disabilities may be bullied for a range of other reasons. 

Responsive work can only be effective if all children and young people, parents and staff understand what is meant by bullying and there is no 'one size fits all' approach when supporting children and young people with a range of needs who experience bullying. Selecting the right approach needs sensitivity and awareness of the strengths of the individual or individuals involved. Knowledge of the child's or young person's particular needs and the impact on their social development is essential. In other cases, allowances may need to be made because a child or young person demonstrates anti-social behaviour but did not intend to bully.

Moving between settings for children and young people who use a mix of special and mainstream provision, bullying can be a particular concern as they are repeatedly changing in and out of different environments. These moves can be one off or regular and often lead to children being exposed to new people and environments which can be daunting. All of these transfers require preparation and support and may make children and young people vulnerable to bullying if not handled with care. Children and young people with SEN and disabilities report that where they are seen as outsiders they are more at risk. Their safety can rely on bystander support and proactive strategies already in place.

Where children and young people with SEN and disabilities are concerned, communication across the staff team is essential; about the individuals' needs and the extent to which a child or young person's SEN and disability may lead them to bully others or display disruptive behaviour. Staff also need to be alert to changes in children and young peoples' behaviour and make sure they understand the cause, including if it is due to factors not related to their SEN or disability.

The special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) has a particular role to play in ensuring the well-being of children and young people with SEN and disabilities. As well as being champions of inclusion, SENCO's can:

  • encourage staff training in disability equality and raise awareness of the disability equality duties
  • contribute to policy development and review and enable the participation of disabled children in consultations
  • ensure learners with SEN and disabilities who are bullied receive support and help in preventing and dealing with it
  • monitor the impact of anti-bullying interventions on individual children and young people with SEN and disabilities
  • ensure children and young people with social and behavioural needs receive appropriate support to prevent bullying behaviour where needed

All SEN&D bullying incidents should be recorded in your bullying incident log. The LA has produced a behaviour incident form for reporting prejudice-related bullying incidents.

Disablist language − the use of verbal abuse as a form of bullying disabled children and young people is widespread. This has a significant negative impact on self-esteem and achievement. To challenge it requires a consistent whole school approach involving staff, pupils, parents and carers. All members of the school community need to be equipped to always challenge and explain why such language is unacceptable.

Further information, advice or support

Contact a Family, Mencap and the National Autistic Society offer specific advice about bullying and special needs. Other organisations have useful suggestions for all children and parents plus information about positive things schools can do:

Links to useful documents