Students with disabilities or health problems are more likely to be the target of bullies than their classmates, according to a study published this month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Researchers found that "children with special health-care needs had lower motivation to do well in school, more disruptive behaviors, and more frequent experiences as a bully victim. They experienced significantly lower academic achievement, as measured by grades, standardized testing, and parental-assessed academic performance."
The study involved 1,457 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in two rural Maryland counties and one rural West Virginia county.
Students with special health care needs were more afraid of other girls and boys than students without a disability, but they were also slightly more likely to have attacked someone else at school or tell someone they would hurt them.
As part of the solution to these issues, the researchers suggested schools use anti-bullying programs—which many do, (and bullying has been the focus of much attention from the federal government lately, too), providing in-school mental health counseling, and referring students to community services if their needs can't be met in school.
And, they said, schools should provide a continuum of mental health care that connects families, primary medical care, communities, and schools.
"Unfortunately," the authors said, "there are few examples of such comprehensive, co-ordinated, and linked school-community initiatives."
However, one small school district in Minnesota said this week it will put mental health counselors in all 15 of its schools, in part because the district found that nonacademic issues, including depression and family upheaval, were affecting how students did in school.
"In addition to specific academic interventions, schools should provide abundant opportunities for children with a (health issue or disability) to develop conﬁdence in their ability to learn and succeed in school, choose educational experiences that they value, and develop positive interpersonal relationships at school," the study authors concluded.
But they said the well-being and academic performance of these students is a joint responsibility of schools and the medical community.
"Health and school professionals will need to work together to identify these children much earlier, ensure that they receive appropriate supports and services, and monitor the effectiveness of services on children's health and school outcomes."