Although educational setting and severity of the disability may serve as predictors for victimization and perpetration, it is necessary to explore the disability characteristics that may place students with disabilities at a greater risk for involvement in bullying. A 2014 study found that “being a victim was correlated with emotional problems and interpersonal problems.” More importantly, the concept of bullying is complex, based on the social interplay between perpetration and victimization, and can only be understood in relations among individuals, families, peer groups, schools, communities, and cultures. However, students with disabilities often struggle with these social relationships because they often lack age-appropriate socialskills.9,82
Based on the general lack of social skills combined with the social nature of bullying, several hypotheses have been developed to explain the escalated rates of victimization among students with disabilities. According to a 2013 study, victims of bullying may be too passive, exhibit timid responses, misread non-verbal communication, or misinterpret non-threatening cues. This passivity may reinforce the bullying and misinterpretation may incite aggressive responses from peers. Additionally, students with disabilities may be at greater risk for victimization because they lack the appropriate socializing behaviors that help them avoid being victimized. This lack of socializing behaviors may also lead to the victim’s inability to develop close friendships, rejection from classroom peers, and the perception that they are dependent on adult assistance. Conversely, research suggests that when students with disabilities possess age-appropriate social skills with a positive self-concept, exhibit academic independence, maintain quality relationships, and participate in school and classroom activities, they are less likely to be targets of bullying.
With respect to perpetration, Rose and colleagues argue, “bullying perpetration by students with disabilities is often a learned behavior, possibly a reaction to prolonged victimization, or an overall lack of social skills.” While a lack of social skills may cause students with disabilities to have greater difficultly with assertion and self-control, they may also misread social communication, misinterpret social stimuli, or act too aggressively toward the wrong peers. Additionally, lack of social skills may also lead students with disabilities to misinterpret rough and tumble play as a physical attack and thus respond inappropriately with aggressive behavior.14,36,83
Although perpetration may be a learned behavior, below average social skills may also indicate that students with disabilities who engage in bully perpetration could have social information-processing deficits. If bully perpetration is a reaction to prolonged periods of victimization, a distinction must be made between overt aggression (i.e., fighting) and actual bullying behaviors. This distinction must be made because bullying is a social construct and, as stated above, many students with disabilities who are involved in bullying display a general lack of social skills. For example, a recent study determined that students with disabilities who are victimized tend to fight, while students without disabilities who are victimized tend to bully.
Some theorists suggest that students maintain distinct developmental patterns, and many of these patterns hinge on development of social skills. More specifically, they theorize that aggression is more direct during the early stages of development, becoming more indirect with age (i.e., physical, verbal, indirect). For students without disabilities, these developmental patterns are achieved at an age-appropriate rate, allowing them to process social information and effectively engage in social behaviors. Therefore, students without disabilities maintain the social skills necessary to engage in more indirect forms of bullying. However, students with disabilities often have delayed social skills placing them in the earlier stages of the developmental trajectory. Therefore, the behaviors displayed by students with disabilities in response to victimization may be more appropriately defined as overt aggression as opposed to bullying.84-86