A University of South Australia (UniSA) study had found covert bullying in schools is a particularly serious problem for girls with disabilities.
The research, The Impact of Social Network Characteristics and Gender on Covert Bullying in Australian Students with Disability in the Middle Years, discovered that 57 percent of girls with disabilities in upper primary school experienced covert bullying.
Covert bullying is characterised as exclusion from social circles, rejection, vicious rumours, whispering and threatening looks.
UniSA Researcher, Dr Anna Moffat, says, “In children without disability, higher levels of peer, family and teacher support seem to provide some protection against bullying.
“Low levels of social support in children with disability means that they often aren’t afforded this same protection.”
The study also found that for boys with disability, while bullied more than their peers, the difference was greatest in high school.
Other researchers on the team, Professor Gerry Redmond and Associate Professor Pammi Raghavendra from Flinders University, accessed data from the Australian Child Wellbeing Project.
This project surveyed 4,753 Australian children aged 8-14 years, with 490 of the child participants self-identified as living with a disability.
The researchers looking at the influence of family, peer and teacher support on the prevalence of covert bullying in children with and without disability, as well as whether there were any differences in gender or age.
Girls with disabilities in Year 4-6 with significantly lower levels of teacher and family support showed higher levels of covert bullying, 57 percent compared to 28 percent among girls without disability.
This figure didn’t differ too much for Year 8 girls living with a disability, with 47 percent reporting being bullied compared to 20 percent of their females peers without disabilities.
The researchers believe that social isolation from peers coupled with perceived lower levels of support from teachers may make students with disability particularly vulnerable at school.
Associate Professor Raghavendra says, “Our study shows that school-wide strategies to reduce social isolation of students with disability may be most effective in reducing covert bullying. A multi-pronged approach is needed to address this issue.
“This study is unique in that children between 8-14 years of age self-identified as living with a disability, whereas most studies use diagnosis to classify students. This self-identification gives further credibility to our findings.”
The study acknowledged that addressing bullying of students with disability is a challenge for schools, which is why the research was investigating the relationship between disability and bullying and how social support impacts and protects a bullying victim.
Positive teacher and peer support reduced the likelihood of bullying victimisation among students overall, however, low support levels for students with disability negated this effect.
The researchers recommended ways to minimise the covert bullying of students with disability, including whole-school intervention approaches that can reduce opportunities for the victimisation of students with disability.