Bullying and Students with Behavioral Disabilities: Examining the Intersection of Definition and Behaviors

Emerging Research and Issues in Behavioral Disabilities

ISBN: 978-1-78756-085-7, eISBN: 978-1-78756-084-0

ISSN: 0735-004X

Publication date: 30 November 2018


Bullying is a complex phenomenon that is grounded in intricate interactions between an individual and the social and environmental systems that surround the individual. At the present time, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted bully prevention legislation to reduce the prevalence among school-aged youth. Unfortunately, bullying is associated with adverse long- and short-term outcomes, where students with disabilities, including those with behavioral disabilities, may be at escalated risk for involvement and difficulty navigating the effects of prolonged exposure to bullying. Given the complexity of bullying, several participatory roles have been established to help guide identification and intervention delivery by recognizing the reciprocity between bullying and victimization. Most importantly, interventions should be situated within a multitired or component framework and grounded in skill development, where bully prevention programming is delivered to all students based on individual need. By recognizing the risk characteristics and understanding the various student profiles, especially as they related to youth with disabilities, schools can development, adopt, and implementing prevention programming that is designed to simultaneously increase academic, functional, and behavioral development, while decreasing bullying involvement.



Rose, C., Webb, T. and McGillen, G. (2018), "Bullying and Students with Behavioral Disabilities: Examining the Intersection of Definition and Behaviors", Emerging Research and Issues in Behavioral Disabilities (Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities, Vol. 30), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 69-91. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0735-004X20180000030006

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Every day, millions of school-aged children fear, engage in, support, defend, or ignore one of the most pressing issues facing our educational system to date. Stories of hurt and despair have become all too common in local and national media, resulting in increased legislative efforts, research activities, and condemnation or glorification by popular culture (Kim & Telleen, 2017). The issue is bullying, and it negatively affects those who are identified as perpetrators, victims, and bystanders (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine [NASEM], 2016). Although reducing bullying has emerged as a priority for American schools, the intricacies of bullying greatly complicate assessment of the outcomes of prevention programs because bullying is a dynamic process that is grounded in peer interaction, where involvement may fall at many different points along a continuum (Hong & Espelage, 2012). Therefore, it is critical to understand the construct of bullying, factors that place students at risk, the profiles of those involved, and interventions that target bully reduction and skill development.

Understanding Bullying

Defining Bullying

As of 2016 in the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had adopted legislation that prohibits bullying in school, on school grounds, and at school functions (Yell, Katsiyannis, Rose, & Houchins, 2016). Additionally, federal civil rights legislation prohibits harassment, or bullying, based on gender (Title IX of the Education Amendments of, 1972), race, color, national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of, 1964), or disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of, 1973: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of, 1990; Maag & Katsiyannis, 2012; Yell et al., 2016). While legislative efforts are necessary to enact policies and procedures to respond to bullying, the behaviors that constitute bullying are subject to variability in state definition and interpretation (Casper, Meter, & Card, 2015). In their comprehensive definition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that bullying is:

Any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014, p. 7).

This definition mirrors Olweus’ (2005) conceptualization of bullying, which includes an imbalance of power, intent to cause harm, and repetition. The construct of bullying is grounded in social interactions, and includes direct and indirect forms of pervasive peer aggression, including physical, verbal, relational, and cyber aggression, as well as damage to property (Hong & Espelage, 2012). While these components provide a framework by which to evaluate bullying, it is unclear how these components might be associated with or vary across specific subpopulations of youth, for example, or how such a framework might help guide intervention efforts (Rose, 2017). Toward this concern, the American Educational Research Association Task Force on Bullying suggested that researchers have rarely evaluated bullying through a common lens, resulting in variability in reported prevalence rates, participant profiles, and intervention outcomes (AERA, 2013). Given this variability, the construct of bullying remains subject to continued debated.

Theoretical Understanding

Bullying is a social construct and subject to the intricacies of individual peer and group interactions, as well as how one navigates their social environment (Hong & Espelage, 2012). For example, Rose, Simpson, and Moss (2015) argued that bullying is a dynamic process, where involvement, or lack thereof, is relatively fluid. Bully prevention scholars have adapted Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Ecological Systems Framework to understand the complex interactions between an individual and the social and environmental contexts or systems that influence bullying involvement (Hong & Espelage, 2012). Specifically, these complex interactions are influenced by individual characteristics, as well as familial factors, peer group associations, teacher–student relationships, school climate and culture, community factors, societal influence, and the passage of time (Nickerson, Aloe, & Werth, 2015). For example, in a cross-sectional study, Rose, Espelage, Monda-Amaya, Shogren, and Aragon (2015) reported that high levels of peer social support predicted lower levels of victimization, bullying, fighting, and anger. However, role stability is based on time and social context, where instead of maintaining static roles (i.e., pure bully, pure victim), youth shift between victimization, neutral bystander, and perpetration as a function of changes in social interactions and environmental circumstances (Gumpel, Zioni-Koren, & Bekerman, 2014; Ryoo, Wang, & Swearer, 2015; Salmivalli, 2010).

It should be noted, however, that bullying is regarded as pervasive peer aggression. Viewing bullying through this lens, allows for the examination of behavioral development. Specifically, behavior is functional, communicative, and lawful (Rose, 2017). According to Bjorkqvist, Osterman, and Kaukiainen (1992), behavioral development follows a distinct pattern, where, over time, students learn, employ, and master physical, verbal, and social skills in a sequential fashion. For example, preschool youth engage in higher rates of physical bullying (Rose, Richman et al., 2016; Son, Parish, & Peterson, 2012), whereas middle- and high-school youth engage in higher rates of social exclusion (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015). While behavioral development is critical to understanding bullying involvement, Farmer, Lines, and Hamm (2011) argue that adults play a critical role in supporting and shaping the behaviors of youth. Farmer et al. coined the term “invisible hand,” and suggested that teachers impact the peer ecology through

student-teacher relationships, fostering supportive and productive general classroom climates, developing and utilizing knowledge of social dynamics to augment academic instruction and classroom behavior management, and scaffolding the social opportunities and activities of students to correspond with their developmental abilities and needs. (Farmer et al., 2011, p. 252).

This distinction is notable because it suggests that as students develop social skills, adults can establish environmental conditions to support this development, as well as contrive situations to reinforce socially appropriate behaviors that reduce bullying involvement.

Outcomes Related to Bullying

Bullying has received increased attention from educational professionals, legislators, and researchers due to the short- and long-term outcomes associated with those who are victimized, those who engage in bullying, and those identified as bully victims (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). These outcomes drive a general understanding of bullying involvement, as well as highlight predictive and protective factors. By understanding factors that condition youth to bullying, or place students at greater risk of victimization, more appropriate interventions can be implemented within the school environment to reduce the prevalence of involvement.

Outcomes Related to Victimization

Youth who are victimized report higher levels of physical health problems or symptoms (Bogart et al., 2014; Gini & Pozzoli, 2013; van Geel, Goemans, & Vedder, 2015), psychosocial symptoms and internalizing behaviors (Hawker & Boulton, 2000; Rose, Simpson, & Preast, 2016; Ttofi, Farrington, Lösel, & Loeber, 2011), risky behaviors (Reijntjes et al., 2011), decreased academic performance (Espelage, Hong, Rao, & Low, 2013), and higher dropout rates (Cornell, Gregory, Huang, & Fan, 2013) when compared to those who are uninvolved in bullying. Most alarming, however, is that students who experienced victimization by their peers were 2.2 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and 2.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than students who did not experience victimization from their peers (Gini & Espelage, 2014).

Outcomes Related to Perpetration and Bully Victimization

Youth who engage in bullying also experience negative short- and long-term outcomes related to bullying. Specifically, students who engage in bullying report higher levels of psychosocial symptoms (Gini & Pozzoli, 2009; Rose, Simpson, et al., 2016), poor academic outcomes, low levels of engagement in school, and increased levels of delinquent behavior (Espelage, Hong, et al., 2013) compared to youth who are uninvolved in bullying. Similarly, youth who are both victimized and engage in bullying report comorbid outcomes that are related to both victims and perpetrators (NASEM, 2016), including risk of future poor health, increased risk of drug and tobacco use, and poor relations in the workplace (Sigurdson, Wallander, & Sund, 2014). Given the poor outcomes associated with involvement of any type in bullying, it is critical that researchers further understand the construct of bullying, as well as the attributes and factors that place students at risk for involvement.

Prevalence Rates


While the definition of bullying is debated among educational professionals, several scholars, and federal agencies have attempted to establish prevalence rates among American youth. For example, the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the US Department of Education, assesses the victimization experiences of school-aged youth based on a series of dichotomous items (i.e., yes, no) that covers seven separate domains (see Table 1) that are disaggregated by demographic factors (e.g., gender, race, grade, and socioeconomic status; Lessne & Yanez, 2016). In 2015, a total of 20.8% of youth, aged 12 through 18, reported experiencing some type of victimization, including 18.8% of males and 22.8% of females (Lessne & Yanez, 2016). While these data suggest approximately one in five students experience victimization at school, it should be noted that this is a decrease from approximately one in three that was reported in 2007 (see Fig. 1; DeVoe, Bauer, & Hill, 2010).

Table 1.

Percentage of Youth Who Experienced Victimization by Domain on the 2015 School Crime Supplement.

Population Victimized (%) Made Fun of, Called Names, or Insulted (%) Subject of Rumors (%) Threatened with Harm (%)
Total 20.8 13.3 12.3 3.9
Male 18.8 12.7 9.1 4.8
Female 22.8 13.9 15.5 2.9
Population Pushed, Shoved, Tripped, or Spit on Tried to Make do Things They Did Not Want to Do Excluded from Activities on Purpose Property Destroyed on Purpose
Total 5.1 2.5 5.0 1.8
Male 6.0 2.7 4.4 1.9
Female 4.2 2.3 5.7 1.8

Note. This table is adapted from Lessne and Yanez (2016).

Fig. 1. 
Data trends by gender on the US Department of Education’s School Crime Supplement (Bauer, Guerino, Nolle, Tang, & Chandler, 2008; DeVoe et al., 2010; DeVoe & Murphy, 2011; Lessne & Cidade, 2015; Lessne & Harmalkar, 2013; Lessne & Yanez, 2016).

Fig. 1.

Data trends by gender on the US Department of Education’s School Crime Supplement (Bauer, Guerino, Nolle, Tang, & Chandler, 2008; DeVoe et al., 2010; DeVoe & Murphy, 2011; Lessne & Cidade, 2015; Lessne & Harmalkar, 2013; Lessne & Yanez, 2016).

While the decrease in prevalence rates based on the School Crime Supplement is noteworthy, the report does not account for disability status. Specifically, Rose, Monda-Amaya, and Espelage (2011) reported that students with disabilities are at disproportionate risk of being involved in bullying as victims, perpetrators, and bully victims. Further, Blake, Lund, Zhou, Kwok, and Benz (2012) reported that 24.5% of elementary, 34.1% of middle school, and 26.6% of high school youth with disabilities experience high rates of victimization. Similarly, Son et al. (2012) reported that victimization rates among youth with disabilities continue to increase from preschool through early elementary. In a large sample of middle- and high-school youth with and without disabilities, Rose, Simpson, et al. (2015) reported that youth with disabilities were 1.5 times more likely to report high rates of victimization than their peers without disabilities.

In one of the only longitudinal studies that has investigated the self-reported bullying experiences of youth with disabilities in comparison to those without disabilities, Rose and Gage (2017) surveyed 6,531 students, including 16% with disabilities, over a three-year period. Results suggested that youth with disabilities consistently reported higher rates of victimization between the grades of 3 through 12. For example, 66% of youth with disabilities in grade 3 reported experiencing some type of victimization, compared to 42% of those without disabilities. The most compelling finding from this study, however, was that at least a 20% gap between the subsamples of youth remained consistent throughout the study (Rose & Gage, 2017). This study demonstrates the importance of continuing to evaluate the participatory involvement among youth with disabilities.


Estimates of the prevalence rates of engagement in bullying behaviors are relatively limited in extant literature (NASEM, 2016). One of the first studies to evaluate perpetration among America youth reported a prevalence rate of 13% of youth engaged in perpetration and 6.3% engaged in bullying as bully victims (Nansel et al., 2001). In a more recent study, Renshaw, Hammons, and Roberson (2016) evaluated the Health Behavior in School-aged Children survey, and reported that in 2009–2010, 15.6% of youth self-identified as perpetrators and 12.3% self-identified as bully victims. In a large, cross-sectional evaluation, Rose, Simpson, et al. (2015) assessed the self-reported behaviors of youth with and without disabilities. Their results mirrored previous studies, with 13.7% of the total population in their study reporting bully perpetration. However, this study also highlighted discrepancies between youth with and without disabilities, those with disabilities reporting higher rates of perpetration, fighting, and relational aggression than their peers without disabilities, as well as reporting that they were bully victims at a higher rate than their peers (see Table 2).

Table 2.

Prevalence Rates on Bully Perpetration, Fighting, and Relational Aggression among a Large Sample of Youth with and without Disabilities.

Population Bully Perpetration (n, %) Fighting (n, %) Relational Aggression Perpetration (n, %) Bully Victim (n, %)
Total Population 13.7 (1,966) 14.1 (2,028) 10.4 (1,467) 4.5 (652)
Students without Disabilities 13.5 (1,785) 13.6 (1,799) 10.0 (1,299) 4.3 (568)
Students with Disabilities 15.8 (181) 20.0 (229) 15.4 (168) 7.1 (84)

Note. This table is adapted from Rose, Simpson, et al. (2015).

Profiling the Bullying Involvement among Youth with Behavioral Disabilities

Bullying impacts a majority of school-aged youth when consideration is given to perpetrators, victims, and bystanders (AERA, 2013; NASEM, 2016), and to understand the construct of bullying, it is necessary to examine definitional attributes, theoretical underpinnings, detrimental short- and long-term outcomes, and overall prevalence rates. However, this cursory understanding may misrepresent the scope of bullying because it minimizes the impact bullying may have on subgroups of youth who are at escalated risk for involvement (Rose, 2017). For example, a growing body of literature suggests that youth with disabilities are disproportionately involved within the bullying dynamic as both perpetrators and victims (Blake et al., 2012; McLaughlin, Byers, & Vaughn, 2010; Rose & Gage, 2017; Rose, Monda-Amaya, et al., 2011; Son et al., 2012). While several factors must be considered when examining the bullying involvement among youth with disabilities, Rose and Espelage (2012) argued that disability identification, or specific disability label, is critical to disaggregating factors that place-specific subpopulations of youth with disabilities at escalated risk. Given that bullying is a social construct that is grounded in pervasive peer aggression, it is conceivable that youth with behavioral disabilities (BD) by the very nature of the behavioral characteristics associated with their disability, may be at greater risk for perpetration and victimization.

Defining Behavioral Disabilities

While the definition of BD represents a continuing debate, and defining characteristics may vary based on national origin, definitional interpretation, and subjectivity of assessment, the label of emotional disturbance as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) will serve as a point of reference. IDEA (2004) defines emotional disturbance as:

A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

  • (1)

    An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.

  • (2)

    An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

  • (3)

    Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

  • (4)

    A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

  • (5)

    A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

To further profile youth with BD, it is necessary to understand the overall representation of youth with BD within the larger context of youth with disabilities, how and where these students are served, educational outcomes, and behavioral factors that may place this subsample of youth at greater risk for bullying involvement. According to the 38th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (US Department of Education, 2016), American students with BD represent the following:

  • Overall, 5.9% of youth with disabilities are identified with BD, which is the sixth largest subpopulation (among 13 disability categories) of youth with disabilities.

  • Approximately 46.2% of youth with BD spend 80% or more of their educational day within a general education or inclusive environment, which is the fifth lowest of all youth served in special education (multiple disabilities = 13.4%, intellectual disabilities = 16.9%, deaf-blindness = 23.2%, autism = 39.9%).

  • Only 54.7% of youth with BD graduate high school with a regular diploma, which is the fourth lowest (intellectual disabilities = 40.8%, multiple disabilities = 46.0%, deaf-blindness = 52.0%).

  • Approximately 35.2% of youth with BD dropout of high school, which represents the highest dropout rate of all youth with disabilities, and is nearly twice the dropout rate for the next highest group (students with specific learning disabilities at 18.1%).

  • Youth with BD are 2.4 times more likely to be placed in an interim alternative educational setting for drugs, weapons, or serious bodily injury when compared to youth with other disability labels.

  • Youth with BD are 2.6 times more likely to receive out of school suspensions for more than 10 days and 1.7 times more likely to receive in-school suspensions than youth with other disabilities labels (US Department of Education, 2016).

At the micro level, students with BD represent a diverse subset of youth with disabilities who are identified based on a continuum of externalizing and internalizing behaviors (Landrum, Tankersley, & Kauffman, 2003). However, many characteristics associated with the identification of BD are directly or tangentially related to bullying involvement. For example, a growing body of bullying literature suggests that youth with disabilities are disproportionately represented within the bullying dynamic due to social and communication skill deficits (McLaughlin et al., 2010; Rose et al., 2011). This is especially germane for youth with BD because they often have social and communication skills deficits, which “may involve problems in interacting appropriately with peers or significant adults in their social environment, difficulties in communicating their physical or emotional needs appropriately, inadequate knowledge of social rules or manners, [and] inability to correctly appraise social situations” (Quinn, Kavale, Mathur, Rutherford, & Forness, 1999, p. 54). Therefore, it is plausible that identification of BD, in part, may be related to one’s inability to meet or adapt to the demands of their social environment (Luckasson & Schalock, 2012), which places this subset of youth at greater risk for involvement within the bullying dynamic.

Evaluating the Involvement among Youth with BD

While bullying research has increased within the United States (Swearer & Hymel, 2015), the evaluation of involvement among youth with disabilities is relatively understudied (NASEM, 2016). According to Rose (2017), bullying research has evolved from exploring disability status as a dichotomy (i.e., presence or absence of a disability) to evaluating bullying involvement among specific subpopulations of youth. Although this has been a priority for bully prevention scholars, few studies have specifically evaluated the involvement of youth with BD.

Prevalence Rates

Establishing prevalence rates for bullying involvement among youth with BD is relatively complicated due to the conceptualization of BD and/or the definition of bullying employed by the researcher (Rose, 2017). For example, in Rose and colleagues’ (2011) systematic review, out of the 31 manuscripts reviewed, only 2 included students identified as having behavior problems (i.e., Monchy, Pijl, & Zandberg, 2004; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006), but these disabilities represented psychiatric diagnoses (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder) or parent-reported behavioral concerns, instead of educational disabilities (i.e., emotional disturbance) resulting in special education services. Monchy and colleagues (2004) found that youth with behavior problems were 2.6 times more likely to be victimized and socially rejected when compared to the control group without disabilities. Similarly, Van Cleave and Davis (2006) reported that youth with BD were 2.2 times more likely to experience victimization, 3.1 times more likely to engage in perpetration, and 3.2 times more likely to be bully victims than youth without special healthcare needs (see Table 3 for prevalence rates). In a more recent study, Rose and Gage (2017) reported that youth with BD experienced higher rates of victimization, with the exception of youth with Autism, and engaged in more perpetration than all other subgroups of youth with and without disabilities over time. However, the authors note that due to the small sample size, results should be interpreted with caution. To address the issue of involvement, several recent studies have established the foundation for prevalence rates among youth with BD (see Table 3).

Table 3.

Prevalence Rates among Youth with BD in Extant Literature.

Author Construct Measured Prevalence Rate (n, %)
Blake et al. (2012) P,I,D Victimization – Elementary School 40.6 (171)
Victimization – Middle School 51.8 (203)
Victimization – High School 39.0 (190)
Bear et al. (2015) P,R,A General Victimization (S) 25.0 (3)
General Victimization (OTM) 41.7 (5)
Verbal Victimization (S) 8.3 (1)
Verbal Victimization (OTM) 75.0 (9)
Social-relational Victimization (S) 41.7 (5)
Social-relational Victimization (OTM) 41.7 (5)
Physical Victimization (S) 18.2 (2)
Physical Victimization (OTM) 27.3 (3)
Rose, Simpson, et al. (2015) S,I,A Bully Perpetration (E) 78.8 (67)
Bully Perpetration (H) 15.3 (13)
Fighting (E) 74.4 (64)
Fighting (H) 30.2 (26)
Relational Aggression (E) 50.6 (40)
Relational Aggression (H) 20.3 (16)
Victimization (E) 71.8 (61)
Victimization (H) 35.3 (30)
Cybervictimization (E) 46.8 (37)
Cybervictimization (H) 21.5 (17)
Relational Victimization (E) 66.3 (53)
Relational Victimization (H) 26.3 (21)
Bully Victim (E) 59.3 (54)
Bully Victim (H) 7.7 (7)
Swearer et al. (2012) S,I,A Bully Perpetration 2.3 (1)
Victimization 27.9 (12)
Bully Victim 51.2 (22)
Van Cleave and Davis (2006) P,R,A Bully Perpetration 51.1 (NR)
Victimization 54.6 (NR)
Bully Victim 28.2 (NR)

Note. S = Sometimes, OTM = Once or twice a month, E = Endorsed at least one item, H = High endorsement (one standard deviation above total sample mean), NR = Not reported, P = Parent report, S = Student report, I = IDEA Classification, R = Parent-reported classification, D = Dichotomized item, A = Scale assessment.

Based on the prevalence rates reported from the five sources outlined in Table 3, involvement in bullying among youth with BD varies substantially. For example, perpetration rates range from 2.3% (Swearer, Wang, Maag, Siebecker, & Frerichs, 2012) to 78.8% (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015), and victimization rates range from 25.0% (Bear, Mantz, Glutting, Yang, & Boyer, 2015) to 71.8% (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015). This variation is likely related more to the focus or limitations of individual studies than to true variations in student involvement. Specifically, interpretation is limited by respondent (i.e., parent report versus student report), disability identification (i.e., IDEA classification versus parent report), construct derivation (i.e., dichotomizing involvement versus dynamic scale indicators), type of bullying involvement measured, consideration for bully-victim interaction, sample size, and interpretation of data (e.g., single-item endorsement versus high-level endorsement; Casper et al., 2015). While these inconsistencies are notable, it remains the case that much of the extant literature suggests that youth with BD are disproportionately represented within the bullying dynamic (Bear et al., 2015; Blake et al., 2012; Rose & Espelage, 2012; Rose et al., 2011; Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015; Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006).

Educational Settings and Services

According to the US Department of Education (2016), more than half of all students identified with BD spend a significant portion of their school day in settings that are more restrictive than the regular classroom. This includes 17.6% of all students with BD served in general education classrooms between 40% and 79% of the academic day, 18.8% in general education for less than 40% of the academic day, and 17.5% in environments other than their identified home school. This is notable because some evidence suggests that school-level factors influence bullying involvement for youth with disabilities (Swearer et al., 2012), and youth who receive instructional services in more restrictive settings engage in higher rates of bullying and experience higher rates of victimization than their peers in inclusive settings and those without disabilities (Rose, Espelage, & Monda-Amaya, 2009). However, few studies have investigated the interaction between disability identification and service delivery. For example, Rose, Stormon, et al. (2015) compared youth with BD in restrictive settings to youth with BD in inclusive settings and demographically matched peers without disabilities on several constructs related to bullying (i.e., victimization, relational victimization, cybervictimization, bully perpetration, fighting, relational perpetration). Findings suggested that youth with BD in both inclusive and restrictive settings reported higher rates of victimization and relational victimization than their demographically matched peers without disabilities. Additionally, students with BD in restrictive settings reported higher rates of physical aggression (i.e., fighting) than their peers with BD in inclusive settings and their demographically matched peers without disabilities.

Although these findings, in combination with prevalence rates, are limited and the research base is minimal, they help establish a more comprehensive understanding of how youth with BD are positioned within the bullying dynamic. For example, Rose and colleagues (2009) argued that educational placement serves as a predictor for increased involvement. However, this foundational study raises a number of questions. First, how were students with specific disabilities distributed within the different class placements? Second, what was the level of interaction between youth in restrictive settings and those in more inclusive setting? Third, what was the level of bully-victim interaction within a specific setting? Finally, was severity of disability the underlying predictive factor, or was it the restrictiveness of placement? These are all critical questions for youth with BD because, as we have noted, evidence suggests that they engage in higher rates of bullying and experience higher rates of victimization than their peers without disabilities (Bear et al., 2015; Blake et al., 2012; Rose & Espelage, 2012; Rose & Gage, 2017; Rose et al., 2011; Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015; Swearer et al., 2012). We note that it is conceivable that the interaction between bullying and victimization is grounded in the criteria used to identify youth with BD, and social skill deficits that are often associated with a BD diagnosis (Rose & Espelage, 2012).

Exploring the Bully-Victim Interaction

As previously stated, bullying is a dynamic process that involves complex interactions between an individual and the social and environmental systems that surround the individual (Hong & Espelage, 2012). This includes interactions between bullying and victimization, as well as how one responds to bullying situations (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015). Based on the defining characteristics of BD, including an inability to build or maintain relationships and inappropriate behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances (IDEA, 2004), it is conceivable that youth with BD may not have the appropriate communication or response skills when confronted with challenging social stimuli (Lane & Carter, 2006). For example, youth with BD may misinterpret social cues or situations (Crick & Dodge, 1994), and respond aggressively to neutral stimuli (Erdley & Asher, 1999). Given these attributes, students with BD are at escalated risk for both experiencing victimization and engaging in bullying behaviors.

Students who both engage in perpetration and experience victimization are typically referred to as bully victims (Kochel, Ladd, Bagwell, & Yabko, 2015). In the studies outlined in Table 3, youth with BD were more likely to be identified as bully victims than their peers with and without disabilities (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015; Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006). However, Rose and Espelage (2012) challenged this conceptualization on the basis of the definitional components of bullying (i.e., imbalance of power, intent to cause harm, repetition; Olweus, 2005) and the defining characteristics of BD (e.g., inappropriate behaviors under normal circumstances, inability to build and maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships; IDEA, 2004). For example, when the interaction of bullying and victimization was considered, increases in victimization were related to increases in bully perpetration for youth with disabilities other than BD, while rates of bullying remained constant for youth with BD, even as victimization rates increased. Conversely, when anger, instead of victimization, was considered, increases in anger were predictive of increases in bully perpetration for youth with BD, over and above the increases for youth with other types of disabilities. These findings represent an interesting challenge when attempting to profile bullying involvement, especially as it relates to perpetration, for youth with BD. Specifically, the question that remains is this: to what extent can and should the aggressive behaviors displayed by youth with BD be classified as bullying?

Examining Bully Versus Aggression for Youth with BD

Based on the definition of bullying, bully perpetration represents a proactive form of aggression (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2016), where the perpetrator maintains harmful intent, coupled with an imbalance of power (Olweus, 2005). However, bullying also represents pervasive peer aggression, where aggressive behavior can be both adaptive and maladaptive (Rodkin, Espelage, & Hanish, 2015), both of which are reinforced by external controls (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Therefore, youth who engage in aggressive behaviors fall upon a continuum (Farmer et al., 2010), ranging from those who are socially skilled to those who are socially maladjusted (Rodkin et al., 2015). For example, youth who engage in aggressive behaviors that are more socially integrated into their peer group may be viewed as popular and socially savvy, and may report fewer psychosocial problems than those who are not socially integrated (de Bruyn, Cillessen, & Wissink, 2010; Farmer et al., 2010; Wolke, Woods, Bloomfield, & Karstadt, 2001). This group of youth may represent proactive aggressors, or bully perpetrators.

While youth with BD are often identified as bully perpetrators, or proactive aggressors, more often than their peers without disabilities (Rose, Simpson, et al., 2015; Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006), it is conceivable that this subset of youth more accurately fits a socialized aggressor profile, which can be defined as aggressive behaviors under normal circumstances that are a manifestation of social or communication skill deficits or functioning. For example, this subset of youth may engage in impulsive behaviors, have a higher threshold for risky or delinquent behaviors (Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000; Shetgiri, Lin, & Flores, 2012), model antisocial behaviors (NASEM, 2016), and report psychosocial deficits (Gini, Pozzoli, & Hauser, 2011; Haltigan & Vaillancourt, 2014; Pabian & Vandebosch, 2016); all of which mirror the characteristics of youth with BD (Landrum et al., 2003; Lane & Carter, 2006; Quinn et al., 1999). Farmer and Hollowell (1994) reported that while youth with BD affiliate with their peers without disabilities, they tend to associate with individuals who engage in similar levels of aggressive behaviors. Additionally, when scholars view physical aggression (i.e., fighting) and bullying within the same model, physical aggression emerges as a stronger predictor for BD than bully perpetration (Rose & Espelage, 2012; Rose, Stormont, et al., 2015). It is plausible that youth with BD engage in socialized aggression as a form of communication or an avoidance strategy; instead of with intent to cause harm.

In addition to proactive and socialized aggression, youth with BD may engage in aggressive behavior as a response mechanism to real or perceived victimization (Hanish, Sallquist, DiDonato, Fabes, & Martin, 2012). For example, some scholars have argued that many youth with disabilities, including those with BD, may be more accurately described as bully victims (Farmer et al., 2012; Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006). Conversely, Rose et al. (2016) found that youth with disabilities who are victimized may respond either proactively (i.e., bully victim) or reactively (i.e., reactive victim). Within this context, students with BD tend to respond more reactively, as opposed to proactively (Rose & Espelage, 2012). While it is likely that some youth with BD fit each profile (i.e., proactive aggressor, socialized aggressor, bully victim, reactive victim), when consideration is given to the defining characteristics of bullying, as well as the diagnostic criteria of BD, it seems more likely that youth with BD largely represent socialized aggressors and reactive victim, as opposed to the traditional bully perpetrator or bully victim.

Moving from Profiling to Intervening

Given the overwhelming evidence that youth with BD are disproportionately involved within the bullying dynamic (Rose et al., 2011; Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006), and the characteristics associated with their disability serve a risk factors for escalated involvement (Rodkin et al., 2015; Rose & Espelage, 2012), it is necessary to evaluate prevention programs that are designed to reduce bullying and aggression through skill development (Espelage, Low, Polanin, & Brown, 2013). Unfortunately, there have been few randomized controlled trials that have tested the effectiveness of bully prevention programs (Jiménez-Barbero, Ruiz-Hernández, Llor-Zaragoza, Pérez-García, & Llor-Esteban, 2016; NASEM, 2016), especially for youth with disabilities (Espelage, Rose, & Polanin, 2015; Espelage, Rose, & Polanin, 2016). The outcomes of the few studies that have been systematically evaluated have been produced varied results. For example, in Ttofi and colleagues’ (2011) meta-analysis, it was determined that, on average, prevention programs reduce perpetration by 20–23 percent and victimization by 17–20 percent. However, these reductions should be interpreted with caution because most of the studies were conducted outside the United States, among more homogenous student populations, and larger reductions in bullying involvement were found in studies that used less rigorous research protocols (Ttofi et al., 2011). Additionally, Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, and Isaac (2008) suggested that intervention programs are likely to impact understanding of bullying and personal perceptions of involvement, as opposed to actually reducing bullying behaviors. Given these findings, both Ttofi and colleagues (2011) and NASEM (2016) recommended bully prevention programs should adopt a public health approach to bully prevention, where prevention is implemented in scaffolded tiers based on population and individual need.

Universal-level Prevention

As previously stated, universal bully prevention programs have resulted in variable and modest results (Jiménez-Barbero et al., 2016; Merrell et al., 2008; Ttofi et al., 2011). Much of the variability is related to the “one size fits all” approach of commercially available curricula, without consideration for school-specific factors. For example, Swearer and Hymel (2015) suggested that intervention strategies should account for prevalence and severity, environmental conditions, instructional strategies, a continuum of supports based on need, and a school-specific plan to monitor implementation and evaluate effectiveness. One framework that accounts for the aforementioned factors, and employs a multitiered approach is positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS; Sugai et al., 2010). Specifically, PBIS is a problem-solving framework that allows educators to examine school-specific data to implement interventions that support student behavior at the school-wide, group, and individual levels (Lewis, Jones, Horner, & Sugai, 2010). It should be noted that PBIS is not a packaged program or intervention; it is an intervention delivery model that allows for the flexibility of implementing evidence-based practices, including bully prevention interventions, that are selected based on school-specific data and individual student need (Lewis et al., 2010; Sugai et al., 2010). Therefore, within the PBIS framework, schools could implement interventions that address prosocial behaviors related to bully prevention and skill development that are most germane for specific student population.

In addition to, or in combination with, PBIS, schools could elect to adopt a universal Social and Emotional Learning Approach to bully prevention. Specifically, “Social and emotional learning is the capacity to recognize and manage emotions, solve problems effectively, and establish positive relationships with others” (Zins & Elias, 2007, p. 234), all of which are associated with reductions in bully involvement (Espelage, Low, et al., 2013). Social and emotional learning includes five critical domains of learning and development: (1) Self Awareness, (2) Social Awareness, (3) Self-management, (4) Relationship Skills, and (5) Responsible Decision-making (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2012). Growing evidence support this approach to critical skill development, including evidence of increased social and emotional skills and behaviors, decreases in emotional distress, and reductions in conduct problems (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Recently, Social and Emotional Learning has been applied to bully prevention, resulting in reductions in physical aggression (Espelage, Low, et al., 2013), homophobic name-calling, sexual harassment/violence (Espelage, Low, et al., 2013), and bullying and aggressive behaviors through reductions in delinquency (Espelage, Low, Van Ryzin, & Polanin, 2015) over time. Additionally, in one of the only randomized clinical trials to evaluate Social and Emotional Learning as a vehicle for reducing bullying involvement among youth with disabilities, Espelage et al. (2015, 2016) reported significantly lower bully perpetration, increased willingness to intervene in bullying situations and higher report card grades over time for youth with disabilities who received social and emotional instruction when compared to youth with disabilities in the control condition. Therefore, a universal social and emotional learning approach has produced promising results, including critical skill development, for youth with and without disabilities in relation to bullying involvement.

Targeted Prevention

Given that bullying is a social construct (Hong & Espelage, 2012), and two of the most notable predictors of bullying involvement are social and communication skill deficits (McLaughlin et al., 2010; Rose et al., 2011), it is conceivable that targeted social and communication skill instruction would have a positive impact on bullying involvement and aggressive responses, especially for those with BD. While social skills instruction and training have rarely been used as a vehicle to reduce bullying involvement, a large body of special education literature supports the argument that increased social skills are related to decreases in challenging and aggressive behaviors (Gresham, 2015; Gresham, Cook, Crews, & Kern, 2004) For example, McDaniel, Bruhn, and Troughton (2017) implemented a brief, 12-session, targeted social skills intervention for youth with BD, using the basic instructional structure of teach, model, role play, and reinforce. Results indicated a decrease in negative social behaviors, including teasing, arguing, and verbal aggression, for all five youth with BD in the study.

While specific curricula or basic instructional strategies may be efficient at teaching social skills, the maintenance and generalization of these skills is grounded in reinforcement strategies (Cooper et al., 2007). More specifically, for social skills acquisition to serve as a vehicle for reduced bullying involvement, a student must reliably perform the skill in various social situations within a natural environment. For this to occur, teachers can employ targeted, evidence-based strategies for situational occurrence and systematic reinforcement. For example, teachers can create lessons that incorporate peer-level interactions or contrive instructional activities that require socialization, which will increase students’ opportunities to respond appropriately to social stimuli (MacSuga-Gage & Simonsen, 2015; Menzies, Lane, Oakes, & Ennis, 2017). To reinforce socially appropriate behaviors, opportunities to respond can be coupled with positive-specific or behavior-specific praise, or an “audible statement that conveys explicit reference to a desired behavior” (Allday et al., 2012, p. 88). By employing this approach, students can learn, practice, and validate social skills within a natural environment, thereby increasing social skills that are critical for reductions in bullying involvement (Rose et al., 2011).

Individualized Prevention

As previously mentioned, behavior is functional and communicative (Rose, 2017), where bullying represents a specific subset of peer aggression (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). Given the functionality of aggression, including bullying, the behaviors are reinforced and maintained by external controls (Cooper et al., 2007). To determine the functionality of aggressive or bullying behaviors, as well as devise a specific strategy for increasing skill development, teachers could conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and craft behavior intervention plans (BIPs). In brief, the FBA process includes operationally defining the target behavior, establishing a hypothesis regarding the functionality of the behavior, assessing the context in which the behavior occurs (and does not occur), reviewing broad sources of data (e.g., interviews, record reviews, behavior rating scales), and collecting observational data that evaluates the antecedents, behavior, and consequences (i.e., actual consequence, perceived function; Hirsch, Bruhn, Lloyd, & Katsiyannis, 2017). These sources of information are used to establish a BIP that is individualized, based on student need, and designed to increase socially appropriate skill development. Overall, the BIP is designed to provide students with socially appropriate and functionally equivalent skills, provide direction on environmental modifications and behavioral prompting, and establish adequate and appropriate reinforcers (Hirsch et al., 2017). The FBA/BIP process is commonly used for youth with BD, and it can be a valuable tool for teachers to determine the function of aggressive, or bullying, behaviors and devise a plan for decreasing bullying involvement, while increase socially appropriate skills (Rose, 2017).

In addition to the FBA/BIP process, teachers can use the individualized education program (IEP) to address concerns regarding bullying and to systematically evaluate skill acquisition for youth with BD. Specifically, the IEP is designed to provide students with disabilities meaningful educational benefit (Yell, 2012), and involvement in bullying can impede the educational outcomes for youth who are involved (Cornell et al., 2013; Espelage, Hong, et al., 2013). PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center (2016) offered guidance for addressing bullying within the IEP. Strategies recommended by PACER (2016) include identifying an adult to whom the student can make a report, establishing a reporting and documentation protocol, increasing education, and awareness opportunities for students and staff, educating and enforcing district bully prevention policies, and establishing safeguards where the student feels supported within the social and educational environment. In addition to supportive strategies, the IEP can be used as a tool to increase skill development. For example, the IEP team can craft annual, measureable goals and short-term objectives designed to teach, monitor, and increase social and functional skills (Rose, 2017). Therefore, the mechanisms by which students receive special education services can also be used as targeted approaches for increasing skill development and decreasing involvement in bullying.

Conclusion and Implications

Bullying is a complex phenomenon that is grounded in an imbalance of power, intent to cause harm, and repeated aggressive behaviors (Gladden et al., 2014; Olweus, 2005). Involvement of bullying is grounded in interactions between an individual and their social environments (Hong & Espelage, 2012). Unfortunately, a myriad of detrimental short- and long-term outcomes are associated with bullying involvement (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). Based on the defining characteristics of youth with BD (IDEA, 2004), this subset of youth is at escalated risk for involvement (Swearer et al., 2012; Van Cleave & Davis, 2006). However, their involvement may be misrepresented within the research literature as a function of the diagnostic criteria associated with BD identification (Rose & Espelage, 2012). Specifically, students with BD may represent socialized aggressors or reactive victims, as opposed to bully perpetrators and bully victims, due to social and communication skill deficits and impulsive responses to social stimuli (Rose, Stormont, et al., 2015). Therefore, the NASEM (2016) recommended that interventions should be situated within a multitiered framework. For youth with BD, these interventions could include social and emotional learning, targeted social and communication skill instruction, systematic reinforcement strategies, and using special education structures and services to provide individualized supports. Overall, students with BD are at greater risk of being involved in the bullying dynamic, and addressing this overrepresentation requires targeted skill instruction and acquisition.


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