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Why Bullies Target Struggling Students (And How You Can Help!)

We’ve seen examples of “old-fashioned” bullying since the TV made its appearance in the American household; the mean boy shoving the weaker child on the playground, or the rich girl making fun of the orphan dressed in rags. But modern bullying often takes the form of less obvious taunting, exclusion, or uses multimedia to spread photos, videos, and gossip like wildfire.

Why are kids with learning struggles common targets?

While the victim of bullying in a 1950s TV show might eventually see a happy ending, today’s victims of bullying often endure years of depression, anxiety, fear, or humiliation.

In particular, an all-too-common victim scenario is that of the struggling student. These children – already coping with low self-esteem, decreased confidence, shame, anxiety, and sometimes, parental disappointment – can easily get caught in an endless cycle: They’re bullied because their low self-esteem (and perhaps poor performance in school) makes them easy targets, and their fear of being bullied can cause them to avoid school, participate less in class, lose interest in academic achievement, or develop an inability to concentrate. It’s a case of “being kicked while you’re down.”

In addition, according to Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. One study even found that 60 percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied regularly (vs. only 25 percent of all students).

How do you know if your child is being bullied?

Your child may be too embarrassed or scared to involve you (or another person of authority). They may not want you to find out about the photo that’s been posted on the internet or the rumor (true or untrue) that’s been circulating around school. They may fear how you’ll react or that you’ll make things worse by confronting or reporting the bully.

Barring no direct request for help, here are some signs and symptoms to look for:

  • making excuses to avoid school
  • decreased appetite or sudden binging
  • unexplained injuries or ripped clothing
  • returning from school without belongings
  • difficulty sleeping
  • avoiding being alone
  • increased time alone
  • appears depressed or anxious
  • marked change in grades

What can parents do to help?

Your approach can be three-pronged: end the bullying, address the learning disabilities, and build your child’s confidence.

  1. Initiate a conversation with your child. Try to listen more than you talk, then work together to find a solution that helps your child feel empowered. Don’t assume your child wants you to talk to the parents of the bully (or the bully).
  2. Monitor your child’s activities – especially online. There’s a fine line between snooping and monitoring, and parents need to decide for themselves where that is.
  3. Enroll your child in cognitive skills training. Cognitive training can target and train weak skills that are behind learning struggles. One form of cognitive training is personal brain training, which uses immediate feedback, intensity, and loading, among other features, to target and train core brain skills. Effective brain training customizes programs based on the results of an initial cognitive skills assessment and uses exercises founded on years of clinical and scientific research.
  1. Teach your children to be more assertive. A bully’s goal is generally to provoke a reaction from their victim. Teaching a child to remain composed, firm, and assertive can be enough to deflate a bully’s interest.

Self-defense classes or martial arts are also great for building confidence.

  1. Report the bullying to the school. This will be tricky if your child is worried that “tattling” will only make the bullying worse. But schools are getting better about implementing zero-tolerance policies to work against creating a culture of fear. Getting the school involved validates your child’s fears and demonstrates your support.