8th January 2010 at 00:00
A boy in my class makes nasty comments about pupils in wheelchairs. The incidents have been reported but so far all he has got is detention and the situation hasn't improved. What can I do?

Disabled people face many barriers in their everyday lives - both physical and attitudinal - and often experience prejudice because they are seen as different, or treated with less respect than non-disabled people.

The charity Mencap says eight out of 10 children with a learning disability have been bullied. Six out of 10 have been physically hurt, which means they are twice as likely to be targeted as other children.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls has been quoted saying that bullying of this kind is the "cruellest expression of cowardice". The Government says evidence shows that children with a disability often find themselves more isolated, find it harder to resist bullies and to tell someone about it. For these reasons, it is important that such incidents are dealt with appropriately.

Malcolm Myhill* was shocked when one of his pupils began to bully his disabled classmates. He could not believe this child's lack of sensitivity. "He made some really nasty remarks about people in wheelchairs such as calling them 'useless idiots'," Mr Myhill remembers.

"I was told by the senior management team that the heftiest punishment he can receive is a detention. If he had made such derogatory remarks in a racist context, he would have been excluded."

Paul Dix, lead trainer at Pivotal Education, a behaviour consultancy, is convinced that detention is not the best way to address this kind of behaviour. "Punitive sanctions satisfy the desire for mild revenge, separate the punishment from the original rule break and make pupils resentful," he says.

However, excluding the child is not a solution either. "What works is reparation - arrange a formal meeting with the pupil and spend 15 minutes, face-to-face, re-establishing expectations, re-chalking the boundary lines, repairing trust and making a sincere commitment for the future," says Mr Dix.

A discussion with the pupil's parents is also advisable. "These kinds of ideas and attitudes don't usually happen in a vacuum, so talking to his parents would be beneficial," says Caroline Underwood, head of education at Scope, a UK-based disability charity. "Educating people about difference is key - everyone has a part to play in making the world a fairer place, where difference and diversity are celebrated."

Be prepared to discuss the nature of disability with all pupils - understanding disability helps children and young people to meet disabled children halfway in the classroom, the playground and beyond.

"The teacher should talk through the impact of this pupil's attitude on the other children, both disabled and non-disabled," says Mrs Underwood. "Talking about these issues could help the pupil understand more about why his behaviour is not acceptable."

At the same time, look for opportunities to encourage more understanding and empathy among your pupils. "Afford the pupils opportunities to question their prejudice and fear," says Mr Dix. "Challenge their negative view of people in wheelchairs through story, images, video and personal interaction. Encourage the opinions of all pupils rather than highlighting his attitude above others."

The behaviour of staff sends an important message to children and young people - support staff should facilitate as much inclusion and independence of disabled children and young people as possible, rather than "looking after" them.

Disabled children do not desire over-attention or sympathy any more than they want to be ignored, left out or bullied. They want to be supported to achieve, rather than to experience limited expectations of their ability and potential by others.

*Name has been changed

Next week behaviour meeting


- Arrange a formal meeting with the pupil and spend 15 minutes re-establishing expectations and boundary lines.

- Talk through the impact of their behaviour.

- Model appropriate behaviour.

- Arrange a meeting with the parents to discuss their child's behaviour.

- Familiarise pupils with appropriate language.


- Rely on detention - this will make the pupil resentful.

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