The Problem of Teasing in the Classroom
by Lorraine Campbell, Ph.D., C.Psych., Faye Mishna, Ph.D., C.S.W.,
Barbara Muszkat, M.S.W., C.S.W., Sarah Oosterhuis, M.S.W.

Children with learning disabilities (LD) are prone to experiencing varying degrees of peer rejection (Vaughn & Hogan, 1994) for several reasons. First, these students tend to perform poorly academically, which impacts negatively on their self-esteem. In addition, cognitive disabilties may make social interactions difficult. Children with LD tend to misinterpret social cues and to use erroneous information in making social judgements (Weiss, 1984). These cognitive difficulties lead to both social confrontations and to unusual or bizarre behaviour which soon causes peer rejection and isolation.

Typical expressions of peer rejection are teasing and victimization - a common and difficult issue for classroom teachers. In dealing with teasing in the classroom or playground, it is crucial to understand why children tease. Although common throughout elementary school, peer teasing tends to peak in Grade 7 & 8, the preadolescent years. These years are unique in two ways. First, the importance of peer group acceptance is at it's peak. Preadolescents expend a great deal of energy trying to gain peer acceptance. Second, preadolescents are extremely self-conscious about their appearance and behaviour. When preadolescents who are trying to maintain peer acceptance are confronted with a peer who is different or doesn't fit into the peer group, it may threaten their self-image and peer acceptance. They may see parts of themselves that are unacceptable to the group reflected in the peer who is different. In an effort to reject the negative parts of themselves and to gain status in the peer group, they make fun of the peer who is different.

This is why the most vicious teasing comes from students who are marginally accepted in the peer group. These marginal members of the peer group are trying to gain status and acceptance for themselves. Teachers often express surprise that students with LD tend to get teased by students who are low achievers or for some other reason are only marginally accepted into the peer group, arguing that the the marginally accepted child should know what it feels like to be rejected and should be more understanding. It is precisely because he/she knows what it is like to be rejected that the marginal student needs to ensure his/her place in the peer group by viciously teasing the student with LD.

In group sessions at Integra, a mental health agency dealing with children and adolescents with LD, clients frequently discuss how much they have been hurt by teasing.

"Cause I know I'm not that popular and I get teased a lot by other people quite a lot. Yeah, and it affects um, maybe my whole life and everything."

"I was even able to uh help Z. with his with his uh thing that everybody in school was picking on him and making hisGrade 9 year a living hell in the sense that the same the exact same thing or something similar happened to me. It seemed as though everybody I knew was either hurting me or picking on me in some despicable horrible way."

Repeated failure experiences give students with LD a fragile sense of self-esteem and competence (Grolnick & Ryan, 1990), making them vulnerable to teasing. Well-established, positive feelings of social competence reflect a student's overall self-confidence and cannot be acquired through learning a set of quick responses to teasing. Simply telling a student what to say when peers tease him/her fails to address the inadequate sense of competence which initially caused the teasing. The teasing will either continue or will take another form. In either case, peer acceptance will not be enhanced.

Children need to feel that they are competent and that their feelings are important and valued. The most important thing for teachers to do when a child is teased is to validate the child's feelings and to try to appreciate his/her point of view. Ignoring a child's justified pain after he/she is teased tells the child that his/her feelings aren't valid or important and further diminishes already weak feelings of self-worth. It is most important to acknowledge that the child has been injured and hurt by the teasing. Acknowledging a child's pain is an important intervention. Helping a child to recognize that his/her feelings are important aids in the development of a strong sense of self-worth and social competence.

Social competence involves skills such as social perspective taking, identifying problems, generating appropriate solutions, predicting and evaluating social consequences. Teachers need to work cooperatively with students to develop these skills and to establish a strong sense of social competence. It is this sense of social competence that will ultimately improve the child's acceptance in the peer group. Social competence must emanate from a general feeling of accomplishment in the child.

Specific skills that can be developed to enhance social competence include social perspective taking and predicting consequences. Students with LD are often unaware of the impact of their appearance and behaviour on others. Using mirrors and asking children to describe the type of image they are portraying develops social perspective taking skills. Role playing activities in which different children play the part of the teaser and the victim develops an understanding of the reciprocal nature of peer interactions. Finally, joint problem solving and working through social situations, asking the student to predict the outcome helps children comprehend, predict and evaluate social consequences.

Grolnick, W. S. & Ryan, R. M. (1990). Self-perceptions, motivation, and adjustment in children with learning disabilities: A multiple group comparison study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 177-184. Vaughn, S. & Hogan, A. (1994). The social competence of students with learning disabilities over time: A within-individual examination. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 292-303. Weiss, E. (1984). Learning disabled children's understanding of social interactions of peers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17, 613-615.