September 2015: Bullying and Students With and Without LDs

Rose, C. A., Espelage, D. L., Monda-Amaya, L. E., Shogren, K. A., & Aragon, S. R. (2015). Bullying and middle school students with and without specific learning disabilities: An examination of social-ecological predictors. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(3), 239–254.

Summary by Dr. Nancy Scammacca


The pernicious effect of bullying has been well documented by news headlines telling of students driven to harm themselves or others as a response to their victimization. Academic research also testifies to the damaging effects of bullying and has documented the overrepresentation of students with learning disabilities (LD) as both victims and perpetrators. Researchers have hypothesized that students with LD may be at an increased risk for bullying involvement because the special education services they receive cause them to stand out among their peers. Involvement may begin with being a victim of bullying and progress to bullying others in an effort to deter future attacks.

Given the harmful effects of involvement in bullying—whether as a victim or perpetrator—prevention is key. Identifying factors that predict bullying can direct these preventive efforts to the students most in need of them. Using a social-ecological framework, Rose, Espelage, Monda-Amaya, Shogren, and Aragon examined aspects of a middle school student’s identity and environment that may affect likelihood of involvement in bullying. The social-ecological framework, based on the work of Bronfenbrenner, theorizes that bullying is rooted in the interaction between a child and his or her peers, family members, school personnel, and other environmental influences.

The social-ecological predictors that Rose et al. investigated included LD status; gender; race; sense of belonging; family, peer, and school social support; academic achievement; and amount of time receiving special education services. Some predictors were included based on prior research suggesting they were risk factors for bullying involvement among students with LD; other predictors represented the researchers’ attempt to add to the array of variables that might predict bullying. The researchers’ primary purpose was to move beyond viewing LD status as a standalone predictor of bullying risk and to dig deeper into the factors that may interact with LD to make involvement in bullying more likely. To better understand the full range of behaviors involved, the researchers sought to predict fighting and anger along with involvement in bullying as an aggressor or victim.

The participants in this investigation included 360 students without LD and 83 students with LD enrolled in seventh or eighth grade in one of four middle schools in the Midwest. None of the schools had an active prevention program centered on bullying, social-emotional learning, or behavior support at the time of the study. Students in the study responded to surveys that asked about their experiences of bullying others, being bullied, fighting, and feeling anger during the previous 30 days. Bullying behaviors included teasing, excluding a child from social activities, pushing or hitting, spreading rumors, and name-calling. Other surveys asked about getting into physical fights with students and acting out to express anger. Additionally, the researchers used survey measures to assess students’ sense of belonging at school and the extent to which they experienced social support from their families, peers, and school.

Research Questions and Methodology

Rose et al. used structural equation modeling to address the following research questions:

  1. Do the surveys measure aspects of bullying the same way (or with measurement invariance) for students with LD and students without LD?
  2. How does having LD affect a student’s average level of bullying (as victim or aggressor), fighting, anger, social support, and feeling of belonging?
  3. How do gender, race, academic achievement, involvement in school activities, and time receiving special education services predict involvement in bullying or being bullied?
  4. How do feelings of belonging and social support predict involvement in bullying or being bullied?

Structural equation modeling is an appropriate statistical technique to answer these research questions because it allows for testing of differences between groups (such as LD status) within a statistical model that attempts to predict constructs such as bullying victimization or aggression from variables such as social support and sense of belonging. The model that Rose et al. used had two parts. The first was a measurement model that assessed the relationships between the items on the surveys and the latent constructs (bullying, victimization, anger, fighting, sense of belonging, and social support) they were intended to measure. This model also was tested for invariance, which means it was tested to determine whether the ways in which the items related to the constructs within the model, the measurement error associated with the items, and other properties of the model were the same for both students with LD and students without LD.

The second part of the model was a structural model that represented the predictive relationships between these constructs and other variables such as gender and social support. Each of these relationships was represented by a path coefficient. Rose et al. first set up the model with paths between all of the social-ecological variables and the bullying-related variables they attempted to predict. Path coefficients that were not statistically different from zero were dropped from the model one at a time until the only paths remaining were those that were statistically different from zero (a procedure known as stepwise deletion).

Key Findings

  • In the measurement model, Rose et al. expected that the items’ properties and the relationships between the items and the constructs they measured would be the same for both students with and without LD. Their results confirmed that the measurement model was fully invariant—all of the measures worked in the same way for students with and without LD.
  • Average scores for the constructs (known as latent mean scores) also were not significantly different between the two groups of students. This finding surprised the researchers because it meant that on average, the two groups of students did not differ in the extent to which they had experienced bullying, victimization, anger, or fighting during the previous 30 days.
  • This finding also meant that in the second part of the model, data from both groups of students should be combined to determine what factors other than LD status were predictive of bullying involvement.
  • Next, the researchers analyzed the structural aspect of the model to determine what factors were statistically significant predictors. Rose et al. found that the percentage of the school day that students with LD spent in special education settings was predictive of peer social support. Specifically, those who received services for less than 20% of their day reported more peer support and those who received services for 21% to 60% of their day reported more school social support.
  • Their results also indicated that peer social support was a significant predictor of bullying, victimization, fighting, and anger. Students with high levels of peer social support had lower levels of all four experiences.
  • Strong school social support was associated with having more experiences of victimization and fighting, meaning that spending a larger part of the school day receiving special education services could be a risk factor for being a victim of bullying and getting into fights.
  • Involvement in extracurricular activities predicted lower levels of bullying, fighting, and anger, and higher levels of peer support.
  • Students with a greater feeling of belonging had lower levels of fighting.
  • Gender predicted peer support, victimization, and anger, with females reporting more experiences of all three.
  • African American students reported a weaker sense of belonging and peer social support and fewer experiences of anger and of victimization.
  • Family social support did not result in any significant differences in any of the variables of interest.
  • Overall, the strongest predictor of bullying involvement was peer social support, with more peer support predicting less involvement in bullying as a victim or aggressor.

Implications and Recommendations for Practice

  • Caution should be exercised in drawing conclusions based on Rose et al.’s findings, given that they are based on student self-report data, which may or may not accurately portray the bullying experiences of students with and without LD.
  • Although Rose et al., unlike previous researchers, found no differences in the extent to which students with and without LD experienced bullying, they noted that differences in school policies for identifying students as having LD could be an underlying cause.
  • Given that time spent receiving special education services was predictive of peer support and school support and that these constructs were linked to victimization, the relationship between LD status and victimization may be indirect and a function of the extent to which students with LD benefit from inclusion.
  • Finding ways to enhance peer social support for students with LD is important to preventing bullying. Providing more opportunities during the school day for inclusion allows students with LD to build relationships within a peer group.
  • Extracurricular activities provide another avenue through which students with LD can be included with their peers and have opportunities to develop friendships.
  • Students with LD also may benefit from social skills training and structured practice in peer groups to foster their success in relating to peers in ways that are likely to result in close relationships.
  • The role of school support as a predictor of victimization has implications for the ways in which school personnel interact with students with LD. Rose et al. suggested that both special education and general education teachers need additional training in recognizing the signs that a child is involved in bullying as a victim or aggressor and in how to intervene appropriately.
  • Additionally, all school personnel who provide special education services should interact with students with LD in a way that does not create a perception among peers that a student with LD is overly dependent on adults.