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Poor social, communication skills linked to peer rejection, bullying

Dorothy Espelage
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L. Brian Stauffer

Poor social and communication skills heighten risks of peer rejection and bullying involvement for students with disabilities, according to a new study by U. of I. alumnus Chad A. Rose; Dorothy Espelage, a faculty member in the College of Education; alumna Anjali Forber-Pratt, and Steven R. Aragon, of Texas State University-San Marcos.

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10/30/2013 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Poor social and communication skills and psychosocial problems such as depression, low self-esteem and anger – all of which are often associated with disabilities – serve as risk factors for peer rejection and as predictors for bullying and victimization, according to a new study that was conducted at the University of Illinois.

The associations among these characteristics and problems may explain why students diagnosed with disabilities are often over-represented as bullies, victims – or both – in studies on peer aggression, said Chad A. Rose, the lead author of the study.

Much of the prior research on bullying has suggested that students with disabilities in general are at elevated risk of bullying involvement and has not examined specific characteristics that may heighten individual students’ risk.

“The most fundamental message that we’re trying to get across is that not all students with disabilities are at risk,” Rose said. “There are specific characteristics associated with disabilities that may serve as risk factors – specifically, deficits in social skills and communication skills. But just because a student has a disability does not mean that they are any more at risk than students without disabilities.”

Identifying the individual characteristics that may serve as risk factors is critical to developing interventions that reduce victimization and to monitoring and providing support to students that need it.

“From a policy standpoint, I would recommend incorporating social-emotional learning into education programs, meaning that we would support social and communication skill development for everyone, and increase those supports for students with disabilities that may have deficits in those skills,” Rose said.

Behavior, including peer aggression, is communicative, and educators can perform functional behavioral assessments to determine what children are trying to communicate or obtain when they engage in proactive aggression.

“Oftentimes, bullying is serving a function for these students,” said Rose, who taught youth with emotional and behavioral disorders for five years in Indiana high schools. “It is purposeful. And students will continue to use those behaviors because they have been reinforced, and they are effectively getting whatever the behaviors are designed or used to get. We have to separate the behaviors from the individuals and provide students with some sort of replacement behavior that addresses that function directly.”

Once the function of the behavior is identified and a behavior intervention plan created, teachers can use differential reinforcement strategies to support prosocial behavior and reduce reinforcers or triggers for aggression and other inappropriate behavior, Rose said.

Rose and his study co-authors also recommend that schools incorporate multitiered bullying prevention programs that include schoolwide, classroom-, group- and individual-level interventions that address the specific and individualized needs of the student population.

Rose, who conducted the research while earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois, is a professor of special education at the University of Missouri. Rose’s co-authors on the study were Dorothy L. Espelage, a U. of I. professor of child development in the department of educational psychology; Anjali Forber-Pratt, who earned her doctorate in human resource education at Illinois and is a research professor at the University of Kansas; and Steven R. Aragon, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas State University at San Marcos.

Espelage also was the guest editor of a special issue of the journal Theory into Practice in which the study was published, and she was the recipient of a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which funded the research.

Editor's note: To contact Chad Rose, email To contact Dorothy Espelage, phone 217-766-6413; email

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