Keeping Bullies At Bay

Children with special needs are bullied more often, but Dawn Barnes of Dawn Barnes Karate Kids has some wonderful prevention tips.

by Dawn Barnes

Keeping Bullies At BaySending children back to school is exciting. Unfortunately, it can also be a time of worry. Bullying is in the news more than ever and mothers are rightfully concerned about the safety of their children. Mothers of children with special needs may hold even deeper concerns about how their child will be treated at school.

The heartbreaking news is that children with special needs find themselves targeted by bullies more often than other children. The reason is simple – bullies don’t generally seek out challenges. They seek out easy targets. If a child is awkward, has low muscle tone, has trouble making eye contact, doesn’t speak up, or has few friends, a bully will likely be emboldened to harass that child.

The good news is that, when it comes to bullies, a little preparation can go a long way in offering some measure of protection. And no, I’m not talking about learning to punch and kick! The fact is, the most powerful form of protection comes from learning how to prevent bullies from attacking, not fighting bullies once they’ve attacked.

So, what can you do to help prevent bullies from targeting your child? Here are four important tips to keep in mind when discussing the issue of bullies. Teach your child to:

MAKE EYE CONTACT. Looking down at the ground, or looking away when being spoken to, signals insecurity and fear. For children with special needs, making eye contact may be especially difficult, but reinforcing the good habit of looking at someone when speaking and listening is worth the extra effort.

SPEAK UP. Delivering a strong message with your voice not only scares away bullies, it also draws attention. Teaching a child to speak up and say, “Stop,” “Don’t touch me,” or “I don’t like that,” makes it clear to everyone, including bullies, that boundaries are being set or broken.

STAND STRONG. Raising your hands and planting one foot in front of the other adds a physical boundary to go along with a strong voice. In combination, your child will be creating a personal “bubble” that most bullies will not try to enter. I would like to add that standing strong goes hand in hand with walking tall. Keeping the head up, taking full steps, and letting the arms swing naturally sends a signal to everyone that you are comfortable in your own skin.

SMILE AND SAY HELLO. In my experience, smiling works to ward off bullies in two ways. First, smiling projects confidence, which is Kryptonite for most bullies. Second, smiling and saying “hello” to classmates leads to making new friends. Bullies would rather pick on a schoolmate who is isolated, a loner, than one who is surrounded by friends.

Of course, the real key is to turn these tips into habits. And the only way to do that is with regular practice. But you don’t have to frighten your child and lead them to believe they’re going to get “beat up” at school to rehearse prevention techniques.

Remember, the same habits that scare away bullies also attract more friends. Keep that in mind and you’ll not only look forward to practicing, you might even enjoy it!

Practice shaking hands and having your child introduce himself or herself with a smile. Practice walking tall and proud. Offer a reward when your child looks you in the eye when speaking and listening. Pick up a pillow and slowly walk towards your child’s “bubble,” coaching them to scare you away with a “big voice” when you get too close. Or maybe even bump you away if you don’t stop. I have found that teaching children how to deal with bullies and make friends is a wonderful bonding experience.

To be clear, I’m not saying preventing bullies from bothering your child is easy. It may take a good deal of practice to turn these tips into habits, which begs the question: what should you do if your child is being bullied in the meantime?

First, I strongly advise that you contact the school immediately.  Bullying is almost never an isolated incident. Bullying is a repeated behavior that will continue if it is not called out. To break the routine, you should fully expect the officials at your school to contact the bully and the bully’s parents to let them know what is happening. It is the school’s responsibility to provide a safe environment for your child. Even better, the school may be able to offer counseling to the families involved. Make no mistake, speaking up is good for children and for parents.

If a bully continues to harass your child, I also recommend coaching your child to look for an escape. Find a grown-up, find a teacher, find a door, or find you. Fighting – win or lose – can lead to injuries. Sadly, many martial arts programs encourage being “tough” and launching into physical self-defense techniques right away. While I believe there is absolutely a time and place for fighting back, I also believe fighting should be presented as the very last resort.

What is the right time and place for fighting back?  If you can’t prevent trouble through eye contact, speaking up, standing strong, smiling, making friends, and looking for an escape, it may be necessary to use your body to keep a bully at bay.  But there is no magic move. When it comes to keeping your child safe from bullies, the only magic move is preparation. Make the time to discuss the issue regularly and practice the tips discussed here and you should rest easy that you’ve done everything you can to keep your child safe.

Bullies are a part of every child’s life. Learning how to deal with bullies should be a part of every child’s life, too.


Dawn Barnes has been teaching children martial arts for more than 25 years. She currently operates seven Dawn Barnes Karate Kids schools in the L.A. area. For more information, please visit

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