Protecting deaf students from bullying
Deaf students are more at risk of being bullied than their hearing peers. As an education professional, you can take practical steps to prevent bullying and increase deaf awareness.
The advice and information on this page can be used by schools, colleges and other education settings. However, you may need to adapt some of the approaches to make them more relevant for your institution or the ages of the children or young people you work with.
You may also be interested in signing up for our free CPD-accredited online training course: The Impact of Bullying on Deaf Children and Young People.
There are many reasons a student might be bullied, but deaf students face particular challenges including:
- Poor deaf awareness from classmates. Hearing classmates may have poor deaf awareness or not know how to communicate with a deaf student. Many social opportunities also take place in noisy areas, which could lead to deaf students becoming isolated if they’re not able to join in easily.
- Delayed understanding of social norms. Hearing children often pick up on social norms by overhearing background conversations and chatter (known as 'incidental learning'). Deaf students may miss out on these opportunities and have delayed social skills. They may also be unaware of current social language or slang. If they don’t respond ‘appropriately’ in social situations, they may struggle to fit in with friendship groups.
- Absences from school or the classroom. Students who are repeatedly absent can be marked out as ‘different’. Deaf students may be absent more often due to, for example, audiology appointments. Also, they may be taken out of the classroom often for additional support by a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) or a teaching assistant.
- Differences in appearance. A deaf student may be singled out as ‘different’ if they use sign language, have additional needs, have communication difficulties, or use equipment such as hearing aids, cochlear implants and radio aids.
Many of the signs of bullying in deaf children and young people are the same as for all students. They could include:
- disruptive behaviour
- quality of schoolwork falling
- becoming anxious and stressed about going to school or college
- changes to appearance
- lost or damaged possessions
- faking illness to miss school or classes
- loss of friends
- sitting alone in class
- becoming withdrawn and not taking part in lessons
- bullying others (children who are bullied sometimes resort to bullying others).
Here are some specific ways peers may bully a deaf student that you should also look out for:
- using made up signs
- turning away from a deaf student on purpose to exclude them
- getting a deaf student’s attention too forcefully
- whispering on purpose to exclude a deaf student.
Be extra vigilant when observing and monitoring interactions between deaf students and their peers. Never presume deafness alone is the cause of a behaviour. For example, a deaf student may be quiet and withdrawn if they’re not supported to communicate with their peers. However, it may also be a sign of potential bullying. Keep an open mind and investigate so you can correctly address the cause of the student’s behaviour.
Your school or college’s anti-bullying policy should incorporate and reflect the needs of deaf students by:
- highlighting prevention strategies to support deaf students
- including indicators and symptoms relevant to the deaf students in your school or college
- making sure reporting, responding and prevention procedures meet the communication needs of deaf students
- involving deaf students in reviewing and updating the policy.
As part of your school or college’s training programme to prevent and address bullying, staff should be taught about the different forms it can take and how some students are more vulnerable to it, including those who are deaf.
Reporting and monitoring
Some deaf students may be reluctant to share their concerns with staff or to ‘tell’ if they’re being bullied. Be proactive in encouraging them to share. Check they know who to go to and make sure they feel confident in doing so.
Make sure deaf students:
- know about the different reporting systems they can use if they don’t feel confident telling an adult in person. This could include a reporting box, email or text system.
- understand that the school or college can’t promise confidentiality, but that information will only be shared on a need-to-know basis so the issue can be resolved.
Your school or college should have systems in place to monitor incidences of bullying against deaf or other disabled students. This will help identify if you need to do more to prevent bullying aimed at this group.
Promoting deaf awareness
Deaf students say that it’s helpful if their classmates understand how deafness affects them and how best to support them. Running deaf awareness training for all staff and students will help highlight the communication needs of deaf students.
When designing and delivering deaf awareness training, involve deaf students and a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD). Some deaf students may feel confident in delivering part of the training themselves. Others may not want to draw attention to themselves – in this case, you’ll need to consider a more subtle approach to raising awareness.
Safe or quiet zones
Set up ‘safe places’ in your school where students who are at risk of being bullied could choose to go. Safe places are any areas where supervised activities take place. At college level, deaf students may make use of quieter spaces such as learning centres or libraries.
Ask deaf students which parts of school or college make them feel most vulnerable and what changes would make them feel safer. Conducting an annual survey could give you useful insight on students’ views and how you’re improving these areas over time.
Deaf students may also value ‘quiet zones’ where they can interact more easily with their friends, free of noise and distractions.
After-school clubs and extracurriculars
Deaf students should have the same opportunities as other students to join in activities outside of school or college. After-school clubs or extracurricular activities may be run by teachers or external organisations who may not know the deaf student or have had no deaf awareness training. Therefore, it’s important for all staff, not just classroom teachers, to have deaf awareness training. Make sure any adult working with the deaf student knows how to meet their communication needs and fully include them.
A deaf student may not feel confident to join after-school activities. You may need to encourage them to join in and reassure them about the support they’ll receive.
Some deaf children and young people know little about how to stay safe online, including where to find and change privacy settings, what’s appropriate to share and what good online behaviour looks like.
Information about privacy settings on social networking sites is often written in complicated language, and video tutorials don’t always have subtitles or British Sign Language (BSL) translation. This means deaf students may need extra help to understand how to use the internet safely.
When giving information to students around online safety and cyberbullying, you should:
- make sure deaf students are present when the information is delivered
- deliver the information in an accessible way (for example, making sure any video clips have subtitles)
- check whether the deaf student fully understands the issues and risk or whether they need extra support.
Check out our resources on staying safe and smart online:
- Lesson plans for secondary school teachers: Be safe and smart online
- Flyer for deaf young people: How to be safe and smart online
- Information for parents: Help your child stay safe and smart online
Make sure parents know about your school’s policies and procedures on bullying, how to spot signs of bullying and how to report concerns. Give them guidance on how to share anti-bullying messages at home, particularly where you believe a deaf student needs further reinforcement of topics such as online safety and cyberbullying.
You can share with them our pages for parents on bullying.
Peer mentoring and peer mediation are two key methods of responding to bullying in deaf and other disabled students. These can take a range of forms, such as befriending, buddy schemes and peer mentoring.
Support deaf students to understanding social norms and bullying
You may need to provide individual support or interventions to help deaf students understand bullying, social norms and behaviour.
Deaf students may find it more challenging to pick up on social cues, both verbal and non-verbal. For example, they may not recognise a sarcastic comment or tone of voice. You may need to teach deaf students the difference between sarcasm, teasing or ‘banter’ versus language that is derogatory or discriminating. Explain that everyone sometimes teases in a friendly way, but unacceptable levels should be challenged and personal toleration levels should be respected. This will help them recognise if they’re being bullied.
Some deaf students may also need support to understand how their own behaviour could be perceived as bullying by others. For example, some deaf students can appear to be more ‘direct’ in conversations. It’s also common in sign language to point at a person they may be referencing, but this may be mistaken as being rude by others.
Monitor the outcomes of any interventions and discuss follow-up strategies with the student to make sure they’re effective.
Give opportunities to develop confidence and self-esteem
Some deaf students may not feel empowered to overcome communication barriers or other difficulties. A history of ‘over-protection’ from their families might also mean they have less experience standing up for themselves.
Deaf students need to be given opportunities to succeed along with meaningful praise to build their confidence and self-esteem. They also need to have opportunities to fail, to allow them to develop the resilience skills to repair situations and learn from them.
Some deaf students may not have a positive view of their own deafness. Work with the student’s Teacher of the Deaf or other specialists to identify opportunities for them to meet deaf role models to develop their confidence and identity as a deaf young person.
Don’t isolate deaf students
Make sure that any extra support doesn’t lead to deaf students becoming ‘isolated’ from their classmates.
- Make sure teaching assistant support doesn't make it harder for the deaf student to interact with other students. Extra support should help deaf students learn how to be independent.
- Include other students with individual deaf students’ learning support.
- Make sure other students know why deaf students are being given additional or separate support.
Make sure deaf students know who they can speak to about bullying. This should be a member of staff who's familiar with the student’s communication needs.
If a deaf student is ‘telling’ about a bullying incident, make sure you find an area that's both visually and aurally private. It should have minimal background noise and distraction.
Communication often becomes more difficult for students when they’re upset, especially if they have difficulties expressing themselves. Give deaf students plenty of time to explain what has happened as they may take longer to tell you what they want to say. If the student has difficulty communicating, encourage them to use a variety of mediums to explain their concerns, such as drawing or using props.
You should also make sure you have good deaf awareness and communication skills so the deaf student has confidence in telling you about any bullying. Check out our tops tips for communicating with a deaf child or young person. Here are some other key points to remember:
- If the student has a radio aid, make sure you use this properly.
- If you need to use an interpreter or a communication support worker, make sure they have advanced sign language skills and that you talk directly to the student (and not to the interpreter).
- Check that the deaf student understands what you have said throughout. Try and do so in a subtle way as some deaf students may not like admitting they haven't understood. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no as the student may say yes, regardless of whether they have understood or not.
If a student is being cyberbullied, ask them to:
- keep a copy of any messages or posts
- record the dates and times of any bullying messages
- record the sender’s online details or identity.
- Anti-Bullying Alliance: Deaf children and bullying
- Childnet International – online safety for children
- Childline: Deaf Zone
- Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
- Contact: Bullying
- Described and Captioned Media Program – this American organisation provides a range of accessible resources on bullying
- Family Lives: Bullying advice
- Kidscape: Help with bullying
- UK Safer Internet Centre
- Department for Education (England): Preventing bullying
- Information Advice and Support Services - offers advice and support to parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities
- Ofsted: No Place for Bullying
- Department for Education (Northern Ireland): Dealing with bullying
- Northern Ireland Anti-Bulling Forum