Bullying in physical education of children and youth with visual impairments: A systematic review

As special educators, we must include PE teachers and paraeducators in IEP meetings and ensure they feel prepared to modify and adapt their program for learners with disabilities.

Key Takeaway: The implication of this review is that a lack of preparation prior to supporting students with disabilities in PE class, particularly those with visual impairments, can lead to indirect and direct bullying of the students by teachers, paraeducators, and peers. As special educators, we must include PE teachers and paraeducators in IEP meetings and ensure they feel prepared to modify and adapt their program for learners with disabilities. —Erin Madonna

Lindsay Ball and colleagues completed a systematic review of the literature around bullying of students with visual impairments in the Physical Education (PE) setting. The purpose of their review was to describe the current experiences of youth with visual impairments in order to develop avenues for future research around issues of bullying in physical education classes. 

For the study, 114 participants reported on their experiences in PE with a broad age range represented due to the retrospective nature of some of the included studies. Ball et al. (2021) oriented their work with the definition of bullying posed by Chester et al. (2015)1 and Stough et al. (2016);2 Bullying is “the intentional behavior to physically or emotionally harm another, which occurs through an imbalance of power.” Exclusion of youth with visual impairment, when done with intention, was considered bullying in the context of this review. The team focused their review around three questions:

  • “What types of bullying are youth with visual impairments experiencing during PE?”
  • “When/how does the bullying take place and by whom?”
  • “What are the outcomes of the bullying?”

Overwhelmingly, this review makes clear just how common bullying of youth with visual impairments is in the PE setting. As they describe the frequency found within the studies they reviewed, Ball et al. (2021) point to the findings of Bear et al. (2015)3 reporting that young people with visual impairments are likely to be bullied twice as frequently as peers without disabilities. Social-relational bullying was by far the most common form found in the reviewed studies, with 86% of studies reporting exclusion, marginalization, isolation, and other forms of discrimination present in PE experiences. Dishearteningly, 93% of studies indicated that the bullying occurred during PE class time with 93% of studies showing peer-to-peer bullying and 50% of studies revealing the bullying was perpetrated by the educators themselves.

While the rate of bullying may appear shockingly high, it is upon review of Ball et al.’s (2021) data where we begin to understand the systematic structures which have allowed for this bullying to persist. “PE teachers are often ill prepared to teach children with visual impairments due to a lack of adequate preparation. This lack of knowledge leads to unnecessary exclusion, both intentional and unintentional, of students with visual impairments from participation during PE.” 

Underprepared educators are unable to create an environment where students with visual impairments are empowered and included. As Ball et al. (2021) point out “efforts made by teachers to promote a climate that is autonomy-supportive are the foundation of positive perceptions of inclusion, according to the perspectives of children with disabilities.”

They even go further to share Jimenez-Barbero et al.’s (2020) recommendation that, “when Universal Design for Learning is utilized in PE, all students with or without disabilities benefited from it. Physical educators can create a climate of acceptance and empathy that fosters participation by all students which may lead to increased self-esteem and decreased bullying of students.”

When considering the outcomes of the bullying experienced, Ball et al. (2021) describe how negative feelings towards physical education can persist through adulthood, often manifesting in the form of avoidance of physical activities. This impact has long-reaching implications for the health and well-being of those with visual impairments. Allowing youth with visual impairments to participate fully in physical education classes, rather than restricting their participation because of a fear of risk, perception of weakness, or other limits has the potential to positively impact their self-esteem. “Autonomy, competence, and dignity of risk are all critical components of an individual’s self-determination, which has a large influence on an individual’s motivation to participate in physical activity.”

Ball et al. (2021) also touch upon the question of self-advocacy as a possible counter-action to bullying. In the majority (86%) of participant responses, no resolution to the bullying occured. There was evidence that when the student with visual impairments ceased to be perceived as an “easy target,” the bullying also ceased. If students with visual impairments are supported in harnessing the power of their own voice, we provide alternate paths to confronting bullying and changing the paradigm that has allowed bullying to persist in PE classes.

It is important to note that this review was limited in part by the fact that not much was known about the participant’s backgrounds or the training of the PE teachers and paraeducators involved. The retrospective nature of some of the included studies may also have resulted in details being forgotten or reported PE practices being inconsistent with current practices.

Summarized Article:

Ball, L., Lieberman, L., Haibach-Beach, P., Perreault, M., & Tirone, K. (2021). Bullying in physical education of children and youth with visual impairments: A systematic review. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 02646196211009927.

Summary by: Erin Madonna — Erin philosophically aligns with the MARIO Framework's deeply rooted belief that all learners are capable, and she firmly believes in MARIO's commitment to the use of evidence-based practices drawn from the field of multidisciplinary research.

Research author Lauren J. Lieberman, Ph.D., was involved in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. Chester, K. L., Callaghan, M., Cosma, A., Donnelly, P., Craig, W., Walsh, S., & Molcho, M. (2015). Cross-national time trends in bullying victimization in 33 countries among children aged 11, 13, and 15 from 2002 to 2010. The European Journal of Public Health, 25(Suppl. 2), 61–64. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckv029
  2. Stough, C. O., Merianos, A., Nabors, L., & Peugh, J. (2016). Prevalence and predictors of bullying behavior among overweight and obese youth in a nationally representative sample. Childhood Obesity, 12(4), 263–271. https://doi.org/10.1089/chi.2015.0172
  3. Bear, G. G., Mantz, L. S., Glutting, J. J., Yang, C., & Boyer, D. E. (2015). Differences in bullying victimization between students with and without disabilities. School Psychology Review, 44(1), 98–116. https://doi.org/10.17105/SPR44-1.98-116
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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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