Guest Post: Bullies or Best Friends? The Challenge of Interpreting Interpersonal Relationships

By Justin W. Patchin, coauthor of Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral

Originally Published on the Cyberbullying Research Center Blog

Patchin_Justin_FSP AUthorThe other night I found myself in the proximity of a group of guys who were playing a game together. As they played, they talked: about sports and relationships and game strategy and many other topics that you might imagine would come up among a group of young men. From my eavesdropping it seemed that they were all longtime acquaintances. But it was also evident that there were some major power dynamics at play within this bunch. One or two members dominated the conversation, while a few others sat back and focused their energy on the game rather than the gossip.

From an outsider’s perspective, much of the interpersonal interactions could easily be characterized as bullying. To be clear, there wasn’t any physical bullying going on, but I witnessed a lot of name calling, degradation, humiliation, and exclusion. Curse words were cast like paint in a Jackson Pollock piece. Bad gameplay was harshly criticized and one or another’s masculinity was regularly challenged based on what was said (or not said) and done (or not done). As a social scientist who explores these behaviors empirically on a daily basis, this represented a petri dish of the real-world manifestations of bullying that I regularly see in my data.

One of the things I noticed was that while no one was immune from attack, certain targets appeared to be favored. One among the group seemed to be persecuted more than any of the others. He had a way about him that seemed to attract ridicule and reproach. He behaved unconventionally (in the game, and, based on what I overheard, also in the “real world”), and was clearly lacking in social competence. I also noticed that the older members of this group seemed to be revered to an extent among the younger ones, and therefore their aggressive behaviors were often mimicked by the younger ones in an attempt to fit in (and perhaps also to avoid becoming browbeaten themselves).

Card_games_by Victor Vic from wikimedia commonsBut I have a confession to make. The interactions I have just described can be best characterized as participant observation, rather than purely observational, because I was a member of this group and they were all adults. In fact, I use the term “young men” very loosely when referring to those assembled because “thirty-something” me was the youngest of the group. The relationships and interchanges portrayed represented the dynamics not among a group of apathetic adolescents playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, but rather those of mostly white-collar academics in my monthly poker game.

It struck me as I contemplated my terrible cards that night that there is not all that much difference between the way we treat our best friends and our worst enemies. Taken out of context, an outside observer would surely have believed that bullying was occurring within our group. The behaviors expressed included all of the classic definitional characteristics: there was repeated, apparently intentional harassment (meanness, cruelty, etc.) carried out by those with perceived or actual power (social status; academic reputation?) against targets in a way that allowed for little defense.

Most of the comments were accompanied by laughter by many in the group, including the one being roasted, which may have masked the maliciousness of the malarkey. But we’ve learned through our conversations with teens who bully that a lot of bullying behaviors are done by young people who think they are just joking around. So I actually found myself wondering, after particularly punishing digs, whether some of the comments made that night might have crossed an imperceptible line. And if this boundary is difficult for adults to identify, how can we expect teens to know when something is taken too far? This is especially challenging because oftentimes targets of ridicule do in fact respond with laughter publicly—in an effort to save face—while privately they are really hurt by what was said.

Men_Talking_by Visitor 7 Creative Commons Share Alike wikimedia commons

Buddies or Bullies?

I also reflected on this as it relates to my research. As academics we like to debate the best way to define bullying. Or at least discuss the limitations of defining it in certain ways. If I were to survey my card-playing colleagues about their experiences with peer abuse by asking them, for example, if anyone has ever “said something mean to them” or “made fun of them in front of others” (two indicators included in the commonly used Olweus bully/victim questionnaire) they would have to say yes just based on how they were treated by their friends that night. But is it accurate to say that they were bullied? Often our research approaches don’t allow us to accurately distinguish between good-natured ribbing and malevolent meanness. As I have argued previously, I don’t believe that bullying can be done unintentionally. Even though someone’s feelings can certainly be hurt without intent, bullying by definition is deliberate. That said, whether hurtful actions qualify as bullying by academic standards or not is beside the point. If we are treating someone in ways that make them uncomfortable, humiliated, excluded, or hurt in any possible way, then we should stop. But how do we know if our comments are being received in that light? And when delivered from a distance, as online comments are, determining impact can be extremely difficult, no matter the age of the sender and receiver.

I doubt that most people would categorize the behaviors as I have described them as bullying. But are we, and research, able to tell the difference?

WordsWoundJustin W. Patchin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is also co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and coauthor of Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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A Question for You: Are Dictionary Skills Important?

By Eric Braun

Minneapolis writer Eric Braun on Thursday, November 20, 2013.I love dictionaries, and that’s why I love Dictionary Day. Every October 16, the birthday of Noah Webster, we celebrate dictionaries with big feasts and rampant commercialism.

Well, maybe not in every community. But last night I was visited by the Ghost of Dictionary Day Past. It showed me a scene from 1978—second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Hall, sat at her desk with a red Merriam-Webster dictionary open in front of her and a big bag of peanuts in the shell. All of us students had our own dictionaries. Mrs. Hall turned an inch-thick clump of pages and called out a word: “Goggles.”

Webster_27s_Dictionary_advertisement_-_1888_-_Public domain

1888 Webster’s Dictionary Ad

A soft sound like the fluttering of thirty pairs of robin’s wings filled the room as we flipped through our dictionaries: fflt-fflt-fflt-fflt-fflt. When I found the word (I don’t mind boasting here that it was usually me who found it first—me or my nemesis Angela Jones), I raised my hand. Mrs. Hall called on me. “Page 472,” I said.

“That’s right,” she replied. And I got to come up to her desk and retrieve one peanut. I brought it back and added it to the small pile already on my desk. Angela Jones had a pile, too.

dictionarystandThe Ghost of Dictionary Day Past said nothing as adult me wept with nostalgia at the image of my younger self happily licking my page-flipping finger in preparation for finding the next word that Mrs. Hall would call out.

I awoke with a wistful countenance and a question forming in my gut. A lot has changed since then! Dangerous allergies keep peanuts far from any classroom, and outright competition, with such obvious winners and losers, is just as rare. Of course, the biggest difference is the way kids (and all of us) use the dictionary.

iphone-app-4-inch-screenshotAs we’re writing, our word processing program corrects our spelling and provides definitions if we need them. If we’re reading a book on a tablet, we can double-tap a confusing word and a definition pops up right there. Perhaps the most cumbersome dictionary action we take is going to a dictionary website such as, the site for Merriam-Webster. I even have a Merriam-Webster app on my phone. (I might be weird in that respect . . . but I like to think Angela Jones has the app, too.)

Part of me, the nostalgic part, feels like this is a real loss for kids today. The skill of using a dictionary, being nimble with the alphabet and the English language conventions that can make spelling tricky, must still have value. Of course as a book person, I miss the dictionary being a book, though I love my electronics as much as the next guy.

So here’s the question: Is it a loss?

Vintage in dictionaryBy rarely, if ever, using a physical dictionary, are kids failing to develop an important skill? Or maybe missing out on a certain pleasure? (Again, I might be weird in that respect.) Or are things just better now because they’re easier? Maybe the kid who double-taps a confusing word on a tablet would just skip it altogether if he’d have to go get an actual dictionary to look it up. That’s a literacy-building moment that might not have happened in the good old days.

I would love to hear what you think: Is using a real dictionary a meaningful skill in the 21st century?

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor who loves things from the good old days like Saturday morning cartoons, stirrups on baseball uniforms, and E.T. Learn more at

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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The Best Behavior® Series, Found and Loved

Joyfully readingA teddy bear with most of his fur worn off. Blue jeans with patches on the patches. There is nothing like a little wear and tear to tell you that something is well loved.

Parents and educators are finding that our Best Behavior® series books tend to be well loved, too. Toddlers turn the pages and talk to the pictures. Many copies turn up in the funniest places.

Written by Elizabeth Verdick and Martine Agassi, the books feature lively illustrations by Marieka Heinlen that captivate kids.

Apparently they can be so appealing that they look downright delicious.

teeth-are-not-for-biting from bone-stare dot com Hands are not for hitting on You Tube

Kids act out the good things hands can do while the teacher reads Hands Are Not for Hitting aloud. A YouTube search found several videos of classrooms sharing the books.

Do you have a favorite Best Behavior® book? Where have you found one of our Best Behavior® books? At a bookstore, or under a bed? Snap a photo and email it to us.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Early Childhood, Publishing | Tagged ,

Adopting a Dog Is a Win-Win-Win (Plus Bonus Wins)

By Judy Galbraith, dog-loving president and founder of Free Spirit Publishing

Judy Galbraith, President and founder of Free Spirit Publishing.October is American Humane Association’s Adopt-A-Dog Month to help promote and increase the adoption of rescue and shelter dogs. With all of the many wonderful rescue organizations and shelters that exist today, adoption can happen all year round. If you’re considering becoming a dog guardian, here’s why I believe adopting a shelter or rescue animal is a win-win-win.

First, both of my dogs were rescued, and I can’t imagine my life now without them. AHA Adopt MonthCoupled with their being wonderful additions to my life, it feels really, really good to rescue a homeless dog, knowing that you’re giving it a second chance at the companionship and loving environment that all dogs deserve (WIN #1). When you adopt, you’ve done a very good deed indeed!

Twiggy was a stray from Oklahoma, who made her way to the Twin Cities Animal Humane Society (AHS) via volunteers who transport homeless dogs from overcrowded shelters (Minnesotans are known for having high adoption rates . . . we don’t say Minnesota Nice for nothing). When I saw Twiggy’s picture on the AHS’s Adoptable Animals webpages, it was love at first sight for me.



I knew right away she was the grrrrrl for me, although Twiggy probably would’ve gone with Godzilla if it meant getting out of that noisy shelter. I immediately went to meet her.

She has turned out to be the best dog ever. Smart, funny, loving, and loyal, Twiggy comes to work with me every day. She has charmed the entire Free Spirit staff, even the so-called cat people! Twiggy’s a great ambassador for the power of dog love. I refer to her as our Chief of Inspiration. She’s not on the payroll, but she should be for all of the good things she brings to our workplace. Twiggy has a wonderful life now—I’m pretty sure being a stray wasn’t much fun (WIN #2).

Being the guardian for a dog or any animal is a serious responsibility, of course. But when you adopt a dog, you’re saving a very special animal from neglect, perhaps abuse, and loneliness. Because dogs are pack animals, they’re social creatures and they love interacting with the pack. For Twiggy and my other dog, Violet, that pack means me, my partner Gary, and the entire staff at Free Spirit. In addition, dogs can “read” human faces and pick up on our emotions and state of mind. When I’m upset, frustrated, or sad, there’s no better therapy than the love of my dogs (WIN #3).

Violet and co-worker Cassie

Violet and co-worker Cassie

Violet came to me last November through Small Dog Rescue of Minnesota. She’s a dear little Yorkie-Poo. I’ll admit, she’s been a handful to train (maybe the understatement of the year!). But with the help of obedience training classes at the Humane Society, she’s making great progress. I think I’ve learned as much as she has (BONUS WIN) and going to dog school has been a lot of fun (BONUS WIN)! And although she’s only 8 pounds, Violet has the heart and soul of a lion. She is a constant reminder of how valuable patience and consistency are (BONUS WIN). She tests both, and I’ve had to remember that persistence pays.

If you’re considering being a dog guardian but think adopting from a shelter isn’t for you because you’re partial to a particular breed of dog, think again. There are rescue sites for almost every breed of dog. If you’re not sure you’re ready for the commitment and responsibility of having a dog in the family, many organizations have foster programs. When you foster, you can “try out” life with a dog while providing it with companionship and a home until its forever family is found.

So, remember, if you’re able to open your home to provide a safe and loving environment for a dog, it’s at least a win-win-win. Now that’s a deal you can hardly refuse!

If you’ve rescued a dog (or any animal for that matter), tell us how you’ve benefitted. What has adopting meant for you?

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Guest Post: Universal Design for Learning and Differentiation: The Firm Foundation for RTI in Your Middle School Classroom

By Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., and Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., coauthors of RTI in Middle School Classrooms: Proven Tools and Strategies

Kelli Esteves EdD, FSP Author

Kelli Esteves

Imagine a middle school where teachers and students delight in the diversity each student brings to the learning environment. The classrooms are places for students to deeply engage in learning that capitalizes on their interests, multiple intelligences, and cultural backgrounds. New ideas are built upon prior knowledge, and personal growth is valued above all. Educators work and study together in a professional community with a shared goal of delivering a student-centered education that meets the needs of all learners. Maybe this is a middle school organized around a well-coordinated Response to Intervention (RTI) structure, or maybe RTI has never been mentioned. Either way, the school has figured out a way pull together and educate the hearts, minds, and spirits of their students.

It might seem like an unreachable ideal, but it is not. We hope many readers are nodding their heads in agreement and recognize their school in this description. We are not writing this blog post to convince you that RTI is an education panacea, but we believe that RTI is worth championing and, if well implemented, can significantly increase the academic, social, and emotional development of your middle school students.

Elizabeth Whitten, PhD FSP author

Elizabeth Whitten

Response to Intervention is a way of honoring diverse classrooms by using a school-wide team approach to planning for and responding to learner diversity. The foundation of RTI is the implementation of curriculum and instruction grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and differentiation. Intentionally designing your instruction, curriculum, and students’ learning environment to acknowledge learner diversity is the basis for UDL.

As educators, we know that learners differ in a myriad of ways; therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach has been (and will always be) an ineffective means of engaging all learners. How does RTI help? The framework for RTI involves a multifaceted approach to assessment, involving students in personalized goal setting, instruction aimed at meeting goals within a multi-tiered system of support, and the monitoring of each learner’s responsiveness to instructional interventions. A single “right way” to implement RTI does not exist, but these essential elements must be actualized in order for the approach to be considered RTI.

Let’s break down the multi-tiered system of support to address how UDL and differentiation complement one another, and how they dovetail with RTI. Tier I, the foundation, involves the UDL approach. UDL is “a framework for guiding educational practice that a) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the way students are engaged; and b) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains instructional accommodations” (Thompson, Morse, Sharpe, and Hall, 2005, as cited in RTI in Middle School Classrooms). It’s a pedagogical approach that incorporates multisensory instructional methods and encourages students to make choices about how they will learn. Differentiation is similar, but is more reactive to individual student needs. It is done in fluid ways throughout the delivery of lessons and during the assessment process. Differentiated classrooms are responsive to the student range in readiness levels, interest areas, and learning profiles.

RTIinMiddleSchoolClassroomsIn a similar way, providing Tier II or III level of support is a response to a student who is not succeeding at a Tier I level of support. It’s about responding to the learner and crafting a different approach that is aligned with his or her specific strengths and needs. It’s not the 21st-century version of tracking students. Instead, it is a marriage of UDL and differentiation based on learner preferences, interests, and academic readiness, which together make learning more enjoyable, effective, and efficient.

Implementing RTI successfully takes a school-wide collaborative effort led by educators who believe in an inclusive community in which learner diversity is embraced. Planning for and responding to different levels of academic readiness is not a challenge when we choose to see and honor the knowledge each student brings to our classroom, and when we expect students to have diverse skills and abilities. We believe that our middle school students deserve the learning environment described in the opening paragraph. If you agree, place UDL principles and differentiation at the foundation of the RTI framework.

Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kelli has experience as a special education teacher and reading specialist in the Rockford (MI) Public Schools.

Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., is a professor of special education and literary studies at Western Michigan University. Prior to her eighteen years in higher education, Elizabeth was a teacher and administrator.

Kelli and Elizabeth are the authors of RTI in Middle School Classrooms.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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