Digital Citizenship and Social-Emotional Skills Are Inseparable

Every school has its own unique culture. It is made up of all the ways in which students relate to one another and their teachers. In today’s world, digital devices in particular (and technology in general) have a huge effect on these relationships. For better or worse, communication is different now, and it has the potential to make a big impact on your school’s culture.

When I collaborate with schools, we often identify areas where a gap exists between what administrators, teachers, and parents believe students need to know, and what students actually know. The assumption persists that because kids are fluent in technology, we cannot teach them much about it. Watching a student navigate Snapchat or build environments in Minecraft is impressive. They are fast, facile, and fluid.
Digital citizenship is not about operating the devices, however. It’s about people using technology in a thoughtful, positive way that shows they are aware of its impact on others. So my aim is always to go deeper than what the device or the app can do — and to focus instead on its impact. I ask key questions:
  • What connections can it forge?
  • What issues can arise?
  • How is it different — or the same — as regular, face-to-face interactions?
In my experience, school leaders often wish there was a digital citizenship curriculum that could prevent some of the difficult interpersonal challenges arising in a connected, always-on environment. That’s why I’m a strong believer in mentorship around the principles of digital citizenship. This core set of immutable values acts as a rudder for making decisions in the digital world.

The New Digital Skill Set

Parents and teachers with whom I work are often relieved as they begin to understand that there is a set of principles that doesn’t change — and there is a skill set that you can build on top of these principles. While savvy seems out of reach (when it comes to tech), skills can be learned. And the great thing is that you can work with kids to learn as you go.  
My guiding principles in teaching the “skills layer” to parents and teachers include:
  • The digital skill set is an immediate priority. If students don’t start to develop it now, they won’t succeed in today’s — and tomorrow’s — world.   
  • The digital skill set is not about how to keyboard or code. Anyone can learn those skills, with enough practice.
  • The digital skill set is about relationships. It’s about the kinds of connections we can forge with one another. It’s about trust.
Below I highlight two ways to help your students develop these skills. With both methods, it’s important to teach kids crucial social-emotional skills by using technology that’s familiar to them.

Method 1: Collaboration

Collaboration is a great starting point for many independent schools, because you can proactively apply it under this rubric. For example, when several students are working on a shared digital document (e.g. Google Docs or a class wiki), taking turns editing may make more sense than simultaneously generating ideas. Assigning roles and a timeline to a project can be helpful — many students need some kind of framework to effectively collaborate.
Have students use different apps or devices to complete a project. For instance, can they use Blab or Google Hangouts to meet when they’re not at school? What about using a shared to-do list like Trello or Asana? Or if they are more inclined to use a messaging app like Snapchat or WhatsApp, let them try! The important thing is teaching them to be critical thinkers. They should consider: What’s good about each tech tool? What’s not so good? What gets in the way of progress in collaborative work?   
Lastly, in designing your collaboration model, make sure to see it through to the evaluation stage. Don’t just tell them that collaboration is important to you — make it part of their grade! Design a rubric upfront to show them the kinds of interactions you’ll be looking for so they have a roadmap for how to interact.

Method 2: Repair

Unlike collaboration, repair tends to be more reactive. Typically, you need to wait for a situation to arise and then use it as a “teachable moment.” Chances are, you won’t have to wait long. Even at schools with a strong digital citizenship curriculum, misunderstandings and intentional misuse of tech will always occur.
Even so, I would urge you to take some simple steps to introduce the concept before a conflict arises. Repair is a skill, too. Like any other skill, it requires some base knowledge and then lots of practice. The best way to do this is to introduce different scenarios, and then work with kids to resolve the issues for each one.
For instance, in my student workshops, I ask kids to brainstorm about how to correct mistakes they make in the digital realm. We might use actual scenarios, or if the kids are feeling shy, we can construct our own.
Introduce the scenario, and then use the following as a starting point for the discussion:
  • What are the challenges to resolving this conflict?
  • What might make it easier to resolve?
  • Would it be better to resolve this conflict in person or in a text? Why?
  • Should you get your parents or a teacher involved, or can you handle it on your own?
This rubric works for a whole host of scenarios, from “everyday” meanness to bullying. It helps kids see the contour of conflict, and understand the boundaries. By talking through the scenarios with them, we provide students with a set of tools to handle interpersonal challenges without making them worse.

Our Shared Outcome: Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship is not about knowing the latest app and how it works. It’s rooted in values that have existed in schools for centuries. For teachers (and parents) who are intimidated by their kids’ tech savvy, always remember that the richness of your own learned experiences can guide you. Use that as your foundation.  
Even teens and tweens in my workshops express the desire for mentorship around these issues. That surprises many parents and teachers. Sometimes they ask for it directly, and sometimes you have to detect it in something else they’ve said. But it’s clear to me that even the most tech-savvy teens are looking for guidance. Interpersonal relationships are difficult, and technology — for all its good — can amplify challenges.
I see a need for all of us as mentors to step in and help students become good digital citizens. Start by having them generate examples of common challenges and misunderstandings. Students will be more engaged because they will address issues that affect their world. And they will value that you’re preparing them for their version of the future.
Most important, do it together. Your experience and guidance, coupled with your students’ spirit and creativity, make for a powerful combination.
  • NAIS members are invited to join Devorah Heitner’s webinar “Building a Culture of Empathy in Digital Age Schools” on Wednesday, January 18 at 2 p.m. EST. In the webinar, participants will learn think critically about current approaches to digital citizenship in schools and examine the social and emotional impact that social media can have on students.
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Devorah Heitner

Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in their Digital World and the co-author of the Connecting Wisely Curriculum. She is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and collaborates with schools around the world to build a culture of digital citizenship and leadership.