Help Digital Kids Build Social-Emotional Skills

devorah_heitner-140By Devorah Heitner

Your school has its own unique culture. From administrators to teachers to the ways students relate to one another. These days, digital forums like Instagram or Google Docs or Edmodo in particular (and technology in general) are part of that school culture and climate.

Do you feel like you are out in front of this culture shift – or always playing catch-up? Do you feel like communication flows naturally, or is it stilted and difficult?

When you focus on it, there are noticeable ways that technology has changed your school’s culture. But like all continually moving organizations, schools are so immersed in their own day-to-day operations, that those changes can be difficult to notice.

What do kids really know?

When I collaborate with schools, we often identify areas where there is a breakdown between what administrators, teachers, and parents believe students need to know about digital citizenship, and what students actually know.


There is a persistent assumption that, because kids are fluent in technology, there is not much we can teach them. Watching a student make videos, program in Scratch or build environments in Minecraft is impressive. They are indeed savvy…in some ways.

Digital citizenship is not about proficiency and savvy, though. It’s about thoughtful, positive ways to connect with peers and teachers via these new forums. And often our students have no idea how to navigate a conflict that comes up via group texting or in an online game. Or how to manage their reputations in social media.


How do we teach digital citizenship?

We want our students to become self-aware and aware of their impact on others. When you consider crafting digital citizenship curriculum or policy, you always want to go deeper than what the device or the app can do – focusing instead on its impact.

What connections can it forge? What issues can arise? How is it different – or the same – as regular, face-to-face interactions? How can students come up with their own rules for engagement that make sense for a specific medium (like a classroom blog, a tumblr, Twitter, etc.)

In my experience, school leaders often wish that there was a digital citizenship curriculum that could prevent some of the interpersonal challenges that arise in a connected, always-on environment. But try as we might, the reality is that it’s a moving target – and it’s very difficult to keep pace.

The digital world changes so rapidly that devices and apps, and the way we connect with them, are different week to week. Parents and teachers express this to me all the time – that they constantly feel behind.

But just because there’s no easy answer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t face these issues head on. I’m a strong believer in mentorship around the principles of digital citizenship. There exists a core set of immutable values that act as a rudder in making decisions in the digital world. It’s up to you as parents, teachers, and school leaders to instill these values in today’s young people.


Building a foundation of mentorship

Kids crave mentorship on some of today’s difficult digital issues. Though mentorship starts with parents, sometimes teachers and school leaders are in a better position to offer guidance. I’ve laid out a set of principles in what I call the Mentorship Manifesto. Here’s a condensed version:

  • Mentors start from a place of empathy as a path to trust and open communication.
  • Mentors understand that social interactions are more complex now, and that kids need help in building good personal relationships.
  • Playful classmates taking selfie at schoolMentors recognize that tech savvy is not the same as wisdom. Our life experience is a critical factor in the equation.
  • Mentors believe in collaboration over control. Co-creating solutions with kids takes advantage of their creativity and builds trust.
  • Mentors believe in creativity over consumption. Not all “screentime” is created equal.
  • Mentors understand that tech limits alone are no substitute for engagement. Monitoring degrades trust; it’s a false sense of control.
  • Mentors are ready to be accountable to kids, in turn. The good and bad habits we harbor with technology serve as a model for kids.
  • 2-girls-smartphoneMentors provide room for learning and self-discovery, making plans that don’t come from our anxiety and desire for control.
  • Mentors lead their families, teams, and community in service of a positive digital world for the next generation.

Every middle schooler needs mentorship around these issues. Figuring out your identity and how to navigate friendships in this brave new world can be challenging, and technology – for all its good – can be an amplifier for challenges.

Navigating exclusion in a world where every social gathering is photographed and shared can be painful. Small missteps can become a big deal so easily. We need to co-create solutions with our students and create safe spaces where they can reflect on who they are in their world, both digital and analog!

Read Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s review
of Devorah Heitner’s new book Screenwise.

screenwise_small-1-2Dr. Devorah Heitner is an international speaker, writer, and digital citizenship expert. She is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, a guide for mentoring digital kids. Her curriculum for Grade 4-8 is called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age.

Dr. Heitner has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University. She has spoken about digital citizenship all over the world, including at SXSWedu, ICTL Singapore, NAIS, and her TEDx Talk: Empathy is the App. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native, too.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

1 Response

  1. Cheryn says:

    Thank you for your insightful and relevant post. A read I’ll recommend to all teachers.

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