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Create a community of kindness in your school

By Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet
January 27, 2015
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Today's students are entering a very different world than the one most of their parents and teachers grew up in. They are digital natives who have been immersed in the enticing and ever-changing world of technology for their entire lives. While the increased access of this new digital world has created exciting new possibilities, its immediacy and the very public nature of the internet has also introduced new challenges that are affecting not only how students learn, but also how teachers and parents do their jobs.

We saw these challenges firsthand as school counselors. We realized it was time to stop and think about how to teach our children about thoughtful communication, respect and compassion online. And, based on what we had seen of bullying at school, we knew that a full solution would need to connect those learning experiences to the offline world as well.

That's why we founded the My Digital TAT2 Digital Education Program, an in-school workshop designed to empower elementary school students to become ethical and responsible producers and consumers of digital media. Over the past three years, we've been hosting workshops in elementary schools to teach students, teachers and parents how to work together to create communities of kindness on- and offline. The workshops have succeeded in changing students' attitudes and behaviors for the better, so we'd like to share them to help other schools foster a kinder environment.  Here are eight steps we think can help you develop your own school- or districtwide digital citizenship program:

1. Start early.

There's often a temptation to wait until something becomes a problem before you address it. In the case of many online issues — including cyberbullying, sexting and compromises to kids' digital footprints — because things tend to stay under control until high school or late middle school, teachers and parents don't even think about it when their students are younger. But we have found that the best time to start addressing digital citizenship is in elementary school.

Why? Front-loading young students with both emotional and educational tools helps them to become ethical and responsible digital citizens before they reach the age when they are likely to experience missteps. To make the most of your time and resources, consider targeting one grade at your school or, ideally, in your entire district instead of trying to educate everyone at once. We have found that fifth grade is a good point to catch students when they are old enough to become interested in social networking and other online communities but are not yet steeped in the social dynamics of adolescence.

2. Share responsibility.

We have found that the only way to create a community of kindness is to share the responsibility for digital citizenship education among all members of the learning community — students, teachers, administrators and parents. Systemic change occurs and lasts only when each of these groups commits to working together to create a safe haven, both online and offline, for everyone.

To get buy-in and cooperation from each of these groups, the school can't just provide a one-off training. Appropriate training in digital citizenship is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Instead, you can systematize the learning by hosting a series of workshops geared toward each audience: staff, students and parents.

3. Create a plan.

If this is a districtwide program, we recommend forming a small planning committee in each school consisting of one parent, one full-time educator and the school principal. To get a thorough grounding in digital citizenship concepts, committee members can attend a professional development course, such as one of our workshops. This will help turn them into messengers who can build excitement about and buy-in for the program among the rest of the staff.

Next, the committee can talk to staff to learn about the school climate, including on- and offline challenges. The goal of the workshops is to augment these educators' existing work, so you need to know where they need help.

Finally, it's the committee's job to come up with a plan for rollout of a school- or districtwide digital citizenship program and evaluation. One of the first steps should be informing the staff about the objectives and goals of the program in a letter or during a staff meeting, where the teachers have the opportunity to ask questions. Once the teachers are on board, send a letter to parents describing the upcoming workshops and providing concrete information about the topics they will cover.

The committee should remind teachers to invite their students' families to attend the parent workshop. Some schools have students create posters, and others use flyers to advertise the event. If your school or district is tech savvy enough, publish the news on the school and district websites and Facebook pages, on administrator and educator blogs, and through school and staff Twitter accounts.

4. Start with the staff.

Needless to say, teachers' buy-in is key. Once teachers and librarians understand the ideas behind digital citizenship, they usually welcome it in their classrooms.

In the staff workshops, expose educators to the current digital landscape and give them an opportunity to discuss the psychological impact and challenges of social media on teens. Here are a few ideas for activities that we use:

  • Provide detailed case scenarios with follow-up questions for small-group discussion.
  • Offer breakout sessions by grade level to discuss challenging social media sites and trending problem areas.
  • Encourage teachers to bring challenging student situations to the group for discussion.
  • Show videos from YouTube as conversation starters.
  • Take some time for a written reflection activity using a prompt such as, " "Which video was your favorite? Name three things you learned and how you can apply these in your own life." "
  • Use the group's collective literature experience to create a list of books, such as Wonder or Mr. Peabody's Apples, that would help reinforce the message with students.

You can also give them some activities to do with their students along with resources, such as books, workbooks, video lists and follow-up scenarios to reinforce the concepts in other curriculum areas.

5. Plan a student curriculum that meets them where they are.

Student workshops should focus on empathy and perspective taking as well as strategies to stand up to social cruelty both on and offline. Beyond that, for our workshops, we break the student material into three main topics:

Privacy. This topic includes information sharing, passwords, sourcing and strategies for being a smart consumer and producer of digital media.

Reputation. This encompasses image, perspective taking and empathy building.

Becoming an " "upstander." " This concept starts with understanding the impact of digital media on feelings and wellbeing as well as strategies for supporting each other both on- and offline.

Once students connect the material to their own lives, their behavior and perspectives often change. We have found that students of this age are most motivated to learn when they are encouraged to become experts on their own experiences. They can build this confidence by taking part in discussions, participating in activities and learning from each other. Through brainstorms and role play, students can practice responses to mean behavior and learn about their power to make a difference or reverse a digital pile-on. Get their attention by referencing popular TV shows, movies or games like Minecraft as a jumping-off point for exploring the importance of friendship and reputation.

To encourage active engagement, we also show YouTube videos that kids can find later easily, such as " "Talent Show — Cyberbullying Prevention Commercial" " or " "Amazing mind reader reveals his 'gift.'" " For any videos you find, make sure you have permission to play the video in the school setting (PSAs do not require any permission).

Other activities that work well include: pair-share exercises, written reflection, role playing, coaching and cueing.

Pair sharing. This exercise allows kids to take the topic to a deeper level and share what they have observed or experienced. Split students into teams of two and ask them to discuss questions such as " "Have you ever seen bullying behavior in gaming?" " " "What does a put-up look like online?" " or " "Why do people feel braver when they are behind a screen?" " Discussing their personal experiences with another person will help them slow down and reflect on their online language and behavior.

Written reflection. Writing is another way to help students cement ideas from the information presented and make it personal. A possible written prompt might be: Has anyone ever used words to hurt you either on- or offline? What did you do? What was hard? What strategies worked?

Role playing. Skits help students practice handling difficult online situations, and acting gives them a chance to practice upstander behavior and become their own advocates. 

Coaching and cueing. Teachers or facilitators can help coach the students and give them cues for opportunities to intervene during role-play scenarios. Don't forget to give students a physical " "brain break" " at the halfway mark to keep them focused and attentive. At the end of the workshop, give them a few minutes to reflect on their learning and share with other group members in a circle format.

Finally, give them something tangible to help them remember what they have learned. Consider hanging posters in the classroom with reminders of the key points they learned in the workshop. One of our posters includes an anonymous quote that we alter for our work. It says " "THINK," " spelled out as: " "Is it True, is it Helpful, is it Inspiring, is it Necessary and is it Kind?" " This acronym reminds kids and grown-ups alike to think about the potential outcomes of their on- and offline actions.

Keep in mind that this workshop is really just the beginning. While you don't need to constantly monitor and preach to kids about digital citizenship throughout the year, giving simple reminders such as, " "Would you say that to her face?" " may make all the difference to a child who is considering posting something unpleasant online — and even more difference to the child on the receiving end of a potentially negative message.

6. Bridge the gap from school to home with materials and workshops for parents.

Each student leaves our workshops with a take-home digital toolkit that reiterates the content they have learned. The kit includes a letter to parents with conversation starters and information about the parent workshops that will be scheduled for an upcoming evening at the school. The purpose of the toolkit is to keep the conversation going at home and put the child in the position of expert and teacher, which we have found really solidifies the knowledge in their minds.

In the parent workshops, we use short video clips and group discussions to facilitate conversations about cyberbullying, digital reputation, social networking sites and common-sense strategies for cybersafety. The goal is for parents to leave with tools to guide their children to be smart and ethical producers and consumers of technology.

7. After the program ends, reflect on the experience and lessons learned.

Evaluation is key to improving the program and addressing the challenges that both students and parents are experiencing in digital space. Use an online tool such as Survey Monkey or a written evaluation to gather information about the relevance of the topics and strategies you used to convey the information. Then use the results to inform and improve the program for future classes.

8. Observe the changed attitudes and understanding.

The good news is, this approach works. We surveyed fifth grade students after our workshops to find out how the training changed their understanding and attitudes about such digital age realities as whether deleting an online post means it's really gone forever, or whether they are likely to be judged based on what they post, text or forward. We found significant increases in knowledge and in their empathy for others across the board in these areas.

Despite all the talk about bullying in recent years, the truth is that most kids are eager for kindness in their interactions online and face to face. But to truly embed them in communities of kindness, we can't just assume they know what to do. We must teach them what to expect and how to deal with challenges so they're aware and ready when they face them in real life.

Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, L.C.S.W., P.P.S.C., is co-founder of My Digital TAT2. She has been a school social worker, educator, program developer and university lecturer since 1981.

Erica Pelavin, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is co-founder of My Digital TAT2. She is a family psychologist with more than 20 years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families. She specializes in bullying prevention, relational aggression, digital drama, cybersafety and conflict resolution.

If you want to learn more about how to weave digital citizenship into your curriculum, join the ISTE Digital Citizenship Network or sign up for our self-paced Digital Citizenship Academy series of online courses.