Make sure all students have a chance to build these essential skills.

teacher working with student

We know it's critical for students to understand how to use technology appropriately and responsibly. And what's just as important is making sure we're helping all of our students build these essential digital citizenship skills. Just as we differentiate our core content instruction to meet our students' individual learning needs, our approach to digital citizenship should take student diversity into account. So how can you best think about teaching these critical skills to your students with developmental, learning, and attention issues?

Identifying student challenges

Start by considering common characteristics of kids with learning and attention issues, and think about which of these characteristics could present challenges when teaching digital citizenship. You can, of course, anticipate that students with reading issues will have difficulty with the reading. And students with ADHD may act impulsively online and will have difficulty sustaining attention.

Kids may struggle to shift behavior according to different social norms, especially when things cross from the digital world to "real life."

But the biggest challenge may be cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility involves both flexible thinking and task switching. These skills let students think about problems in multiple ways—and abandon old approaches to try something new.

How could issues with cognitive flexibility create challenges for students as you work on digital citizenship? 

  • Perspective-taking: Taking the perspectives of others and recognizing multiple possibilities for other people's motivations might be tough. 
  • Cause and effect: Recognizing causes and effects, and predicting a range of possible consequences, is often difficult. 
  • Behavioral contexts: Kids may struggle to shift behavior according to different social norms, especially when things cross from the digital world to "real life."

Improving cognitive flexibility

Here are some steps you can take to help all students develop the skills they need to be safe, responsible, and kind online:

  • Anticipate challenges and plan for them: Think about individual students and what they might struggle with during a lesson. For example, if a student struggles with perspective-taking, plan to spend extra time on that element or offer examples that will resonate with that student.
  • Be direct about important concepts: It's easy to assume that certain things "go without saying" or don't need explanation, like "being kind online." But offering very concrete examples of what that means—and looks like—can help serve as a direct model.
  • Allow time to check for understanding: Ask students to rephrase key ideas to you or to a peer. Be sure to plan for multiple opportunities for students to practice each skill.
  • Ask questions that allow for multiple possible responses: Say something like "Who can suggest one possibility?" instead of "Who knows the answer?" Before you ask questions, let the class or group know that no one should raise a hand right away. Give students some time to think before asking for responses.

More tips and strategies:

Here are a few ideas you can try to improve cognitive flexibility in your students:

  • Design assignments and activities in which students have to come up with more than a single solution.
  • Ask students to describe what someone does not mean, instead of what that person does mean.
  • Use our News & Media Literacy lessons to get kids thinking about how to approach the information they encounter online and be able to think about it critically.
  • When looking at media, directly explain any innuendo. Talk about the different meanings of words. Ask students to think about connotation, and how changing the meaning of a word could make it funny or insulting.

Resources to teach digital citizenship to all learners:

Bob C.

I am senior advisor and the founding expert on learning and attention issues at Understood. I am also the executive director for both the Robert Louis Stevenson School in New York City and the Purnell School in New Jersey, and I serve as an advisor to the Reimagine Learning Fund for New Profit, Inc.I often consults with schools, organizations, and families on matters related to learning and attention issues, program development, and organizational strategy. I have been a trustee or a professional advisory board member for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the NVLD Project, the Purnell School, and several other education-related nonprofit organizations. Previously, I was head of school for the Gateway School in New York City.Throughout my career, I have been a teacher, evaluator, and administrator in several public school districts. I'm a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Teachers College, Columbia University, where I also served as an instructor in the learning disabilities program and the department of curriculum and teaching.