The 21st century poses some unprecedented challenges for students. While there are many benefits to the vast, never-ending source of information that is always at their fingertips, when the information isn’t filtered (or when a filter fails), the underbelly of this world can slink into their pocket, usurp their attention, and prey on their psyches. These days, my clinic is inundated with calls about children who have been traumatized after stumbling onto pornography, who are being taken advantage of via sexting, or who are being otherwise exposed to mature content.
What kind of impact does our changing digital world have on you, as a teacher? Arguably, you spend just as much time with your students as their parents do. Because you are one of their greatest influences, it is vital that you ensure that your day-to-day teaching strategies stay up-to-date with our rapidly changing times. This will create the best learning environment possible for your students, helping them become healthy, motivated, global citizens. To help you support your students’ psychological development most effectively, I have developed a seven-point Teacher Compass based on years of empirical research. These seven components work both individually and cohesively together to create a beneficial, safe, and nurturing learning environment for students in our complex digital age.
1. Start Early! As early as you can, talk to your students about Internet safety. Ensure the information you provide is developmentally-appropriate. For younger children, this means talking about what to do if they get solicited online or when an Internet pop-up comes up. For older students, expand on this information and ensure that it is relevant for the online experiences they encounter. By middle school, conversations should happen about the dangers and consequences of posting provocative images or texts online (e.g., sharing them on social media applications like Snapchat or Instagram). Some important points to talk about: the potential of harming their chances of getting a job, a college scholarship or admission to university; online bullying; or even child pornography charges.
2. Show your students unconditional positive regard. This is essential for giving them permission to come to you with a problem or when they make a mistake. Children need to feel like they can talk to their teachers about their mistakes and related conversations, even about the “tough stuff” like sex and violence. When a student brings an issue to your attention, particularly one in which they may have made a poor decision, you need to deal with it in an educational manner that reframes the child’s mistake as a learning opportunity. Children need to know that everyone makes mistakes, that making them sometimes is ok, and that what matters most is learning from them so we prevent them from happening again in the future. If you do not show your students unconditional positive regard, or ridicule or shame them for making a mistake or being vulnerable, you will push those children away and prevent them from seeking help in the future, often for even more serious issues. This is particularly important for students with challenging backgrounds and home lives—if their parents cannot be counted on for support and guidance, you still have the opportunity to supplement that deficiency and help those children.
3. Stay current. You need to understand what sorts of technology your students use on a regular basis, such as social media platforms. Figure out which ones are most relevant, and try to be a digital participant in your students’ lives. Create an Instagram or Pinterest page for your classroom, and seek their input about appropriate decisions. This could be as simple as running an Instagram poll about where to go on a field trip, or what subject to teach first that day. By trying to understand and participate in a digital world that is incredibly important to most of your students, you are sending them the message that you understand their perspective and are willing to speak their language.
4. Set smart boundaries. After a child’s home life, school is the single greatest influence in his/her life. You have an opportunity to help grow your young students into respectful digital citizens by teaching them the limits of their boundaries and the consequences when they are crossed. We have four main boundaries: our inner self, our family, our community, and online categories. The school environment typically falls predominantly within both the community and online spaces. One part of teaching students healthy community boundaries is by leading by example: ask your students for permission before posting photos of their classroom activities on any digital platforms. Online boundaries include teaching children about the effects of too much screen time, including what we know about online and video gaming addictions. It is vital that we educate our students about these issues as early as possible to help them develop healthy habits and prevent any negative side effects. Understand and teach your students age-appropriate, healthy limits around screen time. Remember that “parental controls” when used in a classroom environment aren’t foolproof. There are ways to get around them, and you need to be hypervigilant about these loopholes, talking to your students kindly, compassionately, and in a problem-solving manner when they make a mistake. Helping your students understand the consequences when online boundaries are crossed will help them to develop and protect their own important boundaries as they age.
5. Teach your students to nurture their relationships. Because children are often consumed by their online worlds, it is essential that they learn to focus on nurturing their in-person relationships with same-age peers and important adults in their lives. Create a warm and accepting classroom that encourages socialization and does not tolerate bullying or shaming behaviour. Create as many opportunities as possible for collaborative work and teach your students to rely on each other. Teach them the value of teamwork and human diversity by regularly having them work and succeed with their fellow students. Encourage them to connect with those around them and put just as much effort, if not more, into their physical social presence as they do their online social presence. Cultivating supportive, strong relationships is essential for healthy psychological development throughout life.
6. Tackle stigma. Try to dispel any stigma around issues relating to sexuality, such as embarrassment talking about sex, trans-neutral bathrooms, or pride parades. Normalize sexuality, across all expressions, in your classroom. This gives your students permission to be authentically themselves by affirming to them that whoever they are is accepted in your classroom. By actively talking about sexuality and LGBTQ+ -related issues, you are telling your students that they can bring up and talk about these issues in a safe space. Celebrate pride in your classroom—read books by LGTBQ+ authors or hang rainbow flags! If your students never hear you talk about these issues in class, they will assume that they are not ok to talk about. If this is also happening in their home lives, they will have no one to answer their questions and are likely to turn to the Internet for information. This can frighten them, make them vulnerable to predation, and give them incorrect ideas about sexuality. Decrease the stigma surrounding sexuality by openly discussing related topics, thereby giving your students permission to bring their own topics and questions up to adults.
7. Build resilience. All of these “teacher compass” points are designed to collaboratively foster resilience in our students in the digital age. Resilience on its own, however, is also a key factor in raising healthy children in your classroom. We want the youth of today to develop a “Teflon coating” to help them bounce back from their challenges and grow into healthy, successful citizens of tomorrow. Actively teaching your students conflict resolution strategies and socialization skills helps to foster their developing social concept, and aids them in addressing conflicts effectively throughout their lives.
All seven Teacher Compass points will help you promote healthy psychological development in your students. Talking to students as early as possible about the complexities of our digital world gives them the best shot at growing and adapting effectively within it. Actively engaging with technology in the same ways your students do, and speaking their language, allows you to both connect with them in deeper ways and keep them safe. By teaching them about Internet safety, why we create boundaries and how to protect them, and what to do if they are crossed—intentionally or not—we help our students develop that Teflon coating needed to navigate our world.
Tackling harmful stigmas by freely and openly discussing sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues age-appropriately gives students permission to seek help when they need it. Guiding them in connecting with others and nurturing rich, supportive social lives ensures they have extra support when a challenge is too great to cope with alone. It teaches them that it is ok to ask for help, and that members of their social circle will be there for them if they invest their time and emotions into nurturing their relationships. Showing students unconditional positive regard will enable them to come to you with their problems and continues to nurture their self-esteem and self-concept.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Jillian Roberts, child psychologist, author, professor, and mother, is the co-founder of FamilySparks, an award-winning company that offers families a supportive, resource-rich community to help them navigate our increasingly complicated world. Dr. Roberts has recently launched her new book, Kids, Sex & Screens.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s February 2019 issue.