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

teacher working with student

It's hard to overemphasize the importance of teaching our students how to use technology appropriately and responsibly. And what's just as important is making sure we're helping all our students build these essential digital citizenship skills. The students in our classrooms are unique, each with their own individual learning needs. Just as we differentiate our core content instruction to meet these 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 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? Taking the perspectives of others and recognizing multiple possibilities for other people's motivations might be tough. So will recognizing causes and effects and predicting a range of possible consequences. Kids may struggle to shift behavior according to different social norms, especially when things cross from the digital world to "real life."

When students face those challenges—all at the breakneck speed of a digital environment—they might feel confused, overwhelmed, or even unsafe. The good news is that students' cognitive flexibility can improve. And you can help.

Improving cognitive flexibility

Start by anticipating these difficulties and planning for them. Then you can address a student’s challenge before it becomes a big issue during the lesson. When teaching, be direct about important concepts. Allow time in your plans to pause frequently and 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.
  • Model describing an event from a different point of view from what is presented by a news story. Have students practice doing this. Ask students to look at different sides of the same story by comparing multiple social media accounts.
  • When looking at media, directly explain any innuendo. Talk about the different meanings of words. Ask students to think about how changing the meaning of a word makes it funny or insulting.
  • Teach students to use self-talk. Have them practice by talking themselves through two ways of looking at an important issue. Once they're comfortable with the strategy, they can use it independently when multiple perspectives are presented. This can lessen the frustration of having someone disagree with their opinions.
  • Make small changes to the rules and best practices you teach. Encourage students to bend rules without breaking them. Students with flexible-thinking issues tend to love rules. They may often remind other kids about the rules. Rules can certainly come in handy at times! But fixating on specific rules can make it hard for kids to get along with others.
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.