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Here's How We Changed Social Media Conflict to Empathy

A simple conversation with students can help them understand why they should be kind online.

October 28, 2016
Art Spencer
Media specialist/librarian
Arthur Jacobsen Elementary School
Auburn, WA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

A lot of energy has gone into preventing students from misbehaving online, but let's be honest: These are kids. They're going to make mistakes. How can we help them when they do?

First of all, it's important to explain our expectations up front. Before putting students in an online social situation, such as Google Classroom or any other learning management system, we need to teach them our expectations for their behavior in that community. We teach them the laws of our real-life communities and the rules of behavior at school -- we also need to teach them the norms for online interactions. I’d much rather my students heard from me -- not an online troll -- that posting in all-caps is the same as yelling.

But once they're online and do something they shouldn't, what then? Do we punish them or help guide them to be better online citizens? In my school, we try to guide them. Working with our school counselor, we developed a method for handling these situations that helps encourage empathy in the students who misbehave mildly online (fighting, name-calling, swearing, and put-downs, not threats or cyberbullying).

When a student has a problem in an LMS or another online interaction with students or staff, we call that student in for a conference. First, we ask the student what happened, drawing out what they did. This enables the student to feel heard. So many times, we shut kids down when they're explaining a situation because we only want to focus on their behavior and no one else's. But even adults, when we're not allowed to be heard or give our side of the story, become defensive and shut down, feeling as though no one understands. We need to extend to students the same courtesy we expect.

Next, again through leading questions, we try to get the student to see how the other person or people in the situation felt. We ask them to put themselves in the place of the other person. "I don’t know" is never an acceptable answer during this part. Students can imagine what other people feel and need to be able to do it to be better members of society as well as better digital citizens.

Next, we discuss what, if anything, the student can do to fix the problem and make amends and what they will do differently next time. This helps remind students that they are being monitored, but it also lets them know they have another chance to succeed.

The final step: The particulars of the situation, and what the student said, is recorded on a single sheet of paper. Both the adult and the student sign this "story" to show their agreement, as if it's a contract.

We've found this method to be a powerful strategy that helps students be better online citizens. Viewing problems that arise online as teaching opportunities rather than discipline situations can make your students feel empowered and as if they're part of the struggle for positive digital citizenship in your school.

Unfortunately, there are a few students for whom this method doesn't work, and we have to put those students on a behavior contract. But for the majority of students, this method works very well, getting us closer to our goal: lasting, not just temporary, change for the better.