How to Teach Digital Citizenship

digital citizenship
(Image credit: DepositPhotos/ridofranz)

Thanks to the pandemic, technology is now ubiquitous in school districts. As a result, all teachers must partake in the work of engaging students in a dialogue around responsible digital interactions. Schools are operating in a new normal, in which the importance and benefits of a digital education are clear. School and district leaders have finally taken more seriously the work of bridging the digital divide. They are ensuring their students and staff have the technology and internet connectivity needed for success in modern times. 

Along with this shift comes the responsibility of ensuring every educator understands the importance of digital citizenship to them personally, how to support conversations in the classroom, and how to incorporate digital citizenship at every grade level. While most schools taught students about digital citizenship prior to the pandemic, a designated teacher such as the technology teacher or librarian was usually responsible for this. Today, every teacher is using digital learning tools, and therefore can and should be teaching digital citizenship as students create, collaborate and connect using technology for learning.

Today, students need to have a better understanding of their digital footprint, how to effectively communicate, the tools they can use, how to find information, strategies for when they feel unsafe online, and what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In the 2021-22 school year, educators experienced an increase in behavioral and inappropriate language issues (opens in new tab) that have made the school year more challenging. We don’t want inappropriate digital citizenship to impede sound teaching, learning, and relationship building. In some cases this has happened when students acted inappropriately online, or brought online challenges and language into their classrooms. 

Moving forward, it’s imperative that educators don't use these mistakes as a reason to stop engaging students with technology. Instead, these incidents can be teachable moments. When students’ make poor choices, we can take the time to help them understand their actions and discover how to make more informed and responsible choices. 

We also must ensure teachers understand that they are role models online just as they are in person. As stated in this New York Post article (opens in new tab), teachers are routinely monitored online by their students. “They see us on Twitter, on Instagram,” one school staff member said. This is no surprise. Our students are growing up digital and they look to see how their teachers are behaving in these spaces.

While this may feel uncomfortable, our students deserve an education that prepares them for success in both their online and in-person lives. 

Here’s how to get started: 

Establish Norms 

Establishing norms around how technology is used inside and outside of the classroom is a great way to begin the school year. 

This effort can include considerations such as:

  • How do you ask a question? 
  • How do you give feedback? 
  • When do you speak? 
  • What are protocols to ensure we're not interrupting? 
  • How do we ensure all voices are heard? 
  • When do you use the chat? 
  • When do you use reactions or hand signals? 
  • What do students do when classes are recorded? 

Remember, you can revisit and revise norms as needed. For example, when someone within the community goes against the agreed-upon norms, it can be an opportunity to review and discuss parameters. At that time you can determine whether the behavior or the norm should change. 

Assign Roles

Talk to your class about roles students may take on when learning online. Roles might include some of the following: 

Chat moderator 

  • Moderates chat by bringing questions and feedback to the teacher’s attention. 
  • Answers questions and provides information. 


  • Provides useful links and information about what is being taught and discussed. 

Tech support

  • Helps other students with any tech issues. 

Behavior moderator

  • This person brings any issues to the attention of the teacher. 

It may take some time to determine which students might be best for each role. You could assign roles based on student strengths and rotate assignments (like class jobs in a physical classroom). Or, you might want to have students apply for a role and interview for the job. Selected candidates may be able to have the position and/or be backed up at different times. Roles could be swapped out each week or month as makes sense. 

Determine Best Practices for Technology-Rich Learning 

Here are some of the best practices that successful educators use when using technology in the classroom: 

Build in time before class to set up your activity and time after class to close out

  • Set-up includes: Checking equipment; queuing up presentation materials and any websites/resources 
  • Close out includes: Leaving time for Q & A; sending post-lesson evaluations; and providing one-on-one support for any students who might need it 

Note that there may be students in your class who are able to support this.

Have an opening slide so students know what they’re about to learn 

  • Include any relevant links to materials such as the agenda and other helpful information that students might need during the lesson 

Have an agenda slide to help keep the lesson on track and to ensure students know what to expect 

  • Within the agenda have links to the presentation, resources, etc.
  • Set permissions so that students can view (not edit) the agenda  

Set time up for free talk at the beginning and end 

  • Having time at the end can be a reward for staying on task and can help avoid social distractions during the lesson 

Bring the energy! 

  • Not every lesson will be exciting or engaging, however, it's important to speak clearly and be present. 
  • No one likes hearing from someone that speaks in a monotone or stumbles through long-winded narratives.

Know your audience

  • Anticipate possible questions and ways you might address each one 

Be reflective 

  • Ask for feedback from your students on how the lesson went. Perhaps provide a short evaluation such as rate and comment on the lesson 

Engage Families 

Many schools got creative when connecting with families during the pandemic. They connected with families more than ever to support their students. Developing responsible digital citizens happens best when teachers partner with families to support students. Fortunately, there is help to do so. 

Common Sense Education (opens in new tab) has a free Family Engagement Implementation Guide (opens in new tab) that provides a three-step process for setting up family involvement throughout the year. Highlights include a family engagement toolkit (opens in new tab) for educators and family advocates that provides valuable tips and tools to share with parents and caregivers.

The K-12 digital citizenship curriculum has family tips and activities (opens in new tab), in multiple languages, in each of the curriculum topics including conversation starters for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with their kids around media and tech use. Additionally, Common Sense’s  research-based family resources cover several digital citizenship topics via articles (opens in new tab), videos, handouts, workshops and presentations. 

Parents and caregivers of children ages 3-11 can also sign up for Common Sense’s Tips by Text (opens in new tab), where they can receive tips and advice straight from their phones, at no cost in Spanish and English. 

Common Sense Latino (opens in new tab) is for Spanish-speaking families where they can find resources that are both linguistically and culturally relevant. 

If you're working specifically with younger age children (under 8), Common Sense's Early Childhood Toolkit (opens in new tab) is another great resource for helping families nurture young children's development and executive functioning skills in the digital age, with six scripted workshops in English and Spanish. 

Select a Digital Citizenship Curriculum 

Schools can select Free Digital Citizenship Sites, Lessons and Activities to use in their school. (opens in new tab) Ideally these lessons would be taught by a variety of staff throughout the school year. 

Become Recognized 

Common Sense Education (opens in new tab) enables educators, schools, and districts to become recognized for leading digital teaching and citizenship in today’s classrooms. 

The Common Sense Recognition Program (opens in new tab) provides the latest teaching strategies and ensures those who participate receive well-deserved credit for their work.
A Common Sense Educator (opens in new tab), School (opens in new tab), or District (opens in new tab), will learn to lead responsible and effective tech use in their school communities and build their practice along the way. 

It’s free to participate in this program.

 Grow Your Digital Citizenship Knowledge 

Common Sense Education is perhaps the most well known source for guidance on digital citizenship. 

Here are some resources that can help teachers as they incorporate more technology into their teaching and learning.

  • Digital citizenship self-paced workshop (opens in new tab) - In this one-hour interactive training, you'll learn the six core concepts of digital citizenship and explore how you can integrate Common Sense's curricular lessons into your classroom. Educators who complete this course will earn a certificate of completion.  
  •  Protecting student privacy course (opens in new tab) - Learn why students' online privacy is important and best practices for managing the risk to your students when using technology. In this one-hour interactive training, you'll explore specific tools and methods for assessing the privacy and security of products commonly used in the classroom. Educators who complete this course will earn a certificate of completion. 
  • Digital citizenship playlist (opens in new tab): 12-minute how-to videos on digital dilemmas, digital interactives, quick activities, and a SEL in Digital Life Resource Center.
  • Common Sense webinars (opens in new tab) (approximately 30 - 60 min) on a range of topics.  
  • Do’s and Don'ts of Social Media for the Classroom (opens in new tab) - Learn how to keep student information confidential on social media.  
  • How to Get Kids Ready to Video Chat for Online Classes (opens in new tab) - Short article with helpful tips on how to prepare students for online learning. 
  • Help Kids Navigate Viral Social Media Stunts (opens in new tab) - Learn why kids participate in viral social media challenges and how you can help them make responsible decisions.
  • 9 Digital Etiquette Tips (opens in new tab) - Teaching students how to navigate the digital world in a socially acceptable way starts with modeling good behavior.

As schools move to a new normal that values digital learning, it is more important than ever to establish norms, assign roles, determine best practices, select a curriculum, know resources, involve families, and become recognized for this work. Each of these elements will be crucial to ensure the comfort and success of our teachers, students, and their families. 

Lisa Nielsen (opens in new tab) (@InnovativeEdu (opens in new tab)) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator (opens in new tab). Nielsen is the author of several books (opens in new tab) and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal (opens in new tab), and Tech & Learning.  

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.