One reality of the increasingly connected K–12 classroom is even the youngest students are routinely going online, using email and engaging with mobile apps that collect their information.
But how do you teach a child as young as 5 how to safely navigate such technology?
“Kids have a hard time understanding there is someone on the other end of a computer,” says Laurie Salvail, a curriculum development specialist with the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center (NICERC), a division of the Cyber Innovation Center in Louisiana.
The key to teaching young children about correct online behavior, she says, is to adopt age-appropriate lessons and strategies — and not scare them.
K–12 Schools Use Video to Teach Digital Citizenship
The reality, experts say, is young children may play games or use apps that include a chat option. The key is to prepare them.
For example, Salvail says, educators can encourage kindergartners not to disclose personal information by teaching them not to share information online that they would not tell a stranger they meet in the grocery store.
“We would tell [someone online] we love to play soccer, but not that we play on a particular field every Wednesday,” she says.
Kelly Mendoza, senior director of education programs for Common Sense Media, says the nonprofit organization launched a revamped, free curriculum in August aimed at educating young children about digital citizenship using cartoon characters — called Digital Citizens — in songs and videos.
“We know that song and movement is a great way to engage young kids,” Mendoza says, adding that it helps them to retain what they have learned.
The curriculum focuses on media balance and well-being, privacy and security, building an online reputation, bullying and more.
Common Sense Media has 780,000 educators and 70,000 schools registered nationwide.
“We don’t take an anti-tech approach to this,” Mendoza says. “We know kids are using technology. We just want them to be safe and responsible at this age. And it is important to teach these lessons early.”
That approach has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which — through the National Initiative For Cybersecurity Careers and Studies — hosts cybersecurity-related resources for K–8 students and teachers. The Stop.Think.Connect Toolkit, for example, includes helpful resources for K–8 students, including social media tips, online gaming tips, kids’ presentations and more.
Online Resources Offer Guidelines to Reach Younger Students
In addition to Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship curriculum, teachers can look to NICERC for online curricula. The organization has developed a library of cyber curricula resources for K–12.
“As an educator, I recommend introducing topics in the classroom that will encourage students to ask questions. Many students take classroom content at face value and never ask more ‘why's,’” says Latasha McCord, program manager for cybersecurity formal education at DHS. “Doing so will get them ready for the real-world challenges that await as well as begin to consider the opportunities that exist. Students as young as kindergarten age can get started on the road to cybersecurity jobs by exploring fun, interactive programs that will introduce them to concepts and skills they can use in the future, like coding, math, cryptography and logic.”
Douglas Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, says young children should also be taught safe password practices.
“It’s helping them to understand that a password is really meant to be a secret and not one to share with your friends,” he says.
He also suggests teaching children that if they encounter anything online that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell an adult.
“It’s important they feel they can talk to someone and won’t get in trouble for having that conversation,” he says.
Salvail and Brittany Pike, a fellow NICERC curriculum development specialist, say such lessons can become more nuanced as children get older.
“Digital literacy is a new language almost, and they are learning it at younger and younger ages,” Pike says.