Online Safety in Schools: Your Role as a Teacher

In this guest article, online safety lead and acting headteacher Heather Cardwell seeks to guide other teachers through their role as a provider of online safety information in the classroom.  

As a class teacher, I’m sure that you have noticed the increasingly apparent shift in the problems we face when dealing with issues with computing: there are more and more incidents that have stemmed from children’s online activities.  

We are hearing more about children seeing inappropriate content or being left out of group chats. Even if you manage to decipher the vocabulary to actually understand the problem – words like streaks, handles or loot boxes - a lot of it seems out of our control. So much of it tends to happen out of the classroom, and so it is tempting to label these as ‘home matters’. 

But as we know, home matters can have a significant impact on children’s learning. As this generation grow up as digital natives, surrounded by technology, we need to give them the tools to keep themselves safe. The good news is that when you start to unpick what your role is keeping your children safe online, you’ll realise that most of it is what you already do anyway without even realising it. 

Keep your ears and eyes open 

This is what teachers do naturally – you know your students best and are often the first to notice when something isn’t quite right. 

You will notice when a child is sleepy (perhaps from sneaking their device into their bedroom at night), or when a child starts acting or saying things differently to their normal seld (perhaps copying something from an age inappropriate video that they have seen online).  

It might not even be something that you can put your finger on, but you know that something isn’t quite right. Be vigilant for change and know how to spot the signs. To help you do this, each National Online Safety guide has a dedicated section for warning signs to look out for. You can search for specific concerns and download these guides here.

If you’re stuck, ask for help 

The chances are, that when one of your children starts chatting happily about how much they are enjoying the new game they have downloaded without their parent’s permission, you might not recognise the name of the game or the app.  

Please don’t ever feel like this feeling is unique to you: online trends go in and out of fashion so quick that it’s impossible to keep up with it all.  

The likelihood is that when you start to ask around other members of staff, they will also have a mildly confused look on their face too. And then when you approach your Online Safety Lead, they will say ‘Leave that with me,’ before checking one of their trusted websites hoping that there is some advice out there. If you are ever unsure, ask.  

Listen to your Online Safety Lead 

One of the Online Safety Lead’s roles is to make sure that staff know what to listen out for in class.  

What is the app that the children in our school are using at the moment? Why do they like it? What are the dangers?  

They will find plenty of ways to try and make staff take notice, particularly during staff meetings. Listen carefully when they say ‘Can I just show you this clip?’ or have a read of the plethora of platform guides that are left on the table in the staff room.  

There is no expectation that everyone is up-to-date with online trends all the time – that would be impossible! So please listen when your Online Safety Lead has cherry-picked as the most important bits for you to listen to. 

Know the objectives before you teach 

When it comes to teaching online safety, make sure that you use quality, up-to-date lessons. Some teachers may feel happy creating their own lessons; however, the majority of us can find this a daunting task. There are a few tips that can help you here: 

  • Adequate preparation can take a lot of the stress out of lessons and boost your confidence. Teaching online safety is unique in that teachers often feel as though the children know more about the subject than they do. This can be true in some aspects, but ultimately, the teacher knows the importance of keeping themselves safe: if you can, you should try to fill in any gaps in your knowledge by approaching your online safety lead or accessing resources from a trusted provider. 

These lessons should be engaging for both the teacher and the learner, with the children often teaching the teacher things that they didn’t know. Those lessons where you both come away having learnt from each other can be some of the most rewarding and memorable. 

Encourage an open dialogue in your classroom 

Picture the scene: it’s 10.15 on a rainy Tuesday morning, and your class aren’t really listening to you trying to teach long division. 

Henry is tired from being on his Xbox all night; Shauna and Lacey are glaring at each other because of the Snapchat spat last night; all of your back row are trying to subtly perfect a TikTok dance and Aliyah is bragging about breaking the 500 followers mark on her Instagram channelIn circumstances like these, it is very tempting to do the blanket ban.  

Everyone has been there – the moment where you say the inevitable ‘I never want to hear about Fortnite in this class ever again. You shouldn’t even be on it – you’re all underage. So all stop playing it and I’ll hear no more about it.’ Then later, as you sit and reflect on the day, you realise that there is no way they are just going to stop playing on it. 

The only difference now is that they aren’t going to come and tell you about it if something goes wrong in the future. You have effectively struck yourself off the trusted adult list in that child’s mind, where online issues are concerned.  

However hard it might seem, you need to keep an open dialogue active in your classroom. This doesn’t mean to tell your children that it is okay to use apps and games that have age restrictions that are beyond their age, but rather acknowledge that yes, they are using them, and encourage them to come and talk to you if anything makes them nervous, worried or upset online. They need to know that they are not going to get in trouble if they come to you for advice. 

The best way to start this dialogue is by thinking of some talking points – use whatever resources you have at your disposal and incorporate these discussions into your classroom activities.  

Consider online safety in your classroom 

Try to make sure that your displays help children to be good digital citizens. You may have an online charter that everyone has signed to remind your children about how we should act online, or you might have online dos and don’ts. 

Children seem to be a little more reluctant to talk to adults about online matters, because the chances are that they may get in trouble for going on something that they shouldn’t have in the first place. For example, if a child’s parents have banned them from going on YouTube, then they go on it and see something scary, they could be quite unlikely to tell someone about it. 

Having a visual of the CEOP button and the Childline number are good reminders that there is always someone out there to report or talk to, even if they feel like they can’t tell their trusted adult. 

Report online incidents 

As you would do with any incident, it is important that you record online issues using whatever system your school uses for logging incidents.  

There are many reasons for this: 

  • It keeps your online safety lead in the loop with regards to what is prevalent in your school and allows them to tailor their communication with parents and carers. Just because there is a national trend in the online world, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the one doing the rounds in your school - sending out parent guides about TikTok would be worthless if the game all of your children are playing on is Roblox. 
  • It also allows them to build a profile of certain child’s online behaviour and this makes it easier when communicating with parents. For example, at the start of the year, you might not realise that Adil has had quite the history making his online debut with Grand Theft Auto in Year 2. 
  • And as always, with safeguarding, we know how all of the small pieces of a jigsaw can come together to make a larger picture. It might be that piece of information that someone is waiting for. If you’re unsure, always log it, just in case. 

Safeguarding the children – when to approach the DSL

As teachers, our main priority is to keep children safe. With online safety, it is slightly trickier because you may not know that the game or app they are using is causing them harm or not.  

What games or apps are age appropriate? Which games or apps should cause alarm when I hear my children talking to them?

It doesn’t help that once you have got used to the name of one platform, the children are no longer interested and have moved onto the next, making you sound like a fossil the next time you mention it in a couple of weeks’ time. 

Luckily, there is plenty of advice out there - but you must remember that if something a child does or says that makes you feel even a little bit uneasy, you need to follow your safeguarding procedures that you have in place. Your Designated Safeguarding Lead will know the next steps to take to keep our children safe. 

Drip-feed all the time 

This can be misconstrued by children and be referred to as ‘nagging’. Once, when conducting a child questionnaire about online safety, I asked the question, ‘How does your teacher help you keep safe online? The best response I received was, ‘He never stops going on about it!’  

In my eyes, that was a job well done by that teacher! What I think the child meant was, it is constantly drip-fed into lessons: teachers should use opportunities to highlight good digital citizenship.

Here are some good examples: 

  • If the children watch you log onto a website and a message pops up and asks if you want to remember this password for next time, talk about it with the children. What if I clicked yes and tomorrow someone else got onto my account – what problems could this cause?
  • Alternatively, If you are about to complete a research lesson on mobile devices, recap what steps the children must take if they see something comes on their screen that they feel uncomfortable with.

So yes, it feels a bit like nagging but the more the children hear about it, the more they are likely to remember your messages in future. 

Overall, we work in the most wonderful place where things are constantly changing all the time. We take comfort in this environment from the knowledge that some things stay the same – how to use a semi colon isn’t likely to change any time soon.  

So it is understandable that, when we come across a subject that often changes in its content, it makes us feel a bit unsure of ourselves. You must remember that you already do most of what is mentioned above already without even realising it.

Keeping your learning environment up to date, delivering engaging lessons, safeguarding children; promoting a positive ethos in your classroom – you already do this day in day out. There may be a couple of tweaks you might make, but you are already doing a fantastic job of keeping our children safe online. 

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