With talk across the nation of schools hiring "recess coaches" to eliminate bullying and school cafeterias, where kids are on their own with the exception of "monitors," I sometimes wonder if we're not missing the obvious. Few of us would argue that strong classroom relationships with teachers are what impact students the most as they learn and grow, but it's just as crucial to keep children in relationship with their actual teachers on the playground and in the dining room. These are the arenas where social skills are quietly and steadily taught in ways that develop the self-confidence, empathy and awareness which make our children socially strong and will establish their ability to face the maze of the cyber-social world.

Granted, recess and lunch are two parts of the school day where children of all ages should have a chance to relax and socialize in the unstructured way that they so desperately need in today's world where kids' lives are hyper-structured. School recess has become the neighborhood play venue that some suburban children no longer have access to, and school lunch, if a teacher is at the table, can supplement the nightly dinner table experience which eludes many hurried families today. For that very reason, however, both can also be windows of opportunity for teachers to quietly observe that unstructured socialization -- both on the playground and at the lunch table -- and to step in and guide it appropriately when things go astray.

How to be assertive but not aggressive, how to join a conversation or a game but not dominate it, how to stand up for or include someone who's unable to do so for him or herself -- these are all lessons that start in early childhood as children learn to move successfully from parallel to cooperative play. Slowly, through the suggestions and interjections of trusted teachers along the path through the early grades and into adolescence, children learn to have the confidence, empathy and awareness which can allow them to enter the complex world of social networking with a firm internal ethical base that far surpasses the parental monitoring and school guidelines we develop in the struggle to prevent kids from engaging in or being the brunt of danger or cruelty -- in reality or on the Internet.

Today, the stakes of teaching adolescents to navigate social waters are much higher than they have ever been. In an ongoing effort to keep our older students aware of good practices when using texting and social networking venues such as Facebook, classroom and technology teachers need to discuss this topic with students regularly, and there are finally some wonderful curricula out there to guide such talks. They need to remind students of the fact that once it's out there, it's out there forever.

But no longer can protecting students' future reputations and résumés for school or work be the main goal for teaching students appropriate internet etiquette. Neither can a series of lessons or lectures once students hit adolescence solve the problem. The recent landmark felony indictment of nine high school students in the cyber-harassment of a fellow student, which is being linked by authorities to her death, tells us that our older children need to know that cyber-behavior is real and has real consequences. It also tells us that we must begin long before students have access to technology to instill the instincts in them that will lead to good use of it.

Technology is a powerful tool and can be magnificent if used well. We must make sure that our students use the same ethics and judgment in cyberspace that we expect of them and see in them in our homes and classrooms. Recess and lunch are places where kids can, under the watchful guidance of teachers who know and care about them, practice early and often the virtual relationships that will guide their eventual judgment in their unsupervised virtual and cyber-relationships. The subtle role that teachers can play during the unstructured moments of recess and lunch is all the more powerful because it is reinforced by their strong classroom relationships with children. This role is a part of the teaching day that cannot be measured but should never be undervalued.

Sharon Lauer is head of school at The Unquowa School in Fairfield.