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How to Deal with Cell Phones in School

Aug 8, 2018

By Nancy Barile, Award-Winning Teacher, M.A.Ed.

There's no bigger classroom distraction than a student using a phone. Teachers struggle with cell phones in school on a daily basis. On one hand, teachers want students to learn how to manage their phones on their own. On the other hand, the distraction phones create can be detrimental to both students and teachers. Power struggles ensue, wasting valuable class time. Because of this, teachers need practical and enforceable strategies for dealing with phones in their classrooms.

The Good

Most schools allow students to have cell phones for safety, which seems unlikely to change as long as school shootings remain a common occurrence. But phones aren't just tools for emergencies; they can also be valuable tools in the classroom. If there's a word or concept a student doesn't understand, the student can find information instantly. Phones have calculators as well as spelling and grammar checks. Most importantly, phones allow students to communicate with one another and with experts in fields of interest. The question remains, however, whether the use of cell phones in school outweighs the distraction they cause.

The Bad

Most teachers will tell you that cell phones adversely affect learning in the classroom, and research backs that up. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe technology and media for children, reported that "50 percent of teens 'feel addicted' to mobile devices." The report also stated that 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly, and 72 percent of teens feel the need to immediately respond to texts, messages on social networks, and other notifications. The paper also found that multitasking—for example, toggling between multiple screens or between screens and people—impairs a child's ability to learn and work effectively.

Students tend to be highly susceptible to the kinds of distractions smartphones provide. My colleague caught a student watching Grey's Anatomy during her class. Other students tweet, text, and listen to music when they should be on task. According to Jeffrey Kuznekoff, who conducted a study on phone use by college students, "You're putting yourself at a disadvantage when you are actively engaged with your mobile device in class and not engaged in what's going on." Saraswathi Bellur, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, found that multitasking in class "is likely to harm academic performance."

The Solution

Some of my fellow teachers and administrators say that students need to learn how to effectively manage their phones in the classroom on their own. Personally, I think my students need a little help with this. This year, I implemented a phone storage system in my classroom. Students were required to place their devices in a pocket with their name on it when they entered the classroom. I made this procedure an official classroom policy, and I explained my rationale to students in a frank discussion.

Parents and students both had to sign off on the policy. Storing phones was a game-changer in my classroom. Students didn't balk at it, and they actually seemed to appreciate the time away from their phones. They realized that they could be without their phones for a whole class period without the world ending.

Researcher Jesper Aagaard suggests that in order to pay more attention in class—or even outside of school—students should try to obstruct their habits by turning phones off or putting them in airplane mode to keep from constantly checking them. If you share this advice with students, it may help them to see the issue and work to change it. When I explained the research on the negative impact of cell phones in schools to my students, they more readily agreed to store them during class.

The use of cell phones in schools is not going to go away, so learning to effectively manage and handle them is a valuable skill for students to learn. I became more in tune with my own cell phone addiction through this process. Now, along with my students, I'm working to enjoy my life without my phone a bit more.

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