How to Keep Students Off Smartphones During School

5 min to read
A middle school student is using her smartphone to browse the internet

Smartphones are at the top of the list of technology used by students today. But should students be able to use their phones in school? The line between where the classroom begins and phone time ends may be difficult to decipher when students attend school virtually. Here’s some guidance on creating boundaries for cell phones in class.

How Phones Are Distracting Students from Learning

Smartphones often lead to multitasking, and research finds that multitasking can reduce a student’s attention, understanding, retention of material, and overall performance. Multitasking also leads to a person making mistakes and to being distracted because the person continually redirects and refocuses their attention to different tasks.

Research shows that people interact with their phones on average about 85 times daily, and that even the presence of a smartphone nearby reduces people’s ability to focus and think. Hearing a sound from a smartphone can create a reaction similar to a person hearing their name. So a smartphone grabs our attention even when we’re not looking at it

Establishing Digital Boundaries for Students in Online School

Digital boundaries are healthy for students to learn so they can increase their efficiency and effectiveness when studying. Boundaries are also necessary for students to learn to become healthy and happy adults who can balance their phone time with other responsibilities.  

Here are some ways to help students create digital boundaries.

Create Transition Time

Some research suggests that phone separation can cause anxiety, but other research finds that if the owner expects to be separated from their phone, then that anxiety is decreased or eliminated.

Creating a transition time between using a cell phone and focusing on schoolwork alerts students that the separation is coming, so there are no surprises. It also gives them a moment to redirect their focus.

Some transitions include meditating, clearing off one’s desk, listening to a song, stretching, or thinking about the next task.

Include a Boundary in Assignments

Including messages in assignments’ instructions helps students recognize that phone time is over. Consider adding a small note to your student’s space such as “Please turn off your phone’s notifications and put your phone away” to help a student switch off from the phone and switch onto schoolwork, especially for students learning from home.

Place Phone Chargers Away from the Student

Placing the phone charger where the student cannot reach or see it can reframe putting away the phone from a punishment to a benefit—the student is receiving a benefit (recharging the battery) rather than only being denied phone access. This also can take advantage of the adage “out of sight, out of mind.”

Explain Why Digital Boundaries Are Good

A student is less resistant to changing a behavior if they understand why that behavior needs to change. This is because the student sees there is reason and purpose behind the action. Also, the action will feel more like it’s in the student’s control rather than merely being an arbitrary rule.

A student looking at a tablet.

Allow Times for Phone and Tablet Usage

Banning smartphones completely isn’t a realistic solution. Cell phones should be allowed in school in moderation because they can function as educational resources and also can be a much-needed brain break to keep them from getting burned out.  

Students should be able to use their phones in school to learn digital literacy and how to manage their phone usage.

By devoting a block of time for students to look at their phones mindfully throughout the day, it gives them an opportunity to practice the real-world skill of self-control while not letting their phones stop them from learning.

Include Active Learning Techniques Throughout the Day

The more bored a student feels in class, the more likely they will be to reach for their smartphone. But when a student actively engages in their learning process, their mind becomes more occupied than if they are only sitting and listening.

As your student’s Learning Coach, supplement their instruction with some active learning techniques, such as participating in hands-on activities, discussing concepts, writing, working in a group, creating models, and conducting a demonstration or experiment.

The issue is not whether students should be able to use their phones in school. Rather, the key is to show students when and how to use cell phones at appropriate times so they don’t fall into a multitasking trap that leads to distracted, inefficient, and ineffective learning.

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