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Classroom Management: How Teachers Can Address Cell Phones in Class

James Paterson

The research is pretty clear about the detrimental effect of student cell phone use, but what isn’t so evident is what parents and teachers (using classroom management) can do about it.

Delaney Ruston, a physician who has become a prominent voice calling on parents and educators to take cell phone use by youth more seriously, suggests that a variety of studies should have been convincing by now, but the next step involves action. “I would have them read the research around how simply having a phone carried by a child all day affects their academics and social-emotional well-being,” she says. “Then, think about realistic ways in their school to enforce a consistent cell phone policy.”

She says that when we allow young teens to carry a phone and then ask them not to use them, it is unlikely they are going to be able to comply with our classroom management demands.

“You can go into any classroom or ask any middle schooler, and they will tell you consistently how they and their friends are sneaking being on the phones during class times," says Ruston, who also directed the documentary on the topic, “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.”

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Classroom Management: Beyond the Data

The data on cell phone use has been with us for a while. About a decade ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that young people were spending more than 7.5 hours a day on electronic media, or more than 10 hours if one counted the time they were using more than one device. It warned that heavy users of electronic media were getting lower grades and that “New” activities involving social networking were rapidly taking up young peoples’ time, as was texting, which was relatively new. It only accounted for about 1.5 hours a day for students from 7th to 12th grade at that time.

In a new study, 34% of educators said they were distracted by students using mobile devices during class. About 60% believe that "Multitasking" affected students' ability to learn, and 89% believe their students "Multitask" during instructional time.

The huge increase in cell phones (the age at which children get their first cell phones now is about 10, on average, and use among young people has steadily increased), combined with Ruston’s data showing that 56% of middle schools allow students to carry their cell phones, suggests to her that schools need to be more attentive to the issue.

Experts say the solution, obviously, lies in a firm policy about cell phones in the school and in the classroom – involving two possible steps.

First, schools should provide information. It is not a message that students want to hear, and it is certainly easy to think it will fall upon deaf ears, but repeating messages about the detrimental effects of too much cell phone use will make young people aware of the issue.

The non-profit Common Sense Media has free lesson plans and other resources to get the message to young people. They can also give them strategies such as not using their phone for even half hour periods, or making contracts about its use at certain times. Have them research and present data about cell phone usage. Let them gather the message themselves rather than preach to them, Ruston says.

It is also important to have a firm policy. On the site for her documentary “Screenagers,” Ruston list the policies that some schools have established. Highland Park Middle school in Dallas restricts use of any cell phones during the day, and Murphysboro, Illinois, Middle School allows them to be used in the morning before the start of school. Twelve Corners Middle School in Rochester, New York, requires they be kept in lockers, while other schools ask they just be kept out of view. Some schools leave it up to the teacher, who then might collect them but allow access for certain projects.

The key thing, obviously, is to have a firm policy, enforce it, and have clear consequences. In a survey of parents and schools, Ruston found school policies broken down this way:

  • Phones can be kept with students all day, but are not used in class or during passing periods, breaks or lunch (20.5%).
  • Phones are allowed to be used during breaks, passing periods, and lunch but never in classes (10.8%).
  • Phones with students, allowed to be used at teacher's discretion (21.6%).
  • Phones are allowed during class by most teachers at the students’ discretion. Phones can be used during hall breaks and lunch (2.6%).

She notes that schools report they allow students to carry phones because they might be used in class or because they think parents want them to have access to allow for communications. Her research shows, however, that about 80% don’t want them to have access.

“That should be convincing,” she says.