Classroom Management

4 Mistakes Educators Make Trying to Manage Cellphones in Schools

6 Min Read
Cellphones In Schools

This post originally appeared on Weston Kieschnick's blog.

Seriously, if I walk into another classroom and see a kid with earbuds in, in plain view of a teacher, while instruction is happening, I’m going to lose it. At best, the message it sends is, “I’m half paying attention.” At worst, it says to the teacher, “I care so little about what’s happening, I’m going to give you the tech equivalent of a prolonged and very visible middle finger.” The worst part of this phenomenon is not the behavior itself; it’s that we continue to allow it. It’s time for the teachers and education leaders in school buildings to take a good long look at how we manage cellphones in classrooms.

Before we go any further, understand that I am not anti-cellphone or anti-BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). On the contrary, I think these are wonderful tools that, when managed well, open up endless opportunities for teaching and learning—after all, according to HMH’s 2019 Educator Confidence Report, 97 percent of teachers say they use educational technology resources at least once a week.

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But for us to be able to use cellphones and other mobile devices for instruction, we have to be honest about what we are doing to manage these devices in class. There are behaviors, like the one I mentioned above, that need to be addressed. I’ve found a sizable gap between what we hope our classroom behaviors around cellphones accomplish, and what they actually accomplish.

Here are four mistakes you, as an educator, might be making and suggestions for what you can do differently to achieve a better result starting tomorrow.

Mistake 1

What we do: Tell kids to keep cellphones out of sight.

What we hope it does: We hope out of sight means out of mind. Conventional wisdom says that if kids don’t have their phones out, they’ll be less likely to experience the urge to use them.

What it actually does: The opposite. Lack of proximity to a device does not correlate with lack of desire to use it. Don’t believe me? Go sit in a church or other house or worship. Pick a denomination. Most religions are equal opportunity offenders. Divert your eyes from the pulpit and to the congregation. You’ll see adults and kids alike all too frequently pull their phones out to check the source of a vibration in their pockets or purses. Think about that. For some, digital ranks higher than divinity. That means your lesson could walk on water . . . and still lose a face-off with a cellphone.

Instead: Designate a cellphone spot at the top corner of desks or tables. I’ve seen many teachers tape it off with blue painter’s tape. Develop a classroom culture, inclusive of procedures and consequences, whereby all cellphones are turned off (yes, actually off) at the start of class and placed in their designated location until the teacher decides he or she wants them included as part of the lesson. It is far easier to manage the visible than the invisible. Furthermore, you still have the option to use them as needed, without developing yet another classroom procedure for their retrieval.

Download this free poster and hang it in your classroom or office to provide students with guidelines for using cellphones in schools.

Mistake 2

What we do: Take cellphones away from kids when they are being used in a way or at a time that doesn’t serve our purpose.

What we hope it does: We imagine this will be a sufficient deterrent or consequence to prevent future undesirable use.

What it actually does: Nothing close to that. If this consequence actually prevented kids from using their phones at inopportune times, schools wouldn’t need policies, procedures, bans, or restrictions around cellphone use. Furthermore, if this actually worked, you’d only have to take one cellphone from one student at the beginning of every school year. Poof! Problem solved. We know that’s not reality. The fact is, no matter how many phones you confiscate, you’ll continue to fight this battle and lose.

Instead: Interpret this behavior for what it is: feedback! If kids are wandering off task and onto their phones, you can infer two things:

  • They’re disengaged. We need to check in with our pacing, our activities, and our delivery.
  • Something about your lesson needs a jolt of engagement.

Kids don’t have a strong foundation of understanding relative to your expectations of technology use. Are your rules unclear? Are your consequences too weak? Is your follow-through inconsistent? Chances are, one of these things is true.

Mistake 3

What we do: Prohibit cellphones for personal use at any time in class.

What we hope it does: Teach kids that devices in your class are to be used for productivity only.

What it actually does: Drives kids crazy and increases the likelihood that they will lie to us. Furthermore, we create more work for ourselves. Congrats, you’ve created yet another rule, that kids are increasingly likely to break, and that we have to monitor. Woof.

Instead: Set kids up for success. Schedule two or three 90-second “tech brain breaks” when students are allowed to check their phones. Tell them in advance they’ll have these opportunities built into the lessons. Go ahead, kids! Take and send as many filtered selfies as you like. I’m sure your followers are just dying to see which face you’ll send them next. Get it all out of your system . . . and then let’s get back to work.

Think about it, a child’s attention span typically equates to the number of minutes equal to their age. For a 15-year-old, you have about 15 minutes before they are likely to check out anyway. Use these tech brain breaks as purposeful transitions in and out of your instruction.

Weston Quote

Mistake 4

What we do: Ban cellphones from schools.

What we hope it does: By eliminating the source of the problem, we believe it will eliminate the problem itself.

What it actually does: Encourages kids to lie to us and break the rules. Furthermore, it moves us further away from desirable and responsible tech behaviors. If we are unhappy with the way kids engage with technology, it’s due in large part to their lack of understanding about social norms relative to tech use.

Instead: Establish classroom rituals and routines designed to make sure pedagogy and technology coalesce, not compete. Many schools are scratching and clawing to obtain devices so their students can learn in 1:1 environments. Recognize and take advantage of the fact that with some upgrades to your Wi-Fi infrastructure and a few great BYOD strategies, you can close the gap between where you are and where you want to be quickly and inexpensively.

Employ a few of the strategies mentioned above. Take advantage of the fact that many of our students come to us with a device in their pockets that allows them to access almost all of the knowledge of the human experience. Now use it to your advantage. Teach kids what appropriate cellphone use looks like, sounds like, and feels like. In doing so, your school will become a place where digitally enhanced instruction is the norm, and your cellphone nemesis transforms into one of your greatest assets.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


You can book a keynote with Weston Kieschnick, ICLE Senior Fellow and Shaped contributor, to bring his expertise about blended learning and coaching to your school or district.

This blog post was updated in February 2020.

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