George Lucas Educational Foundation
Digital Citizenship

3 Tips for Managing Phone Use in Class

Setting cell phone expectations early is key to accessing the learning potential of these devices and minimizing the distraction factor.
Two students look at their phones in class.
Two students look at their phones in class.
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Ten is now the average age when children receive their first cell phones, and those phones quickly find their way into classrooms. While cell phones have extraordinary potential for leveraging learning, they can quickly become a hindrance in the classroom, diverting attention away from learning. How can teachers harness the learning potential of students’ phones while also keeping them from being a distraction?

I have learned that rather than trying to be reactive, the best defense when it comes to cell phones is a well-planned offense. Teachers who implement a proactive management plan developed in collaboration with the students at the beginning of the school year may have fewer issues as student cell phone ownership increases throughout the year.

The first few weeks of the school year often focus on creating classroom routines, and thus are a perfect time to set up cell phone expectations. Teachers can help their students develop a positive mobile mental health in the first weeks of school by discussing their ideas on cell phone use, setting up a stoplight management system, and establishing a class contract.

Opening the Conversation

Part of teaching digital citizenship is knowing where your students are in their understanding of privacy, safety, etiquette, identity, empathy, and security online. Build a digital citizenship curriculum that includes mobile device use. Talk to your students about their cell phone use (and share your own experiences). You may be surprised at how little they have these conversations with adults.

Before assuming you understand why, how, and when students interact with cell phones, find out from them. Ask your students questions such as:

  • What do you like to do on your cell phone and why? (If they don’t have one, what would they like to do?)
  • What are the most popular apps and websites you use?
  • What do you think are inappropriate ways that cell phones have been used?
  • What is poor cell phone etiquette? Why?
  • How can cell phones help you learn?
  • How can cell phones distract from your learning?
  • How do you feel about your cell phone and the activities you do on your phone?
  • What should teachers know about your cell phone use that you worry we do not understand?
  • Do you know how to use your cell phone to gather information, to collaborate on academic projects, to evaluate websites?
  • How can we work together to create a positive mobile mental health?

Using a Stoplight Management Approach

The stoplight management approach allows teachers some flexibility to use cell phones when the situation warrants, but also to keep cell phones from becoming a diversion from the learning. This is how it works:

Post a red button on the classroom door: Students know when they enter that cell phones should be put in their off location. The devices will not be used that day. The teacher should decide on the off location—the upper right-hand corner of the desk and turned face down, or away in backpacks, or in pocket holders on the teacher’s desk—the cell phone parking lot.

Post a yellow button on the classroom door: Students know their cell phones should be on silent (vibrate) and placed face down in the upper right-hand corner of their desk. They will be using them in class, but not the whole time. Having the phones in plain sight—a bit out of reach and turned over—allows the teacher to easily scan the room to see who doesn’t have their device where it should be. It also makes it difficult for students to quickly peek at their text messages because they’d have to turn the phone over and move it from its correct position—which is more difficult than when cell phones are hidden under desks.

Post a green button on the classroom door: Students know they should have their phones turned on (either silenced or set on vibrate) and placed face up in ready position to use throughout the class.

Establishing a Class Contract

Ask your students to help you develop social norms for what is and is not appropriate cell phone use during green and yellow button times. Should they be allowed to go on their social media networks during class? Why or why not? Talk to them about what to do with their devices in different social scenarios in the classroom. Ask them to brainstorm consequences and write them into a class contract. Send the contract home for parents to read and sign with their children, so everyone is on the same page. After a couple of months, revisit the contract with your students to see if any amendments are needed.

If you take the time in the first week of school to establish a management system and a social contract and to open up dialogue about student cell phone use, expectations are clear. As more cell phones enter the classroom throughout the year, the students immediately know where to place them and when and how they can use them. In addition, the community is focused on a safe, healthy use of cell phones, rather than being distracted by them.

About the Author
  • Liz Kolb Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author @lkolb
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Tammy Corbett's picture

I've seen educators who have a basket where cell phones and other devices are put while class is in session and given back to the students when class has ended. I think it's a great way to keep children on task and not distracted with their devices.

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Autumn Albin's picture

Phones can be wonderful resources for learning, but in the classroom, they appear to be more of a distraction. I often find my students playing games when they should be working. About 30% simply enjoy listening to music as they work - which does not bother me. I believe I need to try the open conversation - although I have discussed with my students before of the effects of giving yourself "tech breaks" every 5 minutes damages their attention span in the future.
I think I will try to either use a basket where phones can be placed in at the middle of the tables. Or a pocket sleeve might do the trick also!

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Liz Kolb's picture
Liz Kolb
Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author

Absolutely Tammy! This is a good example of how a simple basket can help to better manage student devices in the classroom so they can be used when needed, but also lesson the distraction they may bring! Thank you for sharing.

Liz Kolb's picture
Liz Kolb
Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author

Thank you for sharing this Autumn. Teaching students to "self regulate" how and when they use devices is a great skill for them!

Plamen's picture

I applaud the blogger's insistence to introduce smart phones in the teaching / learning process.
Smart phones are computers. Indeed, small screen, difficult to type. Research shows that Millennials and Gen Y are not bothered by those details.
It is perplexing to me to read laments about insufficient computer labs and about lack of finances for smart boards.
The facts are that smart phones in particular, and mobile devices in general, technologically made obsolete computer labs and smart boards. Didactically, however, instructors need to revamp their curricula from computer use to smart devices use.
Unquestionably, this can be an arduous task for already overworked teachers.
However, considering the prognosis regarding IoT in general and VR (Video 360) in particular for the next several years (http://blog.stcloudstate.edu/ims/2017/08/30/nmc-horizon-report-2017-k12/), banning phones from the classroom is sticking our heads in the sand.
Learning to integrate mobile devices in the curricula will prepare us to adapt our curricula faster to the new wave of upcoming devices (virtual/mixed reality).
I will not even mention here the potential of mobile devices in regard of gaming and gamification of the learning process.
More info here:
http://blog.stcloudstate.edu/ims?s=gamification
http://blog.stcloudstate.edu/ims?s=phone+classroom

Chris Fry's picture
Chris Fry
Teaching EFL for 40 years

On the first day a class I always tried to get my students to connect to the wifi, download the main app to use in our class and to actually use it in class.
As a language teacher my main use of phones by my students in class was to record themselves speaking and as I also wanted them to allow me to listen to (some of) their recordings and for them to add (some of) their recordings to a blog where they could also add their writing, I chose https://www.ipadio.com/default.aspx?
There are many other recording apps, and teachers of different subjects may need other types of apps to produce a record of creative work, but I like ipadio because it gives a generous length (60 minutes) for each recording and it is easy to post (all or) selected recordings to an eportfolio on WordPress or Blogger

Mike Finley's picture

I have been substitute teaching at a high school recently that allows the students to bring both laptops and cellphones into the classroom to use, for the most part, as the students see fit. One particular teacher's classroom is set up "in the round" with all of the student desks up against the wall and his desk is front and center. When you look out at the students all you see is metal and chrome backings of their screens and the students taking notes. In some ways, it had a kind of university lecture feel to it. At the same time, though, there would be whispers, chuckles, leaning over to look at a buddy's screen. Other students would be swiping a few things across their phone displays. Nothing was outrageous, but it felt to me like a consistent hindrance to connection with the class.
As a substitute, you are always unsure of how the classroom really operates when the full-time teacher is present. I fully acknowledge that I could have been manipulated as the "gullible sub." But assuming I was not and that was the way these classes normally operate, what kind of policies and safeguards can a teacher put into place that allows the students access to all of their digital tools but prevents abuse and distraction?

Wonder woman's picture

Phones are a huge distraction in school an im a student myself who disagrees with this new policy that phone are allowed...Im know longer able to concentrate on getting my work done because my classes are so focus on their phones

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