George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

4 Ways to Reduce Smartphone Distractions

If students are allowed to have their phones at your school, you can set parameters to help them focus on their work.

January 4, 2023
FatCamera / iStock

Who doesn’t get distracted by an Instagram feed, Twitter posts, and TikToks? Those applications are designed to keep people engaged with them. As the generation of students we teach have become more technology oriented, I think they’ve also become more distracted by it. 

Now, we don’t throw our hands up and say, “We can’t win!” with this battle of teenagers occupied with Snapchat while they’re supposed to be learning content. Instead, we can rethink our instruction and how our classroom community functions. Let’s learn who our students are in order to support their learning.

Getting to know our students at the beginning of the year isn’t a one-and-done thing. Consider the following four suggestions to boost student engagement levels in our classrooms when they all have phones.

1. Work With Students to Create Phone Boundaries

I have a doorbell in my classroom—I use it for transitions at the beginning of class, and students know it means to put phones away and take AirPods out of their ears. Usually students are given a minute or two to look at their phones as they’re completing their “settle in” assignments. I tell them to check their “grams and snaps” before I ring the bell. Then we do a community breathe—we inhale and exhale as we mindfully dive into our learning targets for the day.

There are times when I allow phones in class, such as when students are doing independent work and even for research. But having a clear boundary for when phones can and can’t be out is important. Also, our teacher-and-student-created classroom social contract discusses phones and how we need to be engaged in learning and not be distracted by “scrolling and trolling,” as I call it. I even write “Please make sure your phone is put away” in the directions of assignments.

Yes, there are times when students will still test the boundaries. When that happens, follow-through is important. I find working with restorative conversations to be helpful. It helps for students to understand the “why” behind the change in behavior, rather than being punitive with them. In some of those conversations, I emphasize classroom engagement. There are also times when I explain the impact of phones and social media on mental health by breaking down the brain science of it for them.

If the boundaries are constantly being crossed, then parent contact and school consequences come into play. However, when students have a clear understanding of when they’re allowed to use phones, I don’t have as many issues with them in class.

2. Provide Chargers in Your Classroom

My husband shook his head when the Amazon overlords delivered multiple chargers to our doorstep—iPhone superchargers and the cool universal flat chargers you find on tables at Starbucks.

I put them in areas of the classroom that aren’t near student desks. Prior to making them available, I would tell students, “Put your phone away.” It was becoming a punitive statement, and I sounded like a broken record.

Now, instead of that, I ask, “Do you want to charge your phone?” and students get excited about being able to charge their phone in the room. This gives students more ownership of the solution, and it works out better than having storage pocket charts in the classroom and demanding that students put their phones inside of them.

3. Incorporate Phones Into Instruction

Phones can be incorporated into instruction in different ways. We can use Google Forms embedded into QR codes to have students complete surveys, checks for understanding, or even social and emotional check-ins. I make sure to always have a paper version of these for students whose cameras or data aren’t working.

Students can use their phones to complete research on topics they’re designing slide decks and infographics about or for writing assignments.

There are so many applications that students can utilize to keep them engaged on their phones—Kahoot, Khan Academy, and Duolingo, to name a few. Canva is an app that I use frequently, and students can actually create from their phones. These applications also work on school devices if they can’t be accessed on the phone—so all are included.

4. Ensure That Your Core Instruction Is Engaging

Let’s be real, we all take out our phones and start scrolling when we’re bored. (Don’t say you have never pulled out your phone during a PD or staff meeting and scrolled.) We’re no different than our students.

Having classrooms where students are active in the instruction is key. Yes, direct instruction has a place in the classroom—but not during the whole period. In my class, I utilize strategies that involve students in discussion, give them roles in cooperative learning, and have them moving around.

I use structures such as gallery walks, inside-outside circles, world cafe, and back-to-back front-to-front kinesthetic learning to engage students. When I see that students aren’t moving around or participating in these structures in class, I move the activities to the hallway and have students participate in cooperative learning there until we all feel we will be actively engaged in the classroom. It only takes one or two times in the hall to get them to understand the importance of engagement in the classroom.

One day, in a conversation with my own teenage children at home, I told them they could put their phones away in class, that the world doesn’t change in 50 minutes. Their response was, “We grew up during Covid—it does.”

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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