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Teaching students how to manage digital distractions

When I was a teenager, I had a dumb phone that I mostly used for emergencies. By the time I got to work with teenagers, they had sophisticated devices through which they could even fact check me during classes. That’s not to say that my education was better than theirs, or that my generation was less distracted. It was just different.

Nowadays, as it was back then, distraction remains the top enemy of classroom learning. When we think of distractions, we think of students using their devices for nonclass purposes, the ones that have to be on TikTok all the time or respond to messages as soon as a notification pops up.

This type of behavior has been connected to FOMO (The fear of missing out), which is actually a form of anxiety. Whenever they feel bored, want to be entertained, or just want to be connected all the time to friends and family, students’ go-to method is to check their phones. Others claim that emotional support and social engagement are the primary drivers of using social media more often.

Interestingly, at least college students seem to be aware that their devices are distracting them in class, as in this study 80% of respondents have said that constantly checking their phones for email, texting and social networking interferes with their learning.

Is banning smartphones in the classroom a viable solution?

Many articles often cite this study as solid proof for banning smartphones. Specifically, they talk about one conclusion of the study which says that student performance as measured by test scores has increased by 6% after implementing a phone ban.

However, what they fail to mention is that the study’s authors have also found after analyzing the data, which is:

  • these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured
  • banning mobile phones improves outcomes for the low-achieving students the most and has no significant impact on high achievers

The latter usually suggests a much bigger underlying reason why some students get distracted much more often than others, as high achieving students don’t get as distracted as low achieving students.

This also highlights the need for more research to determine whether or not total bans are a viable solution. The majority of studies are also done on undergrads (as a more accessible sample for university researchers), so that is a major limitation when it comes to generalizing results to younger students, for example.

Read more: Smartphones in the classroom: friend or foe?

The solution: teaching students how to use technology

So, what are teachers to do in this case? What do you do when your school’s policy isn’t well defined in terms of device use?

Instead of ignoring the importance of technology in our students’ lives, we can use it to teach and to teach them how to manage their behavior around their own devices. Here are a few ideas that can successfully be implemented in any classroom:

  1. Create a balance between challenges and skills

    We have all checked our phones in the middle of a task just to see how much time has passed. That doesn’t happen when we are in a state of deep concentration in which the task itself is the reward. That is, of course, the state of flow, which students can achieve in class and when they’re studying at home.

    Distractions are flow killers, in the sense that they can rob us of that sense of being immersed in learning. However, distractions are also a way for us to escape a certain learning task. This happens most often when there’s an imbalance between challenges and skills.

    Simply put, teachers that successfully engage students create classroom and home activities that don’t overwhelm or underwhelm them. In this way, they won’t feel the need to check out mentally or to distract themselves with technology. Another way of offering the best conditions for flow is to give students more control over their learning, with more creative tasks.

    Read more: 6 Novel ways in which educators can teach creativity in the classroom

  2. Engagement

    Engagement can be an elusive topic, especially for less experienced teachers. That’s because there’s a myriad of factors that influence classroom engagement, such as behavior, beliefs, affective states, cognition, and of course, how each teacher defines as engagement. For example, one instructor might find phones to be a complete distraction, and another one might consider that as long as students use it for learning, it’s fine.

    However, the most common things that teachers have found helpful for keeping distractions at a minimum is to:

    • Minimize lecture time and add more activities
    • Group activities in which engaged students motivate less engaged ones
    • Using “tricks” such as body language and proximity to grab disengaged students’ attention
    • Using humor, if appropriate.

    More experienced teachers have also found that enforcing some rules does work — although in some cases confiscating a mobile phone might also backfire since students will then refuse to cooperate further.

  3. Managing devices

    Students often don’t learn how to manage their time and devices appropriately. We expect them to know this from home, but even adults have a hard time not checking their phone several times per hour. Adopting a skills-based approach means that each time a student uses their phone for non-learning purposes, there’s an opportunity for them to learn how to better manage their device.

    For example, promoting self-regulation techniques such as putting their device in their backpacks, turning off notifications, using apps that help them focus, setting a good example i.e giving your undivided attention to them are just a few things to do in class.

    Plus, teachers that successfully teach good device management are usually open about their device policy early on: what you expect them to do with technology (research for class), and not to do (message each other).

  4. Teaching mindfulness

    What distractions usually do is to keep us away from being in the moment, of being mindful of our surroundings. FOMO and the ensuing automatic behavior of switching our attention for one thing to another are the antitheses of mindfulness.

    Mindfulness is a catalyst for sparking deeper conversations about students’ technology-related habits, but also a way to improve grades, concentration, empathy, and reduce anxiety for long term student wellness.

    Read more: 4 Steps towards digital wellness for students

    If implementing a mindfulness curriculum is not feasible right now, know that any teacher can learn and implement some techniques in their classrooms, such as:

    • 5-minute guided meditation with a focus on breathing
    • Belly breathing exercises
    • Hand tracing breathing exercises
  5. The tech break

  6. Instead of making it all or nothing, try to reach a compromise. Much like the Pomodoro technique, a tech break is simply a break that students can take in between 20-30 minute sessions of focused work. The rationale behind this is that they’re already anxious about checking their devices, and instead of constantly telling them to put their phones down, it’s better to allow for a 5-minute break for non-learning purposes.

    The tech break works best because you’re more likely to get all students on board with this method. Plus, you don’t have to call it a tech break: students can also choose to do something else with their time if they don’t want to use their phones. This approach can be used successfully at home as well.

    Read more: Top 7 remote learning tips your students should know


These methods don’t have an overnight effect — they’ll most likely take some time, but it’s better to address them head-on, both for students’ progress at school and for their relationship with technology in general.

In the future, there is a big possibility that schools will also teach technology management, which includes using technology for learning and professional development. Until then, teachers are left to find the most effective methods to turn a potential distraction into a useful tool.