A Surprisingly Simple Way to Deal with Cell Phones in Class

Cell phones are one of the top obstacles that teachers face these days. 

And it’s no surprise – adults are just as guilty in terms of being addicted to their technology, and smart phones haven’t always been a part of our lives!

But we’ve got to do something, right? We can’t just let students be on their phones all class…right?


Here’s my quick strategy that WORKS.

Part 1: The System

1. At the beginning of class, tell students that if they think they might be tempted to be on their cell phones during class, they should leave it at the front with you. Have a designated tray or space on your desk for kids to leave it. Make sure they understand that the time to make this choice is right now, and if they’re on their phone from this point on, they’ll lose it for the day.

(Note: Taking it for a day is the consequence that I use. You can choose to keep it for the class period, write home, inform admin – whatever you think is the best consequence for your situation. The consequence is way less important than reminding them that they are making a choice)

2. If you find them using their phone after having turned down the opportunity to set it aside for the class, then you take it for the day. It’s on them to pick it up before they leave, and at that point you can have a conversation with them if you think it’s necessary.

I very rarely get pushback with this simple strategy. The choice is the key here.

If they lose their phone, they knew they were making a risky choice after being given the chance to be responsible.

I don’t even typically have to say anything – I just put out my hand and they hand it over.

Of course, as with any system, you have to be consistent. Say this every day for the first several weeks. Eventually, some students will start to drop it off at the front without even being asked.

BONUS OPTION! This works even better if you have a charging station available for students. They can leave the class having accomplished a lot AND with a fully charged phone!

Part 2: Potential pitfalls:

  1. “Can I listen to music while I do independent work?”

No! This is a slippery slope. It’s too big of a temptation for them to have it right in front of them and not be able to look at it. You can always offer to play classical music or some coffee shop vibes while they work.

2. “I’m sorry I had my phone out, I’ll just put it in my backpack!!!”

Sorry, that’s not the consequence. This was a choice that you made and you knew it was a risk.

3. Administration won’t let us take phones/has another policy

With any system you want to implement, it’s important to first check if there is a school-wide system that is already in place.

If that’s the case – great! Maybe you are supposed to send a kid to the office, or parents are automatically contacted, or you have to track offences in a system. 

Regardless, you can always begin by reminding students that they are making a choice about pulling out their phones. It’s not perfect, but if you can’t keep them yourself, suggest that they put them in their backpack or locker if they might be tempted that day. 

4. They’re on their computers using the same messaging apps and more.

This is hard. First of all, if they don’t need their computers for a specific part of class, make sure they’re closed and put away!

I know that there are some technologies that allow teachers to monitor their students’ screens, so that might be an option for your particular situation. You can also sit behind a full class that is forward-facing, so that they know you can see their screens. The screen-monitoring is not an option for my school and I want to be moving around to check in, so I always set out clear expectations before an independent work portion begins and check in regularly with students about what they have accomplished since I last popped by. I’ll carry a clipboard and write a quick note (to make it seem very official!) about their progress. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely effective. They might still get distracted, but they also accomplish work and I am super tuned in to how they’re doing.

Part 3: Find ways for students to use their phones appropriately

Students are going to have access to technology for the rest of their lives. Find some ways to embrace phone use to enhance your class!

For example, I’ll allow students to use phones for a game of Kahoot!, to take photos of final products of experiments, to shoot video for projects, to record themselves for a podcast assignment, and to use apps like iNaturalist to classify organisms and participate in citizen science.

What are some positive ways that you could incorporate phone use?

That’s it! If you’re interested in more tips for classroom management, check out my course, What You Wish You Learned in Teachers College: Classroom Management and I’ll walk you through:

  • creating and implementing your procedures for the year,
  • how to build relationships with all students, and
  • how to feel confident reacting in the moment and redirecting behavior when necessary.

Scientifically yours,


classroom management for new science teachers

Interested in other ways to maximize student attention and learning? Check out:

7 Super Helpful Tips for New Science Teachers

Classroom Management Series #3: Tips for Reacting in the Moment

Classroom Management Series #2: Tips for Building Relationships

Classroom Management Series #1: Tips for Creating Systems 

The #1 Things Teachers Wish They Learned in Teachers College

How to Guarantee that Your Students Will Remember What They Learn

The Proven Blueprint to Using Movies in the Science Classroom

Using YouTube for a Low-Prep Bellringer

My Favorite Way to Start the Science School Year

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