Almost all educators agree that cell phones are one of the biggest detriments to student learning today. Yet, they are ever present in classrooms. Where have things broken down?

Teachers give up on controlling cell phones in the classroom for a number of reasons:

~Almost every student has one

~Many students are attached to using them all day; some addicted to them

~Teachers feel they can’t control them because they can’t take them away–the responsibility for something so expensive and tied to needs at home is too great to take on

~Administrators often do not support teachers in disciplining students effectively regarding cell phone use

~Following through with a cell phone policy imposes a heavy burden on teachers– hours and hours of phone calls, conferences–or whatever other methods teachers use to deter their use

~Following through with consequences often means so much interruption of the lesson that teachers decide they’d rather just teach and ignore the phones

~It’s the teacher’s responsibility to teach and the student’s responsibility to learn. Students must make their choice and accept the consequences of that choice.


I am sure there are more reasons, but that covers a lot of them. We can argue about each one, but since we know in our hearts that eliminating phones would increase learning for most of our students, the main issue is how to do it, not whether to do it.

My answer is simple– Just Say No. The key, however, is to say No in a way that says Yes to what we all really want: the best education for our students.

How do we do that?

I recommend and will rely here on many points from a book I often recommend to all my beginning teachers: The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. In this book, Ury states,


            *Whether and how we say No determines the very quality of our lives. It is perhaps the most important word for us to say gracefully and effectively.

            *Saying No means, first of all, saying YES to yourself and protecting what is important to you.

            *Only by saying NO to competing demands for your time and energy can you create space for the yesses in your life.

            *You cannot truly say yes until you can truly say No.

            *…the art of the positive NO… can bring you perhaps the greatest gift of all: the freedom to be who you truly are and to do what you are truly here to do.

            *Every living organism needs boundaries to protect itself.


Powerful statements. They support what I have noticed in the classroom: The teachers who manage student behavior best have discovered that core belief in themselves they are protecting by saying No to students with respect to certain behaviors in their classrooms. They find the fortitude to follow through and present an authoritative No in their rooms because their Yes to their students’ education is so important to them. They articulate this value to their students in their attitude, their tone of voice, and in explicit statements about why they teach and why their subject is something that students want to learn.



The first thing to do if you are struggling with this issue in your classroom is to ask yourself what your Yes is. Put it in succinct and powerful words so you can communicate the ideas to your students without misinterpretation. Here are some ideas:








Find the phrase that gives you the strength of your convictions about teaching and learning. Post it outside your door (to enforce before students enter) and on your walls. Create your slogan and become famous for it. Ask students to help you come up with good slogans. All the better if you can relate them to your subject.

Then you explain this belief to your students–you explain up front why you will have zero tolerance for anything that disrupts their education. You are there to protect their learning at all costs, and they should be too, right? Which leads us to…



Most students will have a hard time arguing that allowing cell phone use in the classroom adds to the education of all. In addition to being disruptive and distracting, cell phones can facilitate cheating and viewing inappropriate websites and photos.

Have students sign a contract that shows they understand your policy and have their parents sign it as well for another helpful step in your multipronged approach in eliminating cell phones. You will have the contract on file if you need it later. Parents will thus be forewarned of the consequences of not following your policy up front, and they will sign to indicate their understanding of it. Including an article describing the problems with cell phones in the classroom will strengthen your position.

I recently observed a teacher who had good control over phone use in her room. Part of her strategy for success involved having the students repeat the consequences if she saw a phone–emphasizing that everyone knows what will happen if a phone shows up and everyone abides by that. “And what happens if I see a phone class?” the teacher chants. “You will take it up,” the students respond. If an infraction occurs now, everyone knows what to expect and the likelihood of confrontation and emotional reaction is deflated. She has student buy-in, and she reinforces her consequences by having students articulate the consequences.

The other important pillars to success include modeling, nipping in the bud, and reinforcing with both positive and negative consequences which are increasingly serious with repeated infractions. It will also support your policy to have engaging, relevant lessons that include whole brain teaching.



Obviously, you can’t use your phone as the teacher if you are going to practice what you preach.

Offering praise, given as neutral observations of behavior that you expect, will help enforce your rules. Use students as models to praise and reinforce. Ask students to get started right away on your class warm-up after they enter (with phones put up). Then give the positive acknowledgment to students who do what they are supposed to, and always remind students that you expect everyone to get started, not just a few. “Thanks for getting started right away, Jess and Juan.” “I see almost everyone has the warm-up sheet and has started writing. Terrific.” “I am waiting for 100 percent…looks like we need two more students to get started…thank you.”



Again, you will need to decide on consequences that work for you, but they need to get increasingly serious so you don’t end up dealing with the same infractions from the same students day after day. This is why some teachers complain that they spend too much time on enforcing policy and not on teaching. It is because they keep reminding and warning the same students every day regarding the same infractions.

There should also be no warnings, just action. Your rule with respect to phones is clear–they are not to be seen in the classroom period.



If you stand at your door and make sure phones are put up before students even enter, there is no reason to see them at all. Your first level of consequences take place the minute you see anyone’s phone. It is far easier to have a crystal clear policy than to take excuses and get into discussions about it. You see it or you don’t. It is simple. Explain it like the referee in a sports competition; the referee sees it, enforces it, and no one argues, or there will be escalating penalties. The whole point was to not waste good learning time on phone issues, so don’t. Make this reasoning transparent for your students. Have them repeat it sometimes!



Be positive in your approach. Your Yes should be everywhere. Make posters and point to them. Have students say them together out loud now and then. Tell them how well they are doing, and remind them at the end of the period what they learned that day. Keep a list on the wall of their accomplishments due to a no phone zone.



It doesn’t hurt to remind students that the lesson is something that will benefit them in some way. What are they saying Yes to today by putting up their phones and getting started on the warm-up? An exciting, surprising, interesting, and relevant lesson will help enforce compliance with your phone policy. If students are not bored, they are less likely to remember that they are not on their phones. “Today we are learning about what we can do to reverse global warming…”.

Ask if they are learning and enjoying what they are learning. Take surveys which show that you are open to making changes in lesson delivery to keep them on task if things seem boring. Ask for their ideas and use them.



If you can frame your Yes into a motion, picture, action, etc., all the better. Then you just have to do the action or motion or show the picture, point to the picture, to remind students of the importance of their education. Having students say things aloud (as mentioned with the successful teacher above) encourages more cooperation as well. Humor also helps if you have that gift.



Respect your students’ rights to make their own choices about their behavior at all times, and calmly remind and follow through with the consequences you have established. You can be sorry they are making bad choices, you can remind them you hope they will choose learning and your class, but it is their choice to make. You are simply doing everything in your power to help them make the right one.

Part of your job as an educator to help students learn that needs should determine wants and not let wants determine needs.  I love doughnuts, but what is going to happen if I only eat what I want and not what my body needs to be healthy? You are doing the same thing with your phone policy. In fact, it is the mark of an educated person that your reason controls your appetites rather than your appetites affecting your reason. They need to learn to make that choice and you are here to help them practice during your class! You believe in their future!

There are teachers who believe we should let students deal with the consequences of all their choices. If students stay on their cell phone and miss class material, they do poorly on the test. That’s life, right? Teachers with this attitude don’t bother with troubling themselves with behavior policies on phones. But in k-12 education, we are shaping our own futures and the habits of children. As educated adults, we set up the environment for success. We teach discipline and not just science. If a scientist is going to do an experiment, s/he takes precautions for safety. You are taking precautions for learning in the same way.

These precautions ensure that students do in fact and live with the consequences of their decision not to follow policy; they leave the room and work in another place, their parents will be notified, etc.. They don’t do well on the test in this scenario either, but the teacher maintains a good learning environment for the other students. The teacher has the power to determine how things will be in his or her classroom.



If students break the rule, they leave or come to lunch detention, or whatever consequence you feel is best. It needs to be a logical one, and one that reinforces your resolve, and keeps everyone calm and the classroom fit for learning. No need to get emotional; they follow the rule or they don’t, they suffer the consequences or don’t.

Behavior contracts, having students fill out a reflection form, and/or having students brainstorm actions that will help them comply may be necessary with repeated infractions. Administrative support and counseling support might also be part of your protocol if you speak to other school professionals who will be on board with you from the start. Maybe another teacher has an empty room to which you can send violators. Think up all the details of your consequences so the action is smooth and matter of fact. This group support increases your power when you tell students that other professionals in the school support you in your new policy.

I would love to hear your ideas as you work with these suggestions: your slogans, consequences, and experiences. Please post and let us know how it is going. Let us know how your life has changed since you just said NO to cell phones and YES to education.



UP NEXT: The Devil in the Details–Consequences Tuned to Relationship Building