Opinion: Why Mt. Abraham limits cell phones for middle schoolers

This week’s writer is Ellen Repstad, assistant principal at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol.
Recently, Mt. Abraham Middle School decided to limit students’ access to their cell phones during the school day. The faculty has noticed that over the years, cell phones make learning and teaching more difficult. We at Mt. Abraham are wholly committed to providing the best and healthiest educational opportunity for our students. It is because of our commitment to the students’ academic success that we came to the decision, through much debate and discussion, to eliminate free access to cell phones for the 2016-2017 school year. Though cell phones can be a tool for learning, more often than not, we witnessed cell phones getting in the way of learning. Students have been witnessed texting friends, surfing social media, even taking pictures of peers and teachers during class. Through apps like Snapchat, students can then caption the photos and post them publicly. More than a few times such incidences have been brought to administration, and often the student who has been photographed is an innocent bystander who is now the target of ridicule.
Here is what our handbook now states in regards to cell phones:
Cell phones are not to be used during the school day. Students will not be allowed to use their cell phones at any point between 8:20 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. Students can have access to school phones when needed, and parents are free to call the school to send messages to their children. If a student needs to have a phone with them for after school hours, the phone must remain in their backpacks, or lockers, with the sound turned off. Any student using their phone without permission during the school day will have their phone confiscated until the end of the day. Repeated infractions will require a parent meeting.
Cell phones are a fact of life. We can’t get around that. It has only been in the past five years or so that we are seeing middle school students bringing phones to school. It has become common to see students sitting together at lunch, all focused on their phones, and not engaging in conversation with each other. What should be an opportunity to connect in a social setting and relax and laugh with one another, has become more and more isolating for students who can’t part from their devices.
Students this age have a very difficult time creating their own limits. Their brains are still developing and their lack of impulse control requires that the adults in their lives create boundaries for them. Middle school is a time of immense social and emotional growth. Their brains are becoming much more complex, and the addition of hormones makes navigating these complex social relationships even more challenging. Mt. Abraham Middle School has added many elements to our curriculum to help students learn prosocial skills. This decision supports our goals in helping students practice those prosocial skills with their peers.
What we know about how students learn is that person to person interaction increases the level of understanding. Students’ brains are more active when talking with a teacher or peer about the material, than when they are working independently. It is also an opportunity for teachers to witness the learning, and make formative assessments that will then inform the lessons. So much of learning seems invisible. The more we can get students to verbalize their thinking, the more able we are to improve their understanding. When students have access to their phones, their thinking is often interrupted by the buzzing in their pockets. They can’t help it. When a notification comes in, they will be tempted to check their phones.
In addition to the distraction that a buzzing cell phone causes, the disruptions to learning go even further. All teachers have had a no cell phone rule in the classroom for some time. However, there are many students who continue to access their phones during class. When this happens, a teacher must address the behavior. When a teacher is addressing behavior, they are no longer providing content instruction. By eliminating cell phones in the school, we can reduce the number of behavioral disruptions during class.
The students are also struggling with what appears to be an ever-present social media stress. The screen creates an emotional barrier for students. Screens remove the interpersonal component: the tone of voice, the facial expressions, the body language. It also removes the possibility of immediate feedback. Because of this, students will post comments online that they would never say in person to a peer. This creates an immense amount of stress for our students, and at times crosses the line into inappropriate, hurtful interactions. For some students, this makes the school a hostile environment. When you feel distracted, you are not available for learning.
We recognize that cell phones can also be a powerful learning device. We have adopted some procedures around when and how to access the devices when they are going to be used to augment the learning experience. The teachers will be encouraged to incorporate electronic devices as they see fit when it will improve the learning experience. Students will be explicitly taught when and how to access their devices. The biggest change will be the absence of cell phones in the halls and at lunch. We want to support an environment where students are engaging in face to face conversations.
Though most of our parents have expressed their support on this change, some have told me that they are worried about having access to their student during the day to communicate changes in plans. As we did before cell phones became ubiquitous, parents will have the option to leave a message in the office that we can deliver to the students during the day. Furthermore, every classroom has a phone, as well as the front office, that students can use to reach out to parents should their plans change and they need to arrange transportation. We have no desire to limit communication between parents and students, and this new limit on cell phones does not apply to the high school. Our focus is, and always will be, improving the learning outcomes for our students.

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