Distractions that Interrupt Learning

I learned early on with cell phones, that when you ask a student to hand you their phone, it very often becomes confrontational. A cell phone is a very personal item for some people.

distractionsTo avoid the confrontation I created a “distraction box” and lumped cell phones in with the many other distraction that students bring to class. These items have changed over time, but include “fast food” toys, bouncy balls, Rubics cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot item now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.

A distraction could be a distraction to the individual student, the other students or even a distraction to me. On the first day of the year I explain to my students that if I make eye contact with them and point to the distraction box, they have a choice to make. If they smile and put the item in the box, they can take the item out of the box on the way out of the room. If they throw a fit and put the distraction in the box, they can have it back at the end of the day. If they refuse to put the distraction in the box, they go to the office with the distraction.

On the first day of the year we even practice smiling while we put an item in the box. The interaction is always kept very light and the students really are cooperative. It has been a few years since an interaction actually became confrontational, because I am not asking them to put the item in my hand. I even have students sometimes put their cell phone in the box on the way in the door because they know they are going to have trouble staying focused.

This distraction box concept really has changed the atmosphere of my room. Students understand what a distraction is and why we need to limit distractions. We even joke sometimes because the box isn’t big enough to put “Billie” in the box.

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24 comments on “Distractions that Interrupt Learning

  1. […] Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. xiousgeonz says:

    I like that this puts the focus on the item as “offender” and that it empowers the students to have what they want if it’s not distracting. Cool that there doesn’t seem to be argument over the subjective determination of distractibility, tho’ bottom line is that the “go to the office with distraction” must mean something…

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  3. Nicole Rapson says:

    I love this – but our admin is nervous about anything of value being so open. Do you worry at all about someone stealing something out of the box?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Riehlt says:

      It has not been a problem up to this point, but it surely is a concern. I have it placed very near the door. I started with it across the room from the door (by my desk). That might be a better place, but I wanted students to be able to pick it up as they left. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, as it certainly should be an concern.

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      • Linda says:

        I love this concept and used it for about a week. I learned quickly that the amount of time it takes students to place items, then stop class work early so that their is time to retrieve their items is far too costly in terms of instructional time, classroom management, students hovering over the box, and basic disarray. It can be done orderly however takes far too much time in a classroom of 34-36 students.

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      • Nathan says:

        @Linda

        It seems to me that one way to manage this could be to have a couple stations of numbered spots (as opposed to a single box) strategically placed around the room. This way, you don’t have the clump around a single location and everyone knows precisely where their stuff is (rather than rooting through a communal box).

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  4. mclark63 says:

    What this screams to me is that you respect students ability to make a responsible choice. Creating a relationship with students based on mutual respect is essential and I congratulate you on finding such a simple yet powerful way to foster this with students. And thank you, there will be a box like this in my room next year!

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  5. Linda says:

    (that *there is time)

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  6. Amy says:

    I love that you practice this! Well done 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Joe says:

    I really like this idea at fàce value. However, I would certainly be concerned about theft or someone becoming distracted because they wanted their item back, or not remembering who smiled and who didn’t. My current policy is to take the distraction immediately and give it to the office, which usually only takes one time in each class. I would think that this would happen quickly with the box as well. I do like the idea of putting the responsibility in the student’s hands, and the relationship this should build with students and teachers. I will definitely try this out and see how it goes. It seems to fit my personal style, so I’m curious of how it will work out.

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    • artemesiaephemeraladventuresblog says:

      This response, which we have practiced (thinking we were on top of things) leads to a punitive, at best, perspective on students’ ability to exercise responsibility… and ours to trust them to rise to the expectation that we set.

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      • Joe says:

        Like I said, that is my current way and I want to try this way out and see how it goes. This also means I don’t have to physically take the distraction away or to the office which is nice. I will definitely need to tweak this to my personal style and comfort level, but it could definitely work in my classroom…

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  8. I love your cell phone policy and would love to use this in my classroom. Something like this would really help differentiate between items that distract and items that help with concentration. Students whose IEPs specify certain items to help with concentration and those who would use the same item to distract them from what was going on in the classroom. You could use this to celebrate the individual needs of your students while simultaneously increasing focus.

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  9. CateMD says:

    I love the fact that this applies to more than just cell phones and that it shows that you trust your students to take responsibility for their actions. The concern Linda brought up is a good one. Even so, I think I will try this in my class next year. What other similar strategies do you use in your classroom?

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  10. Chloe says:

    Teachers and admin are not allowed to take phones at my high school. The only disciplinary action is to send the student to on campus suspension for the period. I’m wondering if it would be effective to have them place their headphones and/or chargers in a box instead. I may try that next year and see if it works.

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    • Joe says:

      I know of teachers who have taken the batteries from the phones(where possible) so as to not be responsible for the phone itself, especially as they get more and more pricey.

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  11. Susie Reilly says:

    Thanks for sharing. This sounds sort of like my 4th grade policy except that we didn’t practice smiling when item was put into the box. I love that part. This works out well because the procedure is practiced from the first day of school and is consistent. All of the negotiation is done in the student’s head, which teaches them to problem solve and weigh the consequences of their actions. In response to the above concern about theft: I have always worked at high poverty schools, and I never had a student steal from the “Box”. I think it was considered a “safe” zone that students respected.

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  12. […] to unlimited usage. Rather than go with one of these methods, he cited another blogger’s post. Rather than having a policy specifically for cell phones, the teacher has created a […]

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  13. […] Source: Distractions that Interrupt Learning […]

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  14. Were your boxes this past year FULL of fidget spinners?!?!! 🙂 Thanks for a great idea

    Liked by 1 person

  15. […] Riehl shared about “Distractions that Interrupt Learning”. (Blog Post & […]

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  16. Emma says:

    Love the idea. I practiced something similar. How do, or would, you deal with distractions in a BYOD culture? DO you have any handy hints?

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    • Riehlt says:

      There are lots of times my students use cell phones in class for a specific purpose. The only time I need to get involved is when it becomes a disruption to their learning or a distraction to them or others. I don’t think I would treat it any differently in a BYOD classroom.

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  17. […] math teacher Tony Riehl wrote a post on this subject. It appeared May 22, 2017 . He has taught high school math courses in Montana for 35 years. I added blogger Dan Meyer’s […]

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