This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription — no cell phones allowed from first bell to last — to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

Read his post. Great, right? How would you build on his work?

2017 May 26. Okay, okay, we have a bunch of font critics in the comments thread!

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This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Fantastic!

    All too often, technology tools in schools get a bad rap for being “distracting” while folks ignore ALL of the other classroom distractions that happen when a bunch of humans meet in a room to learn.

    I’d like to use this idea, +1 on no Comic Sans ;-) but I personally find a bright pink box to be distracting, like an orange construction cone in kids’ faces. I think I’ll have a more subtle container and sign, but the overall idea is superb.

    I wonder… will students attempt to delegate when a peer’s item-of-distraction should go in the box, or does the teacher have supreme reign of pointing at the box? I can see middle schoolers feeling empowered to say, “So-and-so’s distraction should go in the box! It’s distracting me!” thus creating a distraction that may not have happened otherwise… Any thoughts on this, anyone?

    • I’d like to use this idea, +1 on no Comic Sans ;-) but I personally find a bright pink box to be distracting, like an orange construction cone in kids’ faces. I think I’ll have a more subtle container and sign, but the overall idea is superb.

      OMG. Is it possible to put the distraction box in the distraction box?

  2. “So-and-so’s distraction should go in the box! It’s distracting me!”

    This will absolutely happen in a middle school classroom. The dynamic has to be that I, as teacher, get to make that call, not students. That dynamic likely exists in most classrooms already, but it is necessary for this context in particular, in my opinion.

  3. This assumes that the student is able to make the decision as to whether something is a distraction to them or not. If they can’t, then the teacher has to make the call that a cell phone is distracting to Student A but not to Student B which makes this policy very difficult to enforce in a way that will seem fair to students.

    • I don’t see anything about this policy that discourages students and teachers from concluding together (or teachers concluding unillaterally, if need be) that a student isn’t working at her full, undistracted potential. That’s a feature here, IMO. It’s thoughtful and nuanced and invites self-reflection whereas blanket bans make no room for any of that development.

  4. Love this! Also like the idea of giving students the option to be self aware while having teacher rules at the same time. Reading the original post, it doesn’t sound entirely voluntary. “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”

  5. Great post. I like that the focus is not on one piece of technology, e.g. cell phones, or even on technology as such, but rather on the broader category of (potential) “distractions” — which depending on the child may or may not include a cell phone or other piece of tech. Thanks for sharing this teacher’s example, and for your clear and simple highlighting of its thoughtful purpose. Cheers, Jesse

  6. Joe Mahoney

    May 25, 2017 - 8:31 am -


    I would even single out the student who reluctantly put their “distraction” in the box and had a great day of learning with some reward.
  7. I think the only way to build on this work is to not use Comic Sans on the box! :D

    Great idea though.

  8. Love the idea. Only major problem I see is a $600 phone disappearing during a fire drill or some other distraction during class.

  9. Love it, but I’ll make it transparent box so if they can confirm it’s physically there. Such as when you have to charge you’re phone in a public area.

    Looove this move.

    I already set up a charger station in my room which helps attract devices.
    • Chester Draws

      May 26, 2017 - 3:16 pm -

      I let students charge their phones in my classroom — we have power sockets on all four walls — but I’m thinking of not allowing it, not because of matters of principle, but because of practical issues.

      Some students are almost more distracted by the phone charging. They spend the entire period worried about how much charge their phone is getting and the risk it will go walkabout. Some even get out of their seats repeatedly to check on it during the class time.

      Perhaps I should set up a phone charging station inside my locked cabinet. Issues of checking on it and security are then dealt with.

  10. Love the idea, Mike has the concern though, my $200 I5 goes in with the $600 I7 and oops, mine is there and yours isn’t. Instead of “Cell Phone Jail” I can make my shoe rack a Distractions Parking Lot.


  11. Love this idea. Came to Tony’s blog for the distraction box (will implement this, but with ‘parking spots’ for individual items), stayed for the Backwards Brain Bicycle. If you missed reading that, go back NOW and check it out!

  12. I’m too disorganized to have anything like a box, but I just wanted to mention that my syllabus expressly says “DO NOT DO HOMEWORK FROM OTHER CLASSES OR I WILL TAKE IT AWAY AND KEEP IT UNTIL YOU SHOW UP WITH A NOTE FROM THAT TEACHER.” I also take books, artwork, or any other distractions.

    I also have a very important rule, “No crinkling.” Wrappers, chip bags, water bottles. Can’t be done. It distracts me.

  13. Colin MacLean

    May 29, 2017 - 6:24 am -

    I love teachers…and instructors.

    Working with us is akin to herding cats. We are each the masters and mistresses of our own domains when it comes to what happens in our classrooms. I’m of the philosophy that whatever works for you and your learners should be applauded…and sometimes copied.

    Unsure of the best cellphone policies for teenagers because I work as an ESL instructor with adults. What has worked in reducing cellphone distractions in my newcomer language class is making everyone pay a loonie ($1 Canadian…so a quarter American ;-) when the cell phone ringer or audible notifications ares heard during class. I then take the loonies and spend them on classroom treats prior to a potluck party or for something to provide everyone with at the end of the semester or school year.

    The only time it becomes an issue is when someone simply doesn’t know how to adjust their phone settings. This usually necessitates a short explanation and demo from a more tech-savvy learner (sometimes repeated over a few days) before the offender can consistently turn of the ringer and notification noises on his/her own.

    I allow my learners to use their phones during class. We have free Wi-Fi and phones can be used for translation, looking up word meanings and Googling for information. Occasionally some students will find video and music content that is much more exciting than our classroom work and activities, but I’m happy to say that it isn’t very common. And if they are listening and watching with earbuds, it isn’t distracting to their classmates and instructor.

    I am sometimes guilty of forgetting to turn my phone to vibrate. Whenever the ringer goes off in class, I am quick to pay the loonie. Having the same policy for everyone in class certainly makes collecting the ‘fine’ less contentious.

  14. I love this idea, especially as a high school teacher! I think it will especially work in classrooms where there has already been a culture created of discipline, self-responsibility, and respect. I wonder how Tony sold his students on this idea and encouraged them that it was more positive than embarrassing/silly? If he has ideas on creating that environment, I think a distractions box could go a long way in a lot of different classrooms…and hopefully in mine!

    • Matt – I introduce this concept on the first day I meet students as we are getting to know each other. The whole conversation is centered on mutual respect and the fact that I had a cell phone since before they were born. We talk about appropriate vs inappropriate times to use a cell phone. I explain that I won’t use my phone while they are conversing with me and I expect them to extend the same courtesy to me and their classmates. I also explain that I understand that they likely just came from a summer break where they used their phone most hours that they were awake. We do use cell phones for taking pictures of student work from the whiteboards, search information from the Internet, check grades and use apps such as Desmos. Students do truly understand the concept of distractions vs labeling objects as “bad”. And, yes we do practice smiling and I have a student demonstrate the proper way to react when they need to put a distraction in the box. The trick is to make that student interaction “less of a distraction” to the whole class. At some point I am able to make eye contact with a student and they will put their distraction in the box without interrupting the class discussion. This truly has changed the “you” vs “me” interaction I had when I asked a student to hand me their phone.

  15. Kathy Ramsey

    July 3, 2017 - 5:33 pm -

    I like the fact that this acknowledges that phones can be used as tools in learning as well as distracting items. While fidget spinners can be tools for some; they can be distracting for others. The rule that I have in my class for fidget spinners, cell phones, and gum is the same: it is permitted so long as I don’t see it or hear it. This keeps these items from becoming a distraction to me and to them as well. I may be amending my cell phone rule though, to allow for their use as a calculator. Still thinking that through.

  16. The middle school I teach in implemented a cell phone policy last year that worked like magic. It eliminated virtually all cell phone use in classrooms — and it is completely non-confrontational. The teacher doesn’t even interact with the student! We get nearly 100% compliance because it makes sense to kids and it is very fair. The school I teach in has a fairly challenging population; so if it works with us, it will work with you! Prior to implementation of this policy, cell phone use had become rampant and beyond distracting. Here it is:

    1) Teachers and administrators explain the policy at the start of the year. Students can possess cell phones but they MUST be powered OFF in classrooms, including study halls. Cell phones are allowed during lunch/recess in the cafeteria or outside. Use in the hallways between classes is discouraged but has no consequence, which is fine.

    2) If Sarah’s cell phone is ON in my class or being viewed or used I simply email her name to our AP after class. Without confrontation I will simply let Sarah know that she was in violation. She already knows that the limit for violations is 3.

    3) When the AP receives 3 notifications that Sarah’s phone was ON (this includes all her classes/teachers) in classrooms, he will randomly appear in some other class or even in the cafeteria and calmly confiscate it — as per the policy. Student never refuse this request. They get their phone back at the end of the day.

    4) On the second violation, now 6 instances of Sarah’s phone not being powered OFF in the classroom, her phone is randomly taken and returned.

    5) On the third infraction, now 9 violations, the phone is taken again, however a parent or guardian must now come in to reclaim it.

    Students are reminded that if they forgot to power OFF their phone before entering class, they can raise their hand and request a moment to do so.

    The success of this policy has worked wonders to eliminate cell phone use in my building. Teachers absolutely love it because both distractions (phone use and the ensuing confrontation) have eliminated after a brief period of strict enforcement at the start of the year. As long as teachers remain vigilant, cell phone use in the classroom remains a non-issue!

    • I like the elegance of the solution. If you’re going to have a policy that students can’t have cell phones on at all, then this is a great way to enforce it.


      For me, though, I just don’t like blanket no-cell phone policies. I don’t think it helps the kids learn how to manage their distractions – which they ultimately have to do in college.
  17. As a high school teacher I greatly appreciate all of the different ideas of handling electronic distractions in the classroom! Approaching it as all distractions and not just cell phones seems much more effective because it covers so many different areas. I hope integrating some of these ideas in my classroom can improve my environment!