AP

High school teacher pleads with parents to stop texting their kids at school

Mar 10, 2024, 4:00 PM

A ninth grader places her cellphone in to a phone holder as she enters class at Delta High School, ...

A ninth grader places her cellphone in to a phone holder as she enters class at Delta High School, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Delta, Utah. Most schools have policies regulating student cellphone use at school. But the reality is kids don’t always follow the rules and schools enforce them sporadically. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Virginia high school teacher Joe Clement keeps track of the text messages parents have sent students sitting in his economics and government classes:

— “What did you get on your test?”

— “Did you get the field trip form signed?”

— “Do you want chicken or hamburgers for dinner tonight?”

Clement has a plea for parents: Stop texting your kids at school.

Parents are distressingly aware of the distractions and the mental health issues associated with smartphones and social media. But teachers say parents might not realize how much those struggles play out at school.

One culprit? Mom and Dad themselves, whose stream-of-consciousness questions add to a climate of constant interruption and distraction from learning. Even when schools regulate or ban cellphones, it’s hard for teachers to enforce it. And the constant buzzes on watches and phones are occupying critical brain space regardless of whether kids are sneaking a peek.

A few changes in parents’ behavior can help make phones less distracting at school. Here’s what teachers and experts recommend.

TRY IT: STOP TEXTING YOUR KID AT SCHOOL

Many parents stay in touch with their child by texting, but school is a place for focusing on learning and developing independence. Teachers say you can still reach your child if you have a change in plans or a family emergency: Just contact the front office.

If the message is not urgent, it can probably wait.

Think of it this way: “If you came to school and said, ‘Can you pull my child out of calculus so I can tell them something not important?’ we would say no,” central Virginia school counselor Erin Rettig said.

Teachers emphasized: They are not saying parents are to blame for school cellphone battles, just that parents can do more to help. Tell your kids, for example, not to text home unless it is urgent. And if they do, ignore it.

“When your children are texting you stuff that can wait — like, ‘Can I go to Brett’s house five days from now?’ — don’t respond,” said Sabine Polak, one of three mothers who co-founded the Phone-Free Schools Movement. “You have to stop engaging. That’s just feeding the problem.”

CUT THE CORD FROM 8 TO 3

Many parents got used to being in constant contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, when kids were home doing online school. They have kept that communication going as life has otherwise returned to normal.

“We call it the digital umbilical cord. Parents can’t let go. And they need to,” Clement said.

Parents might not expect their kids to respond immediately to texts (though many do). But when students pull out their phones to reply, it opens the door to other social media distractions.

ANXIETY VIA TEXT MESSAGE

At parent workshops, Rettig, the school counselor in Virginia, tells parents they are contributing to children’s anxiety by sending messages, tracking their whereabouts and checking grades daily, which doesn’t give kids space to be independent at school.

Some teachers say they get emails from parents right after returning graded exams, before the class is over, because kids feel the need (or are told) to report grades immediately to parents.

Dr. Libby Milkovich, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, says she asks parents to consider what kids miss out on by having parents at arms’ reach during school hours.

“By texting back and forth with a parent, a child is unable to practice either self-calming or problem-solving skills,” Milkovich said. “It’s easy to text, but if I don’t have a phone, I have to go ask the teacher or I have to figure it out on my own.”

Some kids who oppose school cellphone bans say it’s helpful to reach out to parents when they’re feeling anxious or worried at school. For children with serious anxiety who are accustomed to texting parents for reassurance, Milkovich suggests phasing in limits so the child can gradually practice having more independence. She urges parents to ask themselves: Why does my child need constant access to a phone?

“Often parents say, ‘I want to be able to reach my child at any time,’ which has nothing to do with the child’s outcome. It’s because of the parents’ anxiety,” she said.

TAKE AWAY THAT OLD PHONE

Beth Black, a high school English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, tells parents to consider confiscating their child’s old phones.

Her school requires students to put phones in a special cellphone holder when they enter classrooms. But she has seen students stash their old, inactive phone there, and hold onto the phone that works.

Like many teachers, she says phones aren’t the only problem. There’s also the earbud issue.

“Forty percent of my students have at least one earbud in when they walk into class,” Black said. “The kids will set their phone in the holder to music and they’ll listen to music in class in one earbud.”

TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS

Parents’ reining in their texts will only go so far. So work with your kids to turn off some or all of their attention-stealing notifications.

To prove just how distracting smartphones are, Clement ran an in-class experiment where he asked students to take their phones off silent and switch on notifications for two minutes.

“It sounded like an old-time video arcade — bizzing, buzzing, dinging and ringing for two solid minutes,” he said.

Many studies have found students check their phones frequently during class. A study last year from Common Sense Media found teens get bombarded with as many as 237 notifications a day. About 25% of them pop up during the school day, mostly from friends on social media.

“Every time our focus is interrupted, it takes a lot of brain power and energy to get back on task,” said Emily Cherkin, a Seattle-based teacher-turned-consultant who specializes in screen-time management.

Teachers say the best school cellphone policy is one that physically removes the phone from the child. Otherwise, it’s hard to compete.

“When the phone vibrates in their pocket, now their focus is on their pocket. And they’re wondering, ‘How do I get it out to the table? How do I check it?’” said Randy Freiman, a high school chemistry teacher in upstate New York. “You ask them a question and they haven’t heard a word you’ve said. Their brain is elsewhere.”

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High school teacher pleads with parents to stop texting their kids at school