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Cell Phones and Omission Training

No matter where I go, teachers are looking for answers to the cell phone problem. Students are using their phones at inappropriate times to say the least - and fighting back when asked to put them away. Policing the use of cell phones in the classroom has become a daily battle and a source of frustration and exhaustion for many teachers.

So, how do we deal with it? Do we institute severe penalties for using phones during class? Do we take them away when they enter the room? Usually one of these two solutions crosses your mind when first confronted with this issue, and both have been tried. The problem is they both create their own set of new issues. If we create high stakes consequences to deter the behavior, then we must follow-through with office referrals and detentions for a behavior that is ultimately a low-level disruption. Plus, the high stakes consequences rarely deter the behavior as it is increasingly more important for the student to use their phones than to fear any form of punishment. If we confiscate the phones, well, you can imagine the student pushback based on shaky arguments ranging from, “I need my phone for emergencies” to private property laws and everything in between. If we are able to overcome those arguments, then we have the practical issues of collecting and returning the items everyday among possible claims of theft or damage. No thank you. There has to be a better way.

Tools for Teaching has always been very pliable - meaning that it is a set of guidelines, not a hard prescription. Therefore most classroom issues, even if not specifically addressed, can be solved using the strategies that Tools for Teaching provides. So I started looking for a solution in what we already had. Soon it became apparent that cell phone use is not a discipline issue, but a motivation issue. If the question that needs to be answered by motivation is, “Why should I?” then this question is, “Why should I put my phone away?” Let’s use Responsibility Training and more specifically, Omission Training to answer that question.

Now, here is not the place to break down all the in’s and out’s of Responsibility Training. It takes of a large section of the book and is more complex than this space allows. However, if you are not already familiar with the basics, read our blog entries on the subject here:

Responsibility Training part 1: Cooperation and Incentives

This may seem like a lot, but the payoff is worth it. Plus, if you’re unfamiliar with the above concepts then the rest of this article not only won’t work, but won’t make any sense.

The solution we’re looking for lies within Omission Training, a simple add-on to Preferred Activity Time that was designed to act as a fail-safe for those students who found power ruining it for the group. The concept behind Omission Training is simple:

“You cannot reinforce the non-occurrence of a behavior. You can, however, reinforce the non-occurrence of a behavior for a certain amount of time.”

Now, Omission Training, as described in Tools for Teaching, was designed for individuals. But if we get creative, there is nothing stopping us from using it for the group. The individual example we use is: can a chronically disruptive student (let’s call him Larry) not disrupt the class for a given amount of time (let’s say 20 minutes)?

  • If Larry is does not disrupt the class for 20 consecutive minutes, then Larry earns bonus PAT for the class.

  • If Larry does disrupt the class, then we simply remind Larry to refocus and reset the clock.

There is no punishment for failure, just an opportunity lost. However, the rest of the class soon realizes that they have a vested interest in Larry’s success and will encourage him to behave for their benefit. This adds a layer of reinforcement for Larry that a teacher could not achieve without the peer group.

Let’s take this concept and apply it to the whole group. Can the class go 20 minutes without using a cell phone?

  • If no cell phones are used for 20 consecutive minutes, then the class earns bonus PAT.

  • If cell phones are used at any time, then the group is notified and the clock is reset.

By using bonus PAT as an incentive for the students to cooperate, we have also given them ownership of the outcome. The class as a whole has a vested interest in not using cell phones. Even though an individual may be tempted to sneak a text under their desk, that risk is not worth it to their neighbors. You will receive a level of self-policing by the students in the form of whispered discouragement, “Put it away, the clock’s almost at 20!” Again, Omission Training adds a level a reinforcement that can only come from the peer group.

Note that the amount of time (20 minutes) is used as an example. You should determine an amount of time appropriate for your students. But, keep it attainable. The role of the teacher in PAT is that of a giver. We want the students to succeed and buy-in. Likewise, the amount of bonus earned is not specified in the example. This too should be determined by what works in your classroom.

This “Group Omission Training” strategy can even be used even when cell phone use is appropriate during class. Simply put, the clock resets for “inappropriate use of the phone.” This means that during those times when teachers want to use the power of the cell phone for good, specific guidelines must be followed; for example - use of only one specific app, or no social media apps. This ads a layer of field work for the teacher as simply seeing a cell phone isn’t enough to reset the clock, you must see their screens. However, the peer group will again discourage most infractions and if you are already mobile and Working the Crowd, monitoring screens is built-in.

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