As more schools implement no-phone policies, Arizona educators report positive results

By Bridget Dowd
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 9:07am

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a white female teacher sits in front of her classroom. behind her there is a screen that says "welcome to Geometry"
Bridget Dowd/ KJZZ
Maijastiina Kariniemi teaches geometry at Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix.

Schools across the country are increasingly adopting no-phone policies. It’s part of an effort to reduce distractions and improve educational outcomes.

Some Phoenix-area schools are seeing success with policies of their own.

Since classes started again in January, students at Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix have had to put their phones in their backpacks at the beginning of each class and leave them at the back of the room.

Maijastiina Kariniemi teaches geometry there and was surprised at how willing her students were to follow the new policy.

“Once in a while, I still see cellphones in their pockets or they use them,” Kariniemi said. “But it’s not as much as I used to.”

If she catches someone using their phone in class, she can send them to the front office, where they have to leave their phone for the rest of the day. If the behavior continues, she can give a student after-school detention.

Otherwise, students are allowed to check their phones during lunch and the five-minute passing periods. Kariniemi said test scores have significantly improved since last semester.

“Also, I always write this list of superstar students,” Kariniemi said. “These are students who have an ‘A’ in class.”

Those lists she keeps on the white board for both her regular classes and honors courses have gotten longer. She’s also noticed that students who used to be withdrawn are participating more in class.

“I have been asking them to write answers on the board,” Kariniemi said. “So the students get to share what they know. They’re more engaged and I think they’re happier because now they feel like they know what they’re doing.”

The success of a pilot program at one of Scottsdale Unified’s junior highs led the district to implement a "phone away for the day" policy at all of its K-8 campuses.

Junior Michael is the principal at Ingleside Middle School, which piloted the program. He said they implemented it last year because students were getting into fights over what was said via text or on social media, and they were glued to their phones.

“It was not out of the ordinary to walk out into the courtyard and see six kids sitting on a bench and each of ‘em on their cellphones and not interacting,” Michael said.

Unlike the policy at Barry Goldwater, students at Ingleside have to turn off their phones for the entire day, even during lunch and passing periods.

Dorian Photography
Junior Michael

“We see students doing all the things we were accustomed to before phones,” he said. “[They’re] interacting, playing, socializing with one another and then even better, we’ve had a lot less incidents where students were involved in some kind of drama [or] altercation.”

But the results haven't all been positive. Kariniemi said some kids struggle with the change.

“Because they’re used to pulling out that phone,” she said, adding that some of them are having a hard time regulating their emotions.

“That’s something new,” Kariniemi said. “I need to have conversations with them. We need to come up with strategies. When you’re feeling anxious, what can you do?”

She usually lets students step away for a minute to get some water and calm down. She said it’s as if they’ve lost access to a coping mechanism.

That’s something Phoenix-based therapist Sarah Guertin is very familiar with. Guertin said while cell phone use can help some kids feel less lonely, excessive use is unhealthy.

“If somebody gets really upset or is emotional or something like that, you know they kind of grab their phone to sort of zone out,” Guertin said. “And it looks like it’s an effective coping skill because they kind of calm down. But it’s not the same as processing through those uncomfortable emotions.”

She added that it’s more of an avoidance technique. Teens and kids can have more extreme responses to not having their phones because the reward centers in developing brains are more excitable than those of adults.

“So some of the ways that we get dopamine and rewards are engaging with friends, being outside, exercising, but we can also get dopamine from less healthy or less adaptive ways,” Guertin said. “Some of those might include, like drug use or maybe some other things that are not super healthy, and social media specifically can really kind of overload those systems in the brain.”

As a result, teens are not able to get the same reward through other methods. It explains why they sometimes act out when they lose access to their phones. 

“I think it’s unavoidable that there’s gonna be some negative aspects of it, but to be able to turn it off and say, ‘OK, we’re done. We’re not going to keep reading the negative comments. We’re not going to keep arguing with this person,’ or one of those things — we’re gonna turn it off and you’re gonna have a break, I think, can be helpful,” Guertin said.

Those imposed breaks can also reduce the anxiety related to bullying and the tendency for kids to compare themselves to others.

Stepping away from the online world also helps them practice in-person social skills, like picking up on non-verbal cues.

person holding a phone with text messages
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