How I Keep 25 Kids From Getting Distracted With Their Computers

Smart screen time!

It’s tough enough to stand in front of a classroom of 25 or more kids and try to keep all eyes on the board. So when technology is added to the mix—with multiple screens on display—it equals plenty of extra distractions for students and challenges for educators. We turned to experienced teachers and technology specialists to share their ideas and best practices for keeping kids on task when the tech toys are out.

1. Get routines down first.

Before diving into using all the cool tech equipment in your classroom, take time to get to know your class and get into a routine. Teacher Paula Barr doesn’t put technology in the hands of her students for the first few weeks of school until routines, procedures and consequences have been established. “I want to set up a positive classroom environment,” says the second grade teacher, who has a blended classroom at Quail Run Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas.

2. Set tech rules together.

Agree on rules about technology and collaborative group work as a class. Create a poster together and display the rules prominently in the room.

3. Teach kids how to search safely.

Using the Internet for educational research is a lot different from playing games online at home. Bing in the Classroom is a great starting place for students to get an idea of the digital world they are about to enter with short videos on how search works, staying safe online and evaluating search results. You can also get lesson plans from the Microsoft Educator Community website that teach kids in grades K–8 how to search the Web.

4. Allow some playtime.

When young students first get a chance to use the technology, let them have some fun. For instance, Barr might begin by letting her students click on a website to draw SpongeBob. “If you get that play out of the way, they are much more apt to give me the serious work I want with the tech later,” she says.

5. Be prepared with a back-pocket plan.


Before the lesson starts, check out all the websites to make sure students have access to the ones you need, and block others that are inappropriate. Have a back-pocket plan when you do encounter a technology glitch (It’s bound to happen at some point!), and be in the mind-set that you may need to shift gears, suggests Katie Owens, educational specialist with instructional technology for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia.

6. Practice purposefulness.

If you’re passing out laptops, have kids wait until everyone has one and you’ve given the OK before they power them up. You don’t want the first students who get the laptops to just dive in on their own and get distracted before you give clear directions, says Jon Wirsing, also an instructional technology specialist in Henrico.

7. Provide resources.

When introducing new technology, spend time up front explaining to students where they can go for help, including Web resources. “You want them to be problem solvers, own their learning and adjust when they need to,” says Wirsing.

8. Give yourself a 360-degree view.

Try setting up the computers in a circle with the screens facing inward. Then stand in the middle so you can have visual access to every student’s work, suggests Shane Donovan, physics and robotics teacher for grades 10–12 at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. You can also use a central computer that allows you to tap into your students’ devices and monitor what they’re looking at in order to be certain they’re staying safe online.

9. Have students set daily goals.

In his self-paced class, Donovan’s students are given a half-sheet of paper every day to fill out what they plan to accomplish. At the end of class, they turn in what they have completed. “You can’t just give kids a computer and say, ‘Go do this.’” he says. “If I see kids are routinely getting off the computers and not accomplishing anything, that means I need to be on them more often.”

10. Celebrate success!

Have a wall chart for the students to indicate with a sticker, stamp or checkmark when they’ve reached a goal or completed a task. Rather than being overly structured, Donovan suggests that older kids especially may need some flexibility to take initiative, monitor themselves and be recognized for working toward a goal.

11. Know your students and be consistent with consequences.

Pick up on the physical cues that kids are doing something they shouldn’t, suggests Owens. It’s natural for students to test boundaries. If a student gets off-task, be consistent in your response.

12. Help kids troubleshoot.

List several potential problems, such as “What do I do if I have my headphones on and I can’t hear,” along with solutions, in anchor charts posted throughout the classroom. “We need them to push forward by trying something before they come to me,” says Barr.

13. Have a protocol for getting help.

When kids really need his help, Donovan has his high school students get up and write their names on the board to indicate they need his assistance. Then students need to be able to articulate what exactly they have tried and how they are stuck before they get help.

14. Bend down and make eye contact.

When you speak with students, meet them at eye level. Verbally guide them through tasks rather than physically taking over their keyboards.

15. Encourage collaboration.

If students hit a roadblock, try the “ask three before me” approach, says Owens. Have the student tell you who the three students were that he or she asked. “You have to hold a tight line,” she says. “Pick a process and be consistent with it.”

16. Enlist outside support.

Host a blog forum for older students to pose questions to a technology specialist about the software or program they’re using. This allows the teacher to focus on content while the specialist answers other technical questions online.

17. Encourage passion projects.

If students are passionate about a subject, like dinosaurs or robotics, incorporate it into your lessons. A well-designed lesson using technology that gives students a chance to research and weave in content that interests them personally can go a long way to keeping kids engaged, says Wirsing. If your students need some inspiration and your district is registered for Bing in the Classroom, encourage them to look at the educational carousel and explore the Mystery Pic or the Word of the Day. Download Bing’s Bell Ringers Teacher’s Guide for ways to use these resources as a catalyst to get kids thinking and writing about new and interesting topics.

18. Count down together.

Set up online timers so students can see how much time they have left for a certain task. Use an alarm that signals the end of a work session.

19. Create non-verbal cues for finished work.

When students finish, have them close the laptop lid partially or turn in the computer to you. “Have a physical way of letting you know with the laptop that they are done, so then they aren’t going on to other games or websites,” says Owens. “Then you can focus on the instruction and quickly assess whether half the class is done or not.”

20. Teach respect for devices.

Have kids charge the devices, wipe them down and put them away carefully. Wrap cords with pipe cleaners so they don’t dangle. Wrap up headphones and earphones for easy storage. Explain the impact a damaged or missing laptop could have on the entire class to encourage responsible use, suggests Barr.