We live in a world of seemingly constant multitasking, but studies show that multitasking actually makes us less efficient. As teachers, we see these distractions on a daily basis in our classrooms. We often find students fiddling with items on their desks, texting on their cell phones, chatting with friends during group work, or doing their homework while we’re teaching. And for those of us who teach in 1:1 classrooms, we also see students clicking back and forth between apps, games, and the internet during class.
We asked teachers to give us their top tips for getting students to stop multitasking in class and start focusing on the lesson. Here’s what they said:
1. Teach a minilesson on multitasking.
Show students why multitasking doesn’t work. Emma Perry suggests having kids write down numbers in order (1, 2, 3, 4, and so on) for about 10–15 seconds. Then have them try to do the same thing while singing the alphabet song. It’s much harder the second time! “Natural fidgeting is fine (rocking, tapping a pencil, etc.),” says Perry. “But explain [that] doing work for another class or talking while trying to learn in yours is like trying to write the numbers while singing.”
2. Try guided meditation.
Nicole Darling points out that monotasking can be a difficult skill even for adults, yet we often expect kids to do it. To help her students focus, she often does guided meditations with her students. She says, “It helps kids learn how to focus and just be in the moments.”
3. Block bad habits.
Lara Z. uses the blocking features in LanSchool, a classroom management software system, to limit the apps and websites her students can access while in class. Teachers can even make updates in real-time if they want to grant access to something for only a portion of class time. “If your district does not have a student-monitoring program, get them to buy one,” says Lara. “It’s a matter of protecting them and you from the blowback that will come when a student inevitably accesses an inappropriate site.”
4. Circulate the classroom.
“Circulating while you teach means that students know their screen can be seen by you at any time,” says Rebecca Bolton. “Unless you’re writing on the board, there’s no reason not to meander a bit. Proximity control is simple, low-tech, and effective.”
5. Find a balance with fidget tools.
“I was the kind of kid who learned better if I was doodling or writing a list—relevant or not. I am still that way in staff meetings,” says Sarah Mattie. “My rule is that your fidget just can’t make noise or leave your hand.” As long as her students can answer all of her questions, she doesn’t mind if they are playing with thinking putty, or most other things, while she’s teaching.
6. Show screens on the SMARTboard.
Broadcast your own screen to all the student screens or use student screens, like Kathleen Morlan. She uses LanSchool to randomly pick a student’s screen to project on her interactive whiteboard. She’ll use a student’s screen to show the steps she wants students to follow, instead of always using her own screen as a model.
7. Use “stoplight” signage.
Brittany Culjan uses colored signs to cue her students about the appropriate times to talk and to be quiet. When she puts a red sign on the board, it means she’s explaining something new; a yellow sign means students can talk quietly about the lesson with the peers at their table; green signals that they are free to discuss or talk while they do their work.
8. Play their games.
If you have a sense of humor, like Morlan, use your monitoring software to takeover a student’s screen and start playing their game. You can bet the student will pay attention for the rest of the class.
9. Put pretty pictures on screens.
If you have monitoring software, like LanSchool, you can easily make your students’ screens go blank when you want them to focus on what you’re saying, but you can also get creative like Morlan. She takes over screens with pictures of old movie stars, like Paul Newman, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood, or a snapshot of beautiful landscapes from her summer travels.
10. “Shark” or “crocodile” laptops.
If you don’t have monitoring software, try this low-tech solution from Lacey Khon, who has her students put their laptop screens at a 45-degree angle to make their devices look like a shark’s or crocodile’s mouth. Monica Thorpe also uses this technique and says it has the added bonus of teaching kids geometry. If you’re using iPads, Khon recommends telling students “Apples up” when you want them to listen, which means their screens go face down on their desks with the Apple logo on the back of the device facing up. Kaywin Cottle recommends asking students to turn off their desktop monitors during lecture time.
11. Create a device barn.
As soon as your students walk into the classroom, have them park their personal devices in the barn until class is over. If you have a classroom parent, Diane Edwards recommends enlisting their support to find someone to build or repurpose a set of cubbies to house student devices. Edwards says a parent or a woodworking class at your local high school or community college might be willing to help.
12. Offer a reward.
Kelly Velazquez incorporates a positive reward system by giving her students points or stamps when they complete their tasks on time. The points earn them game time.
13. Check browser histories.
Monica Thorpe checks her students’ browser history after class, which she says helps them stay focused. Sometimes just knowing you’ll be checking their activity is enough to get kids to stop surfing the internet when they’re supposed to be working.
14. Send students messages.
15. Give directions in a different space.
Gail Boshard has her class sit on the mat when she’s giving directions. They leave their devices, pencils, and any other distracting materials at their desks. “They understand that this is a space of silence and respect,” says Boshard.