several mobile phones stacked on top of one another

Rethinking Phone Policies: Empowering Students, Uniting Educators, and Cultivating Focus in the Classroom

Catherine Steiner-AdairLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

20 years is bound to bring change!

At the gcLi it’s also an opportunity to hold tight to who we are.

It’s an honor to introduce another blog in the series celebrating the gcLi’s 20th anniversary. This one comes from the formidable, international expert and gcLi Institute Scholar Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair.

Though contexts shift, values remain. They ground us and guide us. They give us the courage to lead.

gcLi: You have to go, to know. 

Emily Tymus Ihrke

Editor, gcLi

by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, Institute Scholar, gcLi

In the twenty years since The Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi) was founded, I can think of no more profound disruptor of the principles, values and practices taught at gcLi than the infiltration by phones into schools. Neurological, psychological, and social-emotional development research is converging at an inflection point that is bringing both deep regret of our initial acceptance of phones everywhere and a fundamental rethink of policies and practices associated with these ubiquitous devices at school.

Once you let students have phones in class, it is like giving them a hall pass to leave at any moment, only teachers can’t tell who just went out the door. Or that they will be safe. Or that they will even return to class.  

Out they go into Discord, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, gaming, checking a snap, or texting with mom, camp friends, and sharing pics. Bye! And that doesn’t begin to touch upon what happens when they inadvertently get on the ‘red-line express’- when they receive a bullying post, an upsetting pic of a party they were not invited to, a deep fake porn pic, a violent or racist post. High school students get an average of 235 texts a day, half of them during school.  Students look at a text on average for 19 seconds, but the impact of a single text can last hours, days, or signify the beginning of a mental health crisis. 

Thankfully, it seems as though more and more schools, states, and nations are waking up to the damage phones create throughout the school day and the mental health crisis – anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, sleepless nights and more – experienced by our students. The end of the year is a great time to reflect on the evolution of your school’s approach to phones during the school day and to consider making a change.

I began my research into the impact of smartphones and social media on kids and family relationships in the early 2000s and published The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age in 2013. I began that year helping schools worldwide do a ‘tech assessment,’ examining the impact of their approaches to all aspects of technology at school. Today there is no question that there are excellent academic reasons to include phones in school, when they are linked to a specific pedagogical approach, e.g. teaching tech literacy, which is not to be confused with the gamification of learning, such as in some cases when teachers let kids unilaterally use their phones to ‘make learning more fun.’  

We want our students to be tech savvy! Schools should teach tech ethics, tech health and wellbeing, digital citizenship and how to responsibly navigate the world of social media and AI. However, that does not counter the research that supports extremely limited access to smartphones during the school day.

group of people chattingI remember the first time I heard of a K-12 independent school totally banning phones from the schoolhouse. It’s a story from 2018 that can be instructive to us all today.  

In spring of that year, I was leading an offsite leadership retreat for one school at the Mohonk Retreat Center, when I ran into the head of another school. Dr. Patricia Hayot, the Head of Chapin, was at the same time holding a retreat with her leadership team at Mohonk. Patricia told me that after reading my book, she gave copies to the entire faculty as a required read. When the faculty convened to discuss their own experience of smartphones at Chapin in the context of my research findings, the impact was startling. They realized that use of these devices in school profoundly weakened student engagement with learning and undermined the ability of Chapin’s teachers to be effective. The impact on parents’ connection to the school was noticeable and the group felt achievement of Chapin’s educational mission as a school was at risk.

Dr. Hayot wrote a very transparent letter to parents, outlining a new policy for the coming year and the thinking behind it. Michael Malloy, Head of the Upper School, wrote a similar one to students. No surprise, they got some “feedback”! There was plenty of dysregulation and redlining among students and parents, conversations about how this might negatively impact enrollment, and debates about the legality and safety of the decision. The leadership team and faculty were well prepared and listened actively, answered questions for clarification, and offered wisdom and support to all who were distressed. The policy went into effect in the new school year.

By February, the entire community was grateful. The school culture had gradually shifted. Students were more academically and interpersonally engaged in their classes, talking to each other much more outside of class during free time and in the cafeteria.  Parents weren’t texting kids and disrupting their day, kids were reaching out to teachers and advisors instead of texting their parents, and school spirit was palpably better. Contrary to early speculation, applications to the school did not decline!

This was a BOLD and rare move in 2018, and a beautiful example of what gcLi teaches about a pedagogy of leadership in action! This was before we had the research confirming that the mere presence of an phone on your desk was distracting and anxiety provoking, before we realized that Facebook/Meta could care less about protecting children, and before we learned as much as we know today about the wide range of risk factors and health complications associated with phones in educational settings. 

I continue to work with a range of schools on making practical decisions about tech that are right for their schools, and how to best support the neurological, social, and psychological wellbeing of today’s students. As I encounter different school attempts to specify various ways – where, when, how, and why – to limit how students may continue to access their phones at school, I find that none has eliminated the concerns and complaints about student distraction and teacher frustration. More recently, I hear more and more schools considering total elimination of phone access during the school day, (except for classes with dedicated applications) and requiring students to leave their phones in a locker or Yonder lock box.   

It could be that we are finally at a moment where these reconsiderations by researchers, educators, parents, students, and nations around the world may redress the mental health crisis facing this generation of students and those to come.


Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist, school consultant, speaker, and author. She is the author of the award-winning book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (a WSJ Top 10 Best Nonfiction Book of the Year).

Her work converges on one fundamental mission:
Ensuring that today’s students – our children – have not just the technological tools they need as they inherit the AI future, but the tools of our humanity – the empathy, ethics, social and emotional intelligence and DEI competencies they need to survive and thrive in our ever-changing interconnected world.

Catherine speaks at schools and conferences worldwide, working with students of all ages, and educators, and is a frequent resource to the media. She recently stepped down from 30+ years as a Clinical Instructor and Research Associate Psychologist at Harvard Medical School. She has a private practice which is currently occurring online.