Habits of Mind in a World Full of Technological Distractions


Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind.

Daniel will be presenting on select topics in Special Education, Executive Functioning, & Habits of Mind. Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics to In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 



What is with 212? If you’re a baseball enthusiast it could stand for a less than mediocre batting average. If you live in Manhattan it could represent your area code. If you’re splurging on a night out to dinner with a few friends it could serve as the total cost of your bill. Or, maybe the number is perceived differently depending on the person, or might just have no connection at all……it’s just a number.

In this particular case, the number constitutes an amazing discovery with an eye-opening revelation on the significance of a major problem within education. And, this number should serve as a PSA for all schools across the nation. To obtain this number all it took was a tally counter and an 87-minute observation. Alright, so what’s the number mean?

Let me paint the picture. In an 87-minute sophomore inclusive English classroom at a high school, consisting of 12 students, the whole class was dedicated to workshopping on their projects. The term “workshopping” in reference to this classroom means that two teachers offer opportunities to support and provide one-on-one assistance for the whole class. During these time students have the opportunity to work by themselves, with a partner, in groups, or with one of the teachers. In addition, students are able to use their laptop devices as a means for research and project production. This is a common teaching philosophy within a high school classroom that offers a significant amount of time and opportunity for students to be focused, creative, insightful, metacognitive, and successful with completing a project and/or assignment. Here was the problem. During that 87-minute time span students impulsively interacted with their phones 212 times. Yes, 212 times! That is mind-boggling!

So, what constitutes an “interaction” with the phone? For the purpose of this observation, when a student was engaged in accessing their phone and viewing the screen, that was considered an interaction. Something as simple as a time check to a more intensive time-consuming action, such as taking a Snapchat break, writing a text, or scrolling through Instagram, either way, their focus was interrupted. Some interactions ranged from a second up to two minutes. If you divide the number of interactions by the number of students it comes out to 17.666 times, that being close to 18 times per student. Eighteen times throughout the block each student interacted with their phone! Although, in this observation, there were students who were more frequent “interactors” than others.

So, maybe it was the teachers not doing their job—that being monitoring this issue? This may sound like a lack of supervision on the teachers’ part, but that was not the case. It is important to note that the two teachers within the classroom have a combined 30 plus years of teaching experience and are well-respected educators within their building. At no point during the observation did these teachers lose control of the class, model unwanted behaviors, or promote an unfocused learning environment. It was actually the opposite; it was observed that students were working intently, focused, and non-disruptive. As the goal was to complete half of the writing assignment, that being 400 plus words within a document along with four areas of dialogue, the outcome was not met by any of the twelve students.

This lack of success conjured up many questions. Here are a few:

  • Why was the goal not attained?
  • What could be the major contributor to the problem?
  • How could this problem be fixed?

It all came down this: 212.

It’s a constant!

If you are a teacher and/or administrator, I am sure the above narrative is nothing new to what you are observing on an everyday basis within the educational environment. And, no matter what we do in “taming this beast”, it will never fade. The impulsive reach for a cell phone will always remain an instant source of connection while simultaneously serving as a constant distraction; this just not being in school, but in life beyond the classroom.

Let’s be realistic: this is just as much of a problem with adults as it is children. When teachers model instant access and an ability to check a missed call, Facebook update, or a text message in the middle of class, what message does that send to students? The saying goes, and it is true, “What we permit we promote.” Although, what if we could decrease cell phone use and set strategies to remedy these issues in the form of increasing productive habits and executive functioning skills. And, all while directing and steering that internal compass within students to actually want to eliminate distractions, and instead build success. Is this possible?

The Pros and The Cons

The debate over cell phone use within the learning environment has created unclear messages to all educators across the country. Some believe cell phones distract the learning environment while others make the case that these devices are valuable when used effectively and with purpose. For years this topic has been a revolving door in how educators and school districts perceive this battle. Before continuing it is important that we consider both sides of this revolving door by entertaining pros and cons.


  • Instant connectivity to information and sources that enhance understanding of content
  • Offers the ability to stay organized, keep reminders, and plan ahead by using calendars
  • Incorporates the practice of self-monitoring and impulse control skills
  • Creates opportunities for collaboration in and outside of the classroom


  • Social and emotional well-being could be affected and negatively impact learning
  • Distracts intentionality and purpose on assignments, learning, and focus
  • Decreases opportunity to reflect, build creativity, and practice metacognition
  • Feeds the “addiction” that cell phones pose (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)

As it is always important to weigh both sides, as we did above, it is equally important to recognize our diverse learners within the classroom. By considering our students’ strengths and weaknesses, executive functioning skills, and metacognitive abilities within the learning environment, I believe it is safe to say that we need to monitor cell phone use by developing a plan. Not just a typical cell phone policy plan; this plan needs to be intentional. By intentional I mean building the skills, actions, and behaviors in forming an internal compass within students. And, on how to be productive in learning when in the vicinity of their cell phone.

How do we make this change?

The Plan of Action

The number 212 sticks! This high volume of phone interaction within an 87-minute class—it’s unfathomable and problematic, especially for teachers. One teacher might recommend that all cell phones need to be shut off and put away. Another teacher might dock points for being off-task. Others may confiscate phones and send them to the office. As for myself, I find this situation presents optimism, opportunity, and a valuable component to teaching real-life skills. Particularly for a classroom of diverse learners, who present varying learning disabilities, ADHD, social and emotional disorders, or suffer from anxiety…they could all benefit in controlling impulses and directing focus on specific tasks. If I were to preach one message to all educators it would be “Make the cell phones part of the skills, not the problem.”

This is how we do it. Look at it as a daily goal, objective, or standard for the classroom. Find a place in the room—post it and live by it. Below is the goal statement I would use:

By infusing Habits of Mind along with Executive Functioning strategies in building more positive actions and behaviors, with and without the cell phones, our classroom will increase the opportunity to present the desired skills needed in order to be effective in learning, focusing, and being overall successful within the course.

Below are strategies that will elicit this goal in order to build a more effective, focused, intentional, and productive learning environment. All while learning the skills demanded in a world full of technological distractions.


Habits of Mind and EF Strategies

Hyperfocus and Persisting

Set a reasonable amount of time to hyperfocus on an activity. By Hyperfocus, I mean “working solely on one activity/assignment with no distractions.” That entails the phone being put away somewhere out of sight, no talking, and physically being in a spot within the classroom where productivity and focus can shine. When the time ends students then have an opportunity for a break to do as they please.

For example, in Spanish classroom students are given 10 minutes to review their vocabulary words for a quiz at the end of the block. After an opening warm-up activity to begin the class, the teacher sets a timer for 10 minutes. Students are then instructed to put away phones, laptop devices, take a minute to get mentally focused, and find an area in the classroom ideal for optimal focus in order to practice persisting through Hyperfocus. Once everyone is ready the timer begins. It is all about the vocabulary note cards and the student…nothing else. When the timer goes off students can feed their urge for technology…you know, check Snapchat!

Pull from Working Memory Files

In many classrooms, the reach for cell phones occurs before class even begins. Adolescent fingers swiping, typing, and taking selfies—all while decreasing their ability to get focused and transition into learning. What do you do?

How about a smooth transition into learning by pulling on working memory? Simply direct students to use their phones to inquire about a subject, topic, question, or idea connected to prior class learning. Recapture learning through instant connectivity. This is a great way to feed the “urge” while transitioning to storing phones away and getting ready for instruction.

Intentional Scatterfocus to Spark Up the Creative, Imaginative, & Innovative Student

Connecting the dots between one idea and another is what developing creative ideas is all about. And, yes…we all have a creative side! Sometimes a quiet session of thinking—I mean just thinking, could bring out a new idea, insight, or connection to a topic. When we let our brains scatter in various directions while staying focused on a specific intention or topic, you never know what may come of it. Additionally, it lends value and significance into the true meaning of the habit Creating, Imagining, and Innovating.

A little confused about what Scatterfocus looks, feels, and sounds like? Here is an example of how I infused this concept within my classroom. Every Friday I devote 20 minutes of Scatterfocus within the classroom by posting a thought-provoking question on the board. Take this question for example: “If you could build your dream house, what would it look like? Use the habit of Creating, Imagining, and Innovating within your thinking.” This question allows students to take 15 minutes to sit back and just think about the topic—in silence. As they are thinking they can write down any ideas, draw pictures, or doodle about the open-minded topic. There are no restrictions to their thinking except that their thoughts need to show some creative and imaginative ideas. When 10 minutes have passed, students take five minutes to share their ideas with the whole group or with a partner.

Now, let’s see what it would look like within an assignment or activity. For example, let’s say students in a history class have to create a PowerPoint that will guide their presentation about a famous president. The takeaway from each presentation needs to be “Wow, that was interesting! I learned something new and interesting.” By offering six minutes of Scatterfocus quiet thinking time each day before working on PowerPoints, students have an opportunity to build creativity and something original—with the main objective being, “How can I make this presentation creative, imaginative, and innovative for all my peers?” No phones allowed during thinking time…only paper, a writing utensil, and their thoughts…now connect the dots!

Planning and Organizing your Goal Setting

A golden rule of teaching is that any activity, project, or assignment in class should be related to a goal. In order for students to reach that goal, a plan and organizational strategy needs to be put in place. For example, in health class, this may look like assigning students to verbally explain eight different areas of the brain along with how each area functions within 30 minutes. The goal is that students will be able to identify and express their knowledge of the areas of the brain. This is a task that requires mental focus and energy to accomplish, especially within 30 minutes. Without planning and organizing beforehand this assignment could lead to failure. No plan, no organization, often leads to no success. So, what does the planning and organizing look like in order to meet a goal?

Here is an example of an organizational plan. In a math class students are given 60 minutes to complete 10-word problems. A student’s planning and organizing of their path to success may look like this (and they should write it out like this):

  • Complete four problems in 20 minutes
  • Take a five-minute phone break
  • Complete three more problems in 15 minutes
  • Take a four-minute phone break
  • Finish the last three problems
  • If time remains, it is open game for the phone!

It is important that children learn to take breaks, disconnect, rewire their brains, and then get back on task—this is something everyone can find valuable.

Remain Open to Continuous Learning with a Daily Share

Life is all about learning. And, even more important, we all can learn from each other. Why not capitalize on these opportunities. For example, instead of making a transition into another activity without a break, offer up a three-minute tech share opportunity. It can be about anything related to a news link, intriguing site, Snapchat of a celebrity, or a new app that somebody found interesting. You would be surprised what kids have to offer.

The teacher should be the leader in this endeavor by modeling and promoting the need for Remaining Open to Continuous Learning.

Thinking Interdependently while Resisting Urge

It is safe to say that even when students work together in groups they can still easily find ways to digress from the main task. One way to hold groups accountable while building unity is to offer a Group Phone Bin. It could be a metal coffee can, basket, or box placed in the center of the table which holds every group members’ phone. No one can reach for their phone until they have met the goal(s) the group set.

For example, a group of four students in a science class takes 5 minutes to design a work schedule for how they are going to successfully finish their rock classification lab. This schedule allows for two five-minute phone breaks throughout the class. As a group, everyone agrees that they will not check their phones and instead solely focus on working and thinking interdependently to finish the lab with success.

It’s amazing what accountability within a community can do!

Will 212 ever happen again?

The number 212 will probably never leave my mind in connection to an “interaction.” And, sadly, I am sure that 212 doesn’t even come close to other higher “interactions” in classrooms around the country. Although, there is one thing I am sure of when it comes to my classroom and philosophy with cell phones; that is, I will use them as a way to teach productive habits and executive functioning skills within the learning environment. These are the lessons that can increase students understanding of themselves as learners, and as individuals, in how they set forth on their journey in life beyond high school.


This post is part of a series. View the full Special Education series by Dan Vollrath here.

See all posts from Dan Vollrath.


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