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Group Contingencies: A simple method for decreasing the use of cell phones in a High school classroom

By Jessica Bacon
March 23, 2021
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Cell phone usage can negatively impact academic performance.


In July of 2018, the French government passed a law banning cell phones in schools (CNN, 2018).  This law arrived on the heels of several studies detailing just how much cell phone use negatively impacted students.  One such study published in the Journal of Communication Education found that students who were actively using cell phones during class lecture recorded less information in their notes and scored more than a  full letter grade lower on multiple-choice tests than students who did not have access to cell phones (Kuznekoff &Titworth, 2013). 

Another study by the London School of Economics and Political Science traced the impact of banning mobile phones at schools on test scores. This study found that students in schools with cell phone bans earned higher test scores and that low-performing students benefited the most.  The study concluded that “Restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities” (Beland & Murphy, 2015). 

In the U.S., school policies on cell phone usage vary widely with at least half of school principals allowing the use of mobile devices (Project Tomorrow, 2013).  Many educators also feel that the use of cell phones can benefit students, as well, and since they have become a fixture of modern life, teaching students how to appropriately leverage this tool should probably be considered a critical skill.  However, given that students have access to cell phones during academic time, and the awareness that it can significantly impact learning in a negative way, school personnel need to have strategies to help control usage.

A simple method for decreasing the use of cell phones among adolescents.

While it may be difficult to establish universal school policies regarding the usage of cell phones in classrooms, it may be easier than we think to decrease usage during academic blocks.  A recent study outlines a simple yet very effective method for reducing the use of cell phones among High school students, often achieving 0 rates of occurrence during lecture (Jones et al, 2019).  The intervention that was used in this study is simple; students were allowed 10 minutes of free time to access their cell phones at the end of an academic block, as long as no student attempted to access their phone during the academic block. If any student, at any point during the learning block, tried to use their phones then ALL students lost their free time and had to participate in typical end-of-class tasks and routines. 

This procedure is called an interdependent group contingency which means that the behavior of all students within a group must meet or exceed a predetermined criteria, and then the reward (reinforcer) is delivered to all members of the group. One benefit of a group contingency is that it typically benefits the entire group and not just one student. Although just a few students were identified as engaging in very high rates of unauthorized cell phone usage, this intervention plan was effective in reducing cell phone usage for all students.  Prior to the intervention, an average of 88% of students used their cell phones during class. When the group contingency was in place, this number dropped to 16.5% of students using their cell phones with half of the sessions having no students using their cell phones at any point during the academic block.  These results suggest that having uninterrupted access to “free time” on their cell phones at the end of class was more desirable to the students than having interrupted time on their phones during class. 


Research surrounding classroom management tends to focus more on younger students and less on High school environments, but interdependent group contingencies can be effective in reducing a broad range of disruptive behaviors in upper-grade classrooms including inappropriate vocalizations, off-task behavior, and out-of-seat behavior (Mitchell et al, 2015).  The study outlined above, targeting unauthorized cell phone usage in class, demonstrated significant change resulting from this simple, no-cost intervention.  Additionally, evidence suggests that reducing cell phone usage may play a significant role in increasing academic performance and participation among High school students. While schools continue to identify and integrate best practices regarding cell phone policies, educators will need to adopt strategies to support and manage appropriate cell phone use.


CNN.(2018). France Bans Smartphones from Schools. Retrieved from


Kuznekoff, J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62, 233-252.


Project Tomorrow. (2013). The New Digital Learning Playbook: Understanding the Spectrum of Students' Activities and Aspirations.  Retrieved from https://tomorrow.org/speakup/pdfs/SU13StudentsReport.pdf

Mitchel, R., Tingstrom, D., Dufrene, B., Ford, W.B. (2015). The effects of the good gehavior game with general-education High school students.  School Psychology Review, 44, 199-2087.

Jones, M., Allday, R.A., Givens, A. (2019). Reducing adolescent cell phone usage using an interdependent group contingency. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 52, 386-393.

Beland, L.P. & Murphy, R. (2016). Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. Labour Economics, 41, 61-76.


Keywords: adolescents, teenagers, High school, cell phones, classroom management, cell phone usage, group management, group contingencies

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