Kicking the mobile phone habit

I used to charge my phone on my bedside table. First thing in the morning I would reach for my phone, check Twitter, check Instagram, check my emails, read the news headlines, check the weather, see whether anything new had popped into Twitter whilst I’d been doing the other things….

Last thing at night, the same thing was happening. I’d go to bed, but it would sometimes be over an hour before I finally put my phone down to go to sleep. Instead I’d be scrolling, scrolling, through screen after screen of rubbish. Why?

I knew it was a bad habit. I’d read the reports that said you should avoid looking at screens two hours or more before going to bed, because the bright light suppresses the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. And, sure enough, I wasn’t sleeping well. But when I woke up in the night, I’d reach for my phone, kidding myself that it was just to check the time…but as my phone unlocked, I’d see a notification symbol and fall into the trap of “just checking” to see what had happened. And, before I knew it, I’d be back to scrolling in the dark, my face lit up by the eerie glow of the screen. I knew it was unhealthy, but my willpower wasn’t up to resisting the temptation.

I used to read books voraciously. I hadn’t read a proper book at bedtime for ages. I was tired all the time. Something had to change.

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My saviour – a no-frills alarm clock

At the end of the summer holidays, I bought myself a back-to-school present: a no-frills alarm clock. I’d been using my phone alarm for years: “I have to have my phone by the bed, because it wakes me up in the morning!” I’d been kidding myself. It was just an excuse. It had to stop.

Buying the alarm clock was a deliberate attempt to break my bad habits. The one I chose has the following features:

  • Orange display: orange and red lighting has the least impact on suppressing melatonin, so is the best choice for night light
  • Fade-able display: to reduce the brightness in the dark, which again encourages the release of melatonin
  • Battery backup: so I know I’ll get woken up even if there’s a powercut
  • No frills: so it won’t be a distraction

It cost about £15 on Amazon. I plugged it in next to my bed, and unplugged my phone charger, taking it downstairs. From August 31st, I was in a new habit. Before bed, I’d plug my phone in to charge downstairs, and then go up to read. No more pointless last-thing-at-night or first-thing scrolling; no more having my evenings disturbed by emails which can definitely wait until morning; more reading of actual books at bedtime; less screen-time; more sleep.

The change has been miraculous. I still use my phone – I rely on it for so many things! But I have completely kicked the habit of night-time and morning scrolling. I’ve slept better. The school hasn’t collapsed because I haven’t been checking my emails at two in the morning. I haven’t missed out on anything. And I have read so many books!

Our phones are useful tools, and make life easier in so many ways. But the temptation of the notification can be all-consuming, and they can be addictive. How many of us are kidding ourselves that we need our phones with us all the time? Do we really?

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At Churchill we have a simple rule: “my mobile phone will not be seen or heard in the Academy at any time.” One of the reasons for this rule is to encourage good habits in our students. They don’t need to have their phones glued to their hands at all times. They don’t need to reach for it “just to check the time” – the trap of the tempting notification awaits. They can focus on their learning without the distraction of the device. They can and should be interacting with their peers IRL, not through their screens. And although the impact of mobile phones and social media on mental health is controversial, ensuring that there is time away from the newsfeed, the photostream and the snapstreak encourages a healthy balance.

As adults, we need to model the good behaviours we expect in young people, and turn away from the screens and towards the people around us. We just need to take a positive step to break our bad habits, before it’s too late. 

Post script: since September I’ve read these books:

  • Cross Fire by Malorie Blackman
  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood
  • One Day by David Nicholls
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
  • The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
  • The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

They’ve all been brilliant!

Welcome Back!

The 2019-20 academic year has got off to a flying start this week. Monday and Tuesday were staff training days, focusing on our four Academy priorities, before we welcomed our Year 7-12 students back on Wednesday and our Year 13 on Thursday.

Inset Days

During our first training day on Monday, staff received training on both behaviour and teaching and learning, as well as important briefings on safeguarding and inclusion. There was also time put aside for staff to work in their faculty and house teams to prepare for the year ahead.

On the second training day, all staff spent the morning working with an expert trainer exploring mental health issues, so that we can continue our efforts to support the mental health of our students. This is a complex area, but vitally important for us as a school which values the personal accomplishments of our young people – their character, wellbeing, and attitude to learning – in equal measure to their academic progress.

The Academy Site

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A huge amount of work has gone on across the Academy Site over the summer. This includes:

  • Completion of the new reception and administration hub at the heart of the school. This facility brings together all of the administration functions – finance, human resources, office, reprographics, reception, medical – into one location, increasing our efficiency and effectiveness by creating a “one stop shop” for students, staff and visitors.
  • Completion of the new staff and sixth form car park on the footprint of the old Tudor building, which will help reduce the number of cars pared on the narrow country roads around the Academy and allow safer drop-off and pick-up in the Sports Centre car park. This work has been accompanied by a striking new “Tower” design (more of which in a future blog!)
  • Completion of a new social area for students on the site of the old reception and office area
  • Redecoration of the Windsor / Maths classrooms, complete with new furniture and carpeting. This makes a big difference to the teaching and learning, reducing echo and preventing chair-scraping noises, as well as dampening sound to create a quieter, more focused classroom environment.
  • Planting along the central broadwalk, designed by the Academy’s Green Team, creating a beautiful space which will thrive as the new plants grow and spread.

I want to pay a public tribute to our amazing Site Team, IT Network Team, contractors and administration staff who have achieved an astonishing amount in a very short space of time. The Academy looked wonderful when the students arrived on Wednesday!

Focus on behaviour

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In my first assemblies with the four Houses on Wednesday, I spoke to students about our expectations of their behaviour. In consultation with students, we have revised our code of conduct so that our expectations of behaviour align with the Academy’s values of kindness, curiosity and determination. I’d like thanks to Mrs Griffiths, who led this project alongside the student representatives. The final document, pictured above, captures our high expectations of student behaviour in positive, inclusive language which links smoothly with our vision and values. I know that our students will respond well to this revision, which they helped to shape, so that we can continue to ensure that our students’ behaviour supports their learning.

I also introduced students to the revival of the Inter House Competition, which we will run this year towards the award of the House Cup – but I will save that for a future blog!

My overwhelming feeling over this first week has been one of immense pride. It is an honour to be the Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, working with such dedicated and expert colleagues in the teaching and support staff, and so many wonderful students. I am excited about the year ahead – there’s no limit to what we can achieve. 

Controlling screen time: tools for parents

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Smartphones, tablets, smart watches and the like are incredible tools. For many of us, they have become essential parts of our daily lives, enabling us to be connected around the clock to all manner of useful services, alongside all the collected information in the world at the tap of a screen, or a quick “Hey Siri…”

However, these devices have a darker side. There has been much discussion in the media of the dangers of screen time, particularly for children. I was intrigued to read, in an article for the New York Times, that top executives in Silicon Valley keep their children away from the products that they themselves are creating:

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads

Research continues to show the extent of our addiction to mobile phones, whilst other studies find links between screen time and mental health problems. It is these concerns, among others, that have led us to hold fast to our ban on mobile devices at Churchill Academy; for main school students, mobile devices should not be seen or heard in the Academy at any time. We expect our students to be developing their social skills by having face-to-face conversations, and we want our school to be an oasis of calm away from the constant demands of notifications, group chats, news feeds and snapstreaks. You can read my previous post about our reasons for banning mobile phones in school here. And the message appears to be sinking in with our students: the winning team in this week’s public speaking competition prepared their presentation on the theme of phone overuse.

But what about when children are at home? How can parents manage and monitor children’s access to devices? I don’t think a total ban is helpful; these devices are superb tools for learning and entertainment as well as for communication. When children are travelling independently it is reassuring to know that have a phone with them if they need it.

I do, however, think that limits are helpful. Parents at our curriculum information evenings earlier in the year were keen to manage children’s screen time, but many said that they didn’t know how. Here are some tools that you might find useful in helping you in this rapidly developing field.

Apple: Families and Screen Time

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Apple’s Screen Time options – you can create personalised settings for your children

The Apple iOS has family controls built in. It’s the system my family uses and I find the tools really helpful. It allows an adult to set up an account for children under the age of 13, and you can continue to monitor and manage your children’s accounts up to the age of 18. I use the Family Sharing feature so we can share subscriptions and app purchases, but within Family Sharing you can also use Screen Time to set privacy and content restrictions. The “Ask to Buy” feature means you can control which apps your children download. Within Screen Time you can use four features to set the right limits for your children:

  1. Downtime: you can set “downtime” for a specific period. During this time, only phone calls and apps that you choose to allow are available. The default is for Downtime to be set overnight, but parents might consider setting Downtime during the school day as well, to reduce the temptation to sneak a look at the phone in the bag…
  2. App Limits: you can set daily time limits for different categories of apps each day. For example you could limit social networking time, games time, or entertainment time separately and independently. When children hit their limit, they are locked out automatically. They can message you to ask for more time, and you can decide whether or not you want to allow it.
  3. Always allowed: in this area, you can decide which apps should always be allowed even if children have hit their app limit or if they are in scheduled downtime. This means that you can contact your children in an emergency – or they could contact you – providing you with peace of mind and allowing you to decide which apps children can use.
  4. Content and privacy restrictions: within this area, you can allow or prevent your children installing and deleting apps, or making in-app purchases. You can also decide which of the pre-installed apps your children are allowed to use. Finally, within “content restrictions” you can set age-appropriate limits for the music, films, TV programmes, books and apps your children can view and use. Most useful, I think, is control over web content to prevent children accessing adult websites. You can also add particular websites to your children’s devices which are always allowed, or never allowed.
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Example content restrictions in Screen Time for iOS

 

Android: Parental Controls and Google Family Link

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Google’s Family Link app enable parents to monitor children’s usage and set appropriate controls and limits

The Android operating system has similar controls to iOS, but they aren’t all built in. You can set up parental controls on Google Play, but if you want to stay on top of your children’s usage you need a separate app called Google Family Link. Family link lets you manage your child’s screen time in a similar way to Apple’s Screen Time, but it also includes a handy feature highlighting teacher-recommended apps to help your children use their devices constructively. As with iOS, you can also track your children’s location using Google Family Link. I’m not an expert on Android, but this handy “how-to” from TechAdvisor is a good step-by-step guide to setting everything up. There’s even a Family Link app for iOS so Apple users can monitor children’s usage of Android devices!

How much time is too much time?

As a Headteacher and a parent, I am concerned about the amount of time our children spend looking at a screen. I share those concerns about myself as an adult, and I am using Screen Time to control and monitor my own mobile phone usage this year! It is for each family to decide what the limits should be for their own children. These limits will depend upon the children’s ages, their maturity, and the level of responsibility and control they have shown they are ready for. However, I am completely convinced that there should be limits set, no matter how mature and responsible the child is.

These devices are fantastic – but being glued to them all the time cannot be good for us, and it is our responsibility to ensure our children get into good habits and develop a healthy relationship with their phones and tablets.