16 Feb 2024

'It feels like a blanket thing for all children' - neurodiverse kids struggle with phone ban

8:07 am on 16 February 2024
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Some parents say the phone ban policy had already made school life harder for their children. Photo: 123RF

Some neurodiverse children are struggling with the government's 'away for the day' ban on phones in schools.

The government's ban on mobile phones comes into force at the start of term two, although many schools have already implemented the policy.

Under the new rules, schools must ensure students do not use a phone at school, including during lunch-time and breaks, although there are exemptions.

But parents say some schools are not providing exemptions from the ban, forcing them to find new strategies to help their children get through the day.

One parent - who asked not to be named - said the policy had already made school life harder for her children.

She said both were neurodivergent and attended a secondary school where phones had previously been banned from classrooms, unless they were needed for the lesson.

"So during class time not much has really changed in terms of their use. The difference is now that for children, and I have neuro-divergent and neurologically disabled children, they are very aware that there's a ban and they won't ask for permission to use it, they don't want to appear different," she said.

She said one of her children had an exemption, but would not use their phone because they did not want to attract attention from other students, while the other could no longer use their phone to remind them which class they had to attend next.

"The best way of managing and helping children who've got ADHD is to figure out strategies to help them manoeuvre their way through a neurotypical world, and that makes it really tricky when you've been working on all those strategies and suddenly they've been ripped out from under you and you've got to go back to scratch and learn some new ones," she said.

"We can work with having ratty paper timetables in pockets that get lost every day and we can work with trying to set up reminders and alerts on a new device, a Macbook for example which is allowed, but you're starting from scratch that's the whole thing. Of course there's more than one way to do things and a phone is not the only way, but simply banning it doesn't put in place the strategies and structures that are needed."

She said she did not have a problem with children not using phones when they're in class directly engaged in their learning.

"But I don't understand why this needs to extend through to lunch-times and break times. Why can't these kids be checking their timetables on their phone and checking what class they've got next and what work they might need to do and what books they need to get out of their locker. Why is that such an issue?"

She said the phone ban was ableist and ignored the difficulties neuro-divergent children faced.

She said her children thought the ban was stupid and expected students would try to get around it by using their phones in the toilets during breaks.

"This is the problem with a ban and they can see right through this. A ban just encourages sneaking around," she said.

"I'm not promoting that they should always be on their phones at all times but bans don't work and bans are ableist and that's what my kids are telling us."

'It feels like it's been a blanket thing for all children'

Another mother, Sue, told RNZ her daughter was struggling with not being able to use her phone during breaks.

"With her ADHD and struggling socially she's like 'I don't have any friends, who am I meant to hang out with, what am I meant to do, sit and stare at a wall'. That's what she struggles with, it emphasises the fact that she has no friends," she said.

"I'm just seeing how it goes and if she does adapt to it but it's tough. It feels like it's been a blanket thing for all children and kids that are neurodiverse and have those extra needs that they use their phones for haven't been taken into account."

But the mother of a 15-year-old with ADHD and dyslexia, Hannah, said the phone ban was working well for her son.

"He found children with phones in class were really disruptive. They would be playing music doing Tiktoks, lots of social media and bullying online so it's really creating a much better educational space for him," she said.

Autism New Zealand and IHC said phones were useful for many children with disabilities and they would closely watch how schools were applying the ban.

The Education Ministry said exemptions for health or learning needs were decided and managed by schools.

"Any parent or caregiver with concerns about how exemptions are being applied should approach the school in the first instance. If they are not happy with the outcome they can contact their local Te Mahau office for advice," it said.

Tick-tock replaces TikTok

James Hargest College principal Mike Newell told RNZ the phone ban was going better than he expected.

"We're still having students that are breaking the rule as they do but nowhere near the number that we thought and teachers are reporting that it's going really well," he said.

"It's really noisy at break times now because kids are talking to each other and there's a lot more people going out to play, be active on the field. So we're putting in more handball and four-square going back to some of those things. So already we can see it has a positive impact."

However, Newell said an unexpected consequence of the phone ban was the school needed to ensure students could keep track of the time of day.

"We've had to put a whole lot of clocks in rooms. Problem there though is a lot of kids these days can't tell time on an old clock so there's another learning opportunity."

Newell said the school required students to keep phones and other devices with mobile capability turned off in their bags from the first bell at 8.55am until the end of the school day at 3.20pm.

He said some students had exemptions for medical reasons and teachers could apply to senior managers for exemptions allowing phone use in particular lessons.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Chris Abercrombie said the union's members had indicated that applying for exemptions so students could use phones in class could prove to be an ongoing irritation.

"Some of our subjects use phones all the time. Take art as a good example - you know taking photos of stuff, creating stuff with their phones. So now the art teachers have to get an exemption from the school to do this and there's a few ways they can do that.

"They can get a blanket exemption, they can get a case-by-case exemption but it just adds this extra layer of things that need to happen before you can just get on with the teaching and learning," he said.

Abercrombie said teenagers who received exemptions to use their phones for medical or learning reasons might be reluctant to do so.

"You don't want to be the kid that gets to use their phone," he said.

"I've definitely heard that and it's not just neurodiverse students but students with diabetes monitoring their blood-sugars, I've heard of those kind of conversations and not wanting to be seen to be different and we know that's a big issue for our young people."

Abercrombie said some teachers had mentioned positive effects since their school implemented the phone ban such as students talking with one another more.

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