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Corporal Punishment:

Physical, Psychological, and Cognitive Effects for Children

Beth O'Boyle Ph.D.



Corporal punishment has been defined as the "...purposeful infliction of bodily pain or discomfort by an official in the educational system upon a student as a penalty for unacceptable behavior. The infliction of pain is not limited to spanking, but includes any action that produces excessive physical discomfort.... Physical force or constraint that is used by a school official to protect someone from physical injury, to disarm a student, or to protect property from damage is not considered corporal punishment." (Poole, Ushkow, Nader, Bradford, Asbury, Worthington, Sanabria, & Carruth, 1991, p.162)

Besides being subjected to "spankings", children in American schools have also been slapped, kicked, shoved, shaken, choked, tied to furniture, thrown against walls, denied bathroom privileges, denied food or water, and forced to consume noxious substances, all in the name of "discipline" (Cryan, 1987; Hyman & Lally, 1982; Poole, et. al., 1991). In other settings, such acts might be classified as "abusive".

Current Trends in American Schools

Historically, children have been granted little protection from physical punishment under federal law. In Ingraham vs. Wright (1977), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the paddling of two male students did not constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment (which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment). The court reasoned that the Eight Amendment was intended to protect individuals charged or convicted of a crime and therefore, did not apply to school-aged students. The court further reasoned that because schools are public institutions that are (presumably) supervised by communities, there is little opportunity for the misuse of corporal punishment.

Even in cases such as Hall vs. Tawney (1980), in which the court ruled that "excessive" corporal punishment violated students' rights to due process (the right to a hearing prior to administration of punishment), the courts have made it clear that it is the student who carries the burden of proving that the punishment is "excessive" (as opposed to placing the burden of proof upon school officials to show that punishment is "reasonable").

Despite recent campaigns aimed at abolishing corporal punishment in schools, only 26 states (including New York) have either statutes or State Board of Education Regulations banning it's use. It is estimated, in fact, that one to two million incidents of physical punishment occur in American schools annually (Poole, et. al., 1991). Of these yearly incidents, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 students incur injuries so severe that medical attention is warranted. Reports of injuries that have resulted from corporal punishment have included: sciatic nerve damage, brain hemorrhages, bruises, broken bones, whiplash, and in some cases, death (Hyman & Lally, 1982). In the U.S., the states with the highest rates of corporal punishment are in schools in the Southeast. The lowest rates, by contrast, are among Northeastern schools (Greydanus, Pratt, Greydanus, Hofmann, & Tsegaye-Spates, 1992; Poole, et. al., 1991).

The Use of Corporal Punishment in the Home

Corporal punishment appears to be an even more common method of discipline among American families. Eighty to ninety-five percent of high school and college students report that they were spanked at some point during their childhood. Similarly, 61% of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 5 report spanking their children an average of three times a week (Giles-Sims, Straus, & Sugarman, 1995). This averages out to a single child being spanked more than 150 times a year.

Psychological, Behavioral, and Cognitive Effects on Children

Given the frequency with which corporal punishment is administered in the U.S. (within both homes and schools), the consequences of such "discipline" must be examined. One consequence of corporal punishment is physical abuse. When physical punishment fails in it's intended effect (the reduction of undesirable behavior), it is often intensified, resulting in serious physical injury to children (Carey, 1993). Corporal punishment has also been associated with a variety of psychological and behavioral problems in children, such as anxiety, depression, increased aggressiveness, modeling of punishing behavior, social withdrawal, delinquency, substance abuse, and impaired self-concept (Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991; Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997).

Physical discipline has even been negatively correlated with levels of cognitive ability. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire (Strauss, M) found that children of non-spanking parents scored significantly higher on tests of cognitive ability than children whose parents spanked them frequently. It is possible that non-spanking parents spend more time reasoning with their children (explaining to their children why certain behaviors are wrong) than parents who chose to discipline their children physically. These types of verbal parent-child interactions, in fact, are believed to play an important role in promoting cognitive development.

Why do parents/schools use Corporal Punishment?

With so many adverse side effects associated with corporal punishment, one has to question the reason for it's widespread use as a method of discipline. One reason may be that corporal punishment provides immediate, but temporary suppression of the undesirable behavior (Goldstein, 1998; Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991). Indeed, parents and teachers often find themselves administering physical punishment to a child repeatedly for the same offense (Goldstein, 1988). Therefore, although administering corporal punishment may be reinforcing for the parent/administrator (by providing immediate relief from difficult behavior), this form of discipline will have little long-term effect.

Additional Reasons For Not Using Corporal Punishment

Besides the many adverse side effects associated with corporal punishment, there are several other reasons for prohibiting it's use:

  • Corporal punishment communicates to children that violence is an acceptable method of solving problems and dealing with interpersonal conflicts.
  • One reason that many children engage in undesirable behaviors ("acting out") is that they have never been taught alternative ways to behave. Corporal punishment alone does not teach children alternative, appropriate behaviors. In other words, although children may learn what not to do in various situations, they may never have been taught what to do.
  • The effects of corporal punishment (suppression of the undesirable behavior) are not likely to generalize to other contexts or situations; neither do they appear to be maintained over time.
  • Other methods of discipline are available which are not only extremely effective, but which are also not associated with injurious consequences.

What Can Parents/School Administrators Do?

Parents and school administrators can use effective alternatives to Corporal Punishment:

  • Parents/administrators can use techniques to increase cooperative behaviors (rather than using punishment to decrease undesirable behaviors). Children should be taught prosocial skills such as problem solving, anger management, non-aggressive methods of dealing with conflicts, self-monitoring, self-reward, peer mediation and social skills. It is important that teachers and parents not only teach these skills directly, but that they model the skills themselves. An added benefit of these types of interventions is that they are designed to promote internal sources of control (self-control, self-regulation) in children.
  • Immediate, consistent and frequent reinforcement should be provided for appropriate behaviors. Social rewards (praise, positive adult attention, positive peer attention), tangible rewards, or activity rewards are among the types of reinforcers that may be utilized to increase desirable behaviors in children.
  • Time out may be an effective way to remove contingencies maintaining undesirable behavior. If a child acts out in order to gain attention from adults or peers, for instance, time out may be an effective strategy for removing those social rewards and thus, reducing or eliminating the behavior.
  • Non-physical forms of punishment (in conjunction with teaching prosocial skills) may also be effective in reducing disruptive behaviors. Forms of non-physical punishment include verbal reprimands, grounding, increased number of chores, loss of privileges (telephone, television, car) detention, suspension, etc.

Suggested reference for parents

Discipline without shouting or spanking: Practical solutions to the most common preschool behavior problems by Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D. and Barbara C. Unell

Meadowbrook Press
Distributed by Simon & Schuster: New York
Infant and Child Care
Publishers ISBN 0-88166-019-1
S & S ordering # 0-671-54464-0


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