Physical, Psychological, and
Cognitive Effects for Children
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,
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
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
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
- Corporal punishment communicates to children that violence is
an acceptable method of solving problems and dealing with
- 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
- Other methods of discipline are available which are not only
extremely effective, but which are also not associated with
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
- 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,
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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