Beating Kids in Schools: How Corporal Punishment Reinforces Bias, Violence, Trauma, Poor Social Problem-Solving, and the Fallacy of Intervention

The Alternative? Eliminate Corporal Punishment by Preventing its Need, and Implementing Interventions that Actually Change Student Behavior

Dear Colleagues,

Early in my career—well over 30 years ago—I spent a fair amount of professional time working with colleagues (many within the National Association of School Psychologists—NASP) to abolish corporal punishment from all schools across the country. Supported by research and practice, I was involved in press conferences with other national association leaders, testimony to state legislative committees, and television and radio talk shows (nope—there were no internet or webinars then—but I did work with “Captain Kangaroo” on this issue).

On numerous occasions, I presented with Dr. Irwin Hyman (now passed) from Temple University. This always entailed an unpredictable theatre of the absurd—because you never knew what Irwin would do.

You see, Irwin was as subtle as a brick wall. Using his sarcastic, bombastic, in-your-face style, he would castigate those wanting to defend and retain corporal punishment using vivid, multi-colored pictures of students’ beaten and blistered behinds.

Asking federal or state senators or representatives if they wanted their own children to experience such acts of child abuse at another’s hand, Irwin hoped that the horrific atrocities depicted in his slides would disgust, deflate, and eventually dissuade his audience of policymakers.

Quite honestly, it didn’t work.

My part in the drama was to present the facts. Citing statistics, research, and results, my logical appeals were to the senses.

Surely, anyone who:

  • Recognized the inherent bias in who got “swatted” (mostly minorities and students from poverty);
  • Recalled that the punishment was not changing behavior (many students were swatted incessantly); and
  • Realized the emotional trauma caused by the event (ranging from more serious acts of student violence to student depression and school phobia). . .

would ban this practice and substitute more effective ones in its place.

But some of the legislators (go figure) had no sense. Indeed, quite honestly, I’m not sure I was any more successful than Irwin in changing enough minds or (especially) votes—for example, within the legislatures where we testified.

What did I learn from all of this?

  • I learned that some people’s minds are changed largely through emotional arguments. . . while others are changed by facts and figures.
  • I learned that people change their minds when enough cognitive dissonance has been created. But too much dissonance overwhelms them, and too little dissonance under-motivates them.
  • And, I learned that when people (like legislators) listen to either emotional or factual arguments, politics typically trumps principles.

In other words, using facts with those who are emotionally connected to an idea, usually doesn’t work. Nor will using emotional arguments with those who are data-based.

Moreover, legislators are more concerned with the electorate’s dissonance than with their own. They rarely recommend policy decisions when they are dissonant with their “core constituencies.” Finally, legislators focus on constituencies that vote (i.e., the adults who “run and fund” the schools), rather than those who cannot vote (i.e., the students who are corporally punished).

But remember, this latter statement is not entirely true. . . the majority of our states have abolished corporal punishment in the schools.

The State of Corporal Punishment in the States

This past August, Education Week published an investigation entitled, A Persistent Practice: Corporal Punishment in U.S. Schools.

Featuring (on an emotional level) the story of an adult Mississippi man whose life has been severely impacted by the corporal punishment that he received as an 8th grade student, the Report cited (on a factual level) the following statistics:

  • Corporal punishment is still used in 21 states, with over 109,000 students (in more than 4,000 schools nationwide) paddled, swatted, or physically punished during the 2013-2014 school year.
  • The U.S. Education Department estimates that this number has steadily decreased from more than 300,000 corporal punishments in 2000.
  • Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma physically disciplined the most students during the 2013-2014 school year.
  • In Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, low-income students are significantly more likely to attend schools that use corporal punishment when compared to same-state schools with higher-income students.
  • African-American students disproportionately receive corporal punishment. African-American students make up 22% of all students attending schools using corporal punishment, but they receive 38% of those schools’ corporal punishments.
  • Relative to the actual rates of corporal punishment nationwide, African-American students receive corporal punishments at twice the rate of Caucasian students—10% to 5%.

Relative to State laws overseeing corporal punishment:

  • The only thing that is consistent is the inconsistencies across the states in our country.
  • As noted, 21 states still allow corporal punishment through law or statute, but some states simply allow it, some states leave the decision to their individual school districts, some states give parents the right to refuse its use, and some states require parent permission to use it.
  • Some states do not describe what corporal punishment entails, some specify the inappropriate behaviors where corporal punishment can be used, some define both the size of the paddle and the number of swats, some require specific implementation procedures and documentation, and many do not discuss the need to train “the deliverer of the swats.”
  • Finally, the Education Week report found schools that were still using corporal punishment, even though its state or district had banned it.

Why Schools Still Use Corporal Punishment, and What the Research Says

There are many different reasons why some districts and school still use corporal punishment.

Among them are the following:

  • History and tradition
  • No one has questioned the practice, and/or knows the research and its (negative) psychological, behavioral, and educational impact
  • The State “gives them permission”
  • The Bible “gives them permission”—for example, “When you spare the rod, you spoil the child”
  • It is a “good” alternative to school suspension—at least keeping students in school, rather than “running the streets”
  • It’s fast and easy to administer—better than having to oversee a consequence or restorative practice, or to conduct a parent conference
  • Parents want the school to use corporal punishment
  • It is a “last resort” to “turn the student around”
  • It has “worked” in the past to change other students’ behavior
  • “It was used on (and helped) me when I was in school” (that is, current staff’s past, personal experiences being corporally punished provide a rationale for using it with today's students)

But. . . unless corporal punishment is used simply as an act of “institutional revenge” or racial prejudice. . . its presumed goal is to decrease or eliminate students’ inappropriate behaviors, while increasing the same students’’ appropriate, prosocial behavior.

And so, the questions are:

“Does the research and practice demonstrate that corporal punishment works?”

“If it does work, was this the only approach that would have changed a specific student’s behavior. . . or would a less extreme approach—that more directly addressed the underlying reasons for the inappropriate behavior—have worked?”

[Spoiler Alert: No--to both questions.]

In its 2014 Position Statement on Corporal Punishment, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) states that corporal punishment is “the intention infliction of pain or discomfort and/or the use of physical force upon a student with the intention of causing the student to experience bodily pain so as to correct or punish the student’s behavior (Bitensky, 2006).”

[CLICK HERE for the complete Position Statement]

Supporting its recommendation to abolish corporal punishment in all schools nationwide—and based on its review of the research, the NASP Position Statement states or cites the following:

Conclusion: “Corporal punishment is a technique that is easily abused, leads to physical injuries, and can cause serious emotional harm.”

Support. Two meta-analyses (Ferguson, 2013; Paolucci & Violato, 2004) pooled the published research on corporal punishment involving well over 50,000 individuals finding that the practice “was positively correlated with internalizing (e.g., anxiety, withdrawal, post-traumatic stress syndrome) and externalizing (e.g., anger, aggression, defiance) symptoms in children.”

Conclusion. “(Corporal punishment) negatively affects the social, psychological, and educational development of students; it contributes to the cycle of child abuse and proviolence attitudes of youth. . . in that children learn that violence is an acceptable way of controlling the behavior of others” (Andero & Stewart, 2002; Gershoff, 2010; Owen, 2005).

Support. “(The) negative side effects of corporal punishment include running away; being truant; fearing teachers or school; feeling high levels of anxiety, helplessness, and humiliation; being aggressive or destructive at home and school (Griffin, Robinson, & Carpenter, 2000); and increased risk for physical abuse (Gershoff, 2010).”

Conclusion. “(T)here is no clear evidence that corporal punishment will (a) lead to better control in the classroom, (b) enhance moral character development in children, or (c) increase the students’ respect for teachers or other authority figures (Society for Adolescent Medicine, 2003).”

Support. “Whereas the intent of school corporal punishment may be to correct student behavior, corporal punishment has been repeatedly found to be no more effective than nonviolent forms of discipline (Gershoff, 2010). . . Alternatively, the use of positive support systems (e.g., reinforcement and rewards provided for the display of acceptable behavior) has been shown to be extremely effective in addressing problematic behaviors and promoting desirable behavior in students (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).”

Creating Dissonance: Corporal Punishment Questions for Schools and Administrators

In a nutshell, the discussion thus far demonstrates the following:

When it occurs in schools and districts nationwide, Corporal Punishment:

  • Has been disproportionately administered to African-American students;
  • Has increased—rather than decreased—many troubling students’ inappropriate behaviors;
  • Has emotionally traumatized some students;
  • Demonstrates inappropriate social problem-solving (from the adults who administer it), and teaches that violence is an acceptable way to control others’ behavior; and
  • Negatively affects the social, psychological, and educational development of the students who experience it.

But. . . once again, none of this is new. . . and none of this information is likely to change the opinions of those (a) who emotionally believe that corporal punishment works or is deserved. . . or (b) who are not experiencing enough dissonance between the facts and their beliefs.

So let’s try one more track. . .

For those who truly believe that corporal punishment works, please consider the following questions:

1. If the corporal punishment is considered a “strategic intervention” whose goal is to eliminate students’ inappropriate behavior while increasing their appropriate behavior, how many times and how many swats should they receive before concluding that this strategic intervention is not working?

Implication: The corporal punishment data show that many students are swatted on multiple occasions. If you believe that a student’s behavior should change (for example) after five different days of three swats each, shouldn’t you then conclude that the “strategic intervention” of corporal punishment is not working after the 6th, 7th, and 8th administration, and try something else (or, at least, reconsider what is prompting the inappropriate behavior)?

2. If students’ inappropriate behaviors change within the specified number of swats (from above), could we not have used a less violent or emotionally hazardous approach to attain the same results?

Implication. Given the research on corporal punishment’s negative impact cited above, should we not be using the mildest and least intrusive intervention necessary to facilitate a student’s change of behavior?

3. If students have not learned and mastered the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, or emotional coping/self-control skills needed to eliminate their inappropriate behavior, how will corporal punishment teach them these skills?

Implication. One of our “mantras” is:

You can’t motivate a student out of a skill deficit.

If corporal punishment is being used to “motivate” a student to demonstrate more appropriate behavior in the future, it will not work if the student does not have the behavioral skills to perform that desired behavior.

The academic parallel is: If students are failing their tests because they have not learned and mastered the material, the failing grade is not going to motivate them and change what they do not know, they need additional instruction.

Corporal Punishment Alternatives: Prevention and Strategic Intervention

Beyond passing a federal or multiple state laws, the best way to eliminate corporal punishment is to ensure that:

  • All students learn, master, and can apply interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills;
  • All districts and schools have behavioral accountability systems that explicitly identify (and reinforce) the behaviors expected of all students, while also differentiating among (and strategically responding to) (a) annoying behaviors, (b) classroom disruptions, (c) major disruptions and antisocial interactions, and (d) dangerous and extreme behaviors;
  • All teachers have positive, effective and, developmentally-sensitive classroom management skills—as well as research-based approaches to address the annoying behaviors and classroom disruptions noted above;
  • All administrators have support staff skilled in behavioral assessment and intervention, so that they can help identify and implement those strategic or intensive interventions needed for students demonstrating significant antisocial or dangerous/extreme behaviors; and
  • All parents/guardians and community agencies/ organizations are involved complementary in activities that support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency.

Expanding briefly on the second-to-last point, when students exhibit significant behavioral challenges, or do not respond to the preventative approaches above, an assessment process is needed (guided by school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and other behavioral assessment and intervention specialists) to determine the underlying reasons for the students' inappropriate behaviors. The assessment results then should be linked to strategic or intensive interventions that focus on eliminating the problematic behaviors, and replacing them with appropriate behaviors.

Below is a YouTube presentation that describes the components above in more detail, and explains how they were implemented in schools across Arkansas as part of a ten-year positive behavioral support initiative.

State-wide Impact of Positive Behavioral Support Systems in Arkansas


For the past four or more years, the US Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice—along with the Center for Disease Control—have funded national technical assistance centers, grants, and publications focusing on the effects of trauma on school-aged students and how we need to have trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive staff and schools.

The recent trauma research has noted that minority students and other students from poverty backgrounds often come to school with the highest number of trauma indicators.

And yet, there is a clear contradiction when some of these students’ inappropriate behaviors are trauma-related, and schools respond to these behaviors with a potentially trauma-inducing corporal punishment.

I am not suggesting that this connection exists in all schools—I am simply calling attention to this potential.

Similarly, we need to note the disproportionate number of minority (especially African-American) students who are corporally punished.

NOTE: I am not condoning these students’ inappropriate behavior. I am concerned that how we respond to these students’ behaviors differs by race.

Critically, this is an issue for all districts, schools, and communities.

Indeed, even if your state has abolished corporal punishment, disproportionality has existed—especially relative to discipline and special education—in schools across the country for decades. Disproportionality also exists in our communities—for example, relative to traffic stops, stop and frisk, incarcerations, and the “school to prison pipeline.”

Relative to education, the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) once again explicitly requires districts and schools to report on and change disproportionality when it exists.

But if our educational response is to take the surface-level steps that change the numbers, rather than confronting the deeper community and school cultural issues that change our behaviors, this issue will remain for the next generation of educators.

Corporal punishment is inextricably embedded in the school and community factors that relate to culture, class, school safety and discipline, classroom climate and management, and peer interactions and student self-management. Its continued presence is incompatible with the science of behavior, the practice of building relationships, and the emotions that all educators feel when we help students succeed.

As we plan for the full implementation of ESEA, let’s (re)open this (sometimes difficult) discussion. Let’s address both the letter as well as the spirit of this law. And let’s put blame aside (relative to past practices), so that we can be emotionally freed up to do the right things that we know can and will work.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. I am always available to help you and your schools (and agencies) build effective, sustainable, multi-tiered approaches that positively impact students’ academic and social, emotional, behavioral skills and outcomes.

Feel free to contact me at any time, and remember to look at my website for the many free resources that are available there.