School Discipline Means the Rod and Cane for Too Many Youth

Dr. Sam Goldstein

A number of months ago the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Watch released a report about corporal punishment of children in American Schools. Astonishingly the report suggested that beating children, typically with objects such as rulers, is surprisingly still common in our schools. In the years 2006 to 2007, 223,190 children were reported to have been beaten by teachers, including a visibly pregnant sixteen-year-old who was hit by her principal because she was late for school. In another incident a young boy with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder came home “terrified with bruises from hips to belly button after being beaten for taking off his shoes.” This report also notes that children with disabilities as well as minorities were far more likely to be beaten than other children who keep their shoes on their feet. In the state of Texas disabled children are reported to make up nearly 11% of the student population but received over 18% of the disciplinary beatings. African Americans were twice as likely to be a target for a physical beating than other minority youth. Although twenty-one states still allow corporal punishment, only thirteen use it frequently. These thirteen “states of shame” primarily comprise a single geographic part of the United States including Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

For whatever reasons the corporal punishment approach to discipline is alive and well in these states. These states, as the ACLU report notes, have created “a culture intimidation” in which beatings serve as public warnings. The ACLU report noted they found that “principals turn on loud speakers while beating students, staff roam hallways with paddles and teachers display their ‘boards of education’ on their desks.” Not only that, in states where corporal punishment is condoned, educators enjoy blanket immunity from lawsuits. It is important to note that corporal punishment of children as a disciplinary action is banned in 106 countries, including Canada. It is also positive to note that in the United States the number of corporal punishment disciplinary incidents did in fact decline in the years of this report from an incidence rate of 50,000 more reports in the previous year.

Aggression as a tool of one organism to gain the compliance, submission or agreement of another organism is in fact not unique to our species. It would appear that all species are to some extent genetically programmed for and capable of aggression in the face of a variety of threats. Aggressive behavior may to some extent be adaptive and likely has a place in evolution resulting in a genetic contribution to this pattern of behavior. Animals act aggressively towards their own and other species when their safety or that of their off spring are threatened. They are aggressive to protect sources of food or territory. However, rarely do other species appear to utilize aggression as a means of helping their off spring learn the important lessons of life to become functional organisms. Our highly evolved species, however, has, over a long period of time, resorted to aggression as a means of shaping childhood behavior. This activity is not surprising as our species has modified a variety of instinctual behaviors such as procreation to suit our needs. Beyond the fact that aggression towards children for whatever reason by adults is morally and ethically wrong, there is more than sufficient research as well demonstrating that corporal punishment most likely leads to the very opposite effect than it is intended for, particularly when dealt out within our schools.

A number of years ago Dr. Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff completed an analysis of nearly 100 research studies involving over 36,000 children examining the association between corporal punishment and a variety of outcomes in childhood and adulthood. Dr. Gershoff completed a statistical analysis in which she defined corporal punishment as using physical force that causes a child pain but not injury to correct or control behavior. Dr. Gershoff found that corporal punishment was significantly associated with all eleven negative end points, including poor moral internalization, negative quality of relationships with peers, negative mental health status as well as an increased rate of abuse by a parent, childhood aggression, criminal or antisocial behavior and abuse of own children or spouse in adulthood. Not all children develop these negative outcomes. However, these outcomes were greater than chance. Dr. Gershoff also noted a single, positive immediate outcome from spanking. After being spanked children were more likely to immediately comply with their parents’ direction. Thus, corporal punishment may lead to short term compliance but at a very dear long term price.

If educators are only interested in compliance then corporal punishment is an effective intervention. However, if educators are true to their charge – that is preparing children to become functional, effective, emotionally stable and normal adults – corporal punishment is the antithesis of the types of educational behavior leading to desired outcome. Corporal punishment does not improve self-discipline, the capacity to deal with stress and adversity nor develop a resilient mindset. Despite immediate compliance, these long term outcomes suggest that children are not internalizing the intended disciplinary message but rather responding to a negative reinforcement model. That is, they comply out of fear that they will be struck again as opposed to learning a valuable lesson and internalizing appropriate behavior.

There are hundreds of positive forces that ultimately shape life outcome, happiness and success, however, corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children such that eventually they can regulate and discipline themselves, is not one of them. Though many educators appear to still believe “spare the rod – spoil the child”, how we choose to educate and raise our children if in fact our goal is a better future should not include corporal punishment. If our goal is to raise self-disciplined children capable of making good choices and exhibiting positive behavior then we must have positive relationships with them. As my colleague, Dr. Bob Brooks, and I wrote in our recent book, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child (McGraw-Hill, 2008), ideally the end result of discipline is not to produce compliance and obedience, but self-disciplined children. Children following rules out of fear without appreciating the rationale for these rules will not understand the purpose of rules and consequences and come to believe rules are imposed upon them. They will struggle to incorporate these rules as guideposts for their daily lives. Educators should keep in mind that self-discipline involves students accepting ownership and responsibility for the rules that govern their life. Self-discipline is powerfully associated with a sense of personal control.

If you are a parent or educator reading this article, I suggest you consider how you felt if and when you were struck as a means of discipline as a child. How would you feel if you made a mistake and your employer, spouse or friend struck you? What message would it convey? How might you respond? Corporal punishment as an educational strategy is a misguided bi-product of possibly a once adaptive evolutionary behavior. It is often fueled by parent or educator anger and frustration bearing little resemblance to a rational, science based strategy designed to raise happy, healthy, resilient children. From this perspective, corporal punishment does not deserve even minor consideration in our educational strategies. If you are a parent, educator or just a resident of any of the thirteen states I listed earlier in this article I encourage you to write to your state Senators, Legislators and Governors urging that this ineffective, abusive and disrespectful policy be legislated out of your educational system.