In October, New York became just the fourth U.S. state to outlaw corporal punishment in private schools, joining New Jersey, Iowa, and Maryland, which passed its own ban earlier this year. The ban brought renewed attention to a practice considered to be archaic by many and troubling to mental health professionals.
In New England, corporal punishment has been barred in public schools since 1989, when Connecticut became the last state in the region to ban the practice. Though it is still allowed in private schools and at home in all New England states, the mental health professionals that New England Psychologist spoke with said the issue rarely comes up in their practices. Yet they expressed concern about its consequences, particularly as educators continue to report worsening student behavior in the wake of the pandemic.
“There’s no case whatsoever for corporal punishment’s effectiveness, but there are good reasons for concern about the harm that it can cause,” says Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., founder and director of Think:Kids in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Sometimes it leads to very temporary compliance, but it has negative downstream effects.”
Studies have repeatedly shown that physical discipline does not improve behavior and can also lead to emotional and academic problems over time. In an example of the latter, a 2009 study found that children who were spanked had lower IQs than those who were not. Research has also linked corporal punishment in childhood to violent behavior as an adult.
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics renewed its call to end corporal punishment in school. The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and National Education Association are among the groups to have also called for an end to the practice.
Corporal punishment is still allowed in public schools in 17 states, most in the south. While 96 percent of U.S. schools report not using corporal punishment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 70,000 U.S. students are subjected to it per year.
Disparities in who is punished
Corporal punishment in schools is applied disproportionality across race lines and toward children who may already be at a disadvantage. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies found that Black students were up to three times as likely as white students to be subjected to the practice.
Students with disabilities were also more likely to be physically punished, often for behaviors related to their disabilities.
Children who have experienced multiple types of trauma are also often at the receiving end, said Damion Grasso, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health at the University of Connecticut.
These children “may not be able to escape violence in multiple areas of their lives,“ Grasso said, and may act out in ways that place them at greater risk of physical punishment.
Kids who have experienced corporal punishment may internalize it, lowering their self-esteem, said Saad Rahmat, M.D., medical director of the Young Adult Mental Health Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Kids might think they’ve done something bad, without even registering it as trauma,” he said.
Because early lessons from parents and teachers are difficult to counter, these kids might see physical punishment as an appropriate way to respond to bad behavior — a belief that could shape their behavior as adults, he added.
Managing challenging behavior
The renewed attention to corporal punishment comes at a time when teachers, principals, and district leaders are reporting more behavioral problems in classrooms. In a 2023 survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 70 percent of educators said students are misbehaving more than in the fall of 2019, compared to 66 percent who said the same in 2021.
Teachers may resort to ineffective forms of discipline like corporal punishment because they don’t know what else to do, Ablon said. A more effective alternative is to help kids learn ways of working through feelings that can lead to their acting out.
“We still think that when kids are having a hard time managing their behavior, they’re doing it on purpose,” he said. “That flies in the face of half a century of evidence.”
Modifying behavior depends on kids building skills like problem solving, flexibility, and frustration tolerance, which can help build confidence and independence, he added. Focusing on compliance to change behavior can sap the intrinsic motivation needed to change.
For adults who have been through corporal punishment, a task for mental health professionals may be to challenge their beliefs, said Rahmat. This is especially true if they don’t view the practice negatively or “say that ‘it made me realize I was doing something bad.’“
“We have to ask whether or not corporal punishment actually did lead to better outcomes,” he said.