The case against corporal punishment

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 17, ”Behavioral Safety: Discipline and Cooperation,“ from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools © Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). This material was copied taken from the final draft of the manuscript and may vary slightly from the final publication. Updates where noted.

All resources are listed in the online bibliography of this book. This excerpt focuses on corporal punishment in schools. I support the same arguments for using alternative approaches to discipline and behavior management at home.

Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.
—Albert Einstein [1]

Corporal punishment does for childhood what wife beating does for marriage.
—Jordan Riak [2]

How are we going to teach our children it is not okay to hurt others when we keep hurting them?
—Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and Stephen Glenn [3]

The higher the incidence of corporal punishment in a school, the higher the level of vandalism and delinquency.
—The National PTA Fact Sheet on Corporal Punishment [4]

During my first year of teaching, the interns who co-taught in the first grade had a student who was frequently referred for hitting and swearing on the playground. The teachers contacted the child’s mother to let her know what was going on, and that they were working to correct this problem. Within the hour, the mother walked into the class and before anyone could stop her, reached under her coat and pulled out a long plastic strip from a model-car race track and proceeded to beat her son, swearing at him all the while.

There are so many things wrong with using corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique that it’s hard to know exactly where to start. In the United States, this tradition traces its roots back to England—which, interestingly, was the last European country to ban its use in schools, in 1986. (Poland was the first, in 1783.)

According to an October 1998 report, school corporal punishment is prohibited in every industrialized country in the world except the U.S., Canada, and one state in Australia. In the U.S., 27 states have banned corporal punishment in schools;* in ten other states, more than half the students are in districts with no corporal punishment. Nonetheless, during the 1993-94 school year, nearly half a million young people in the United States were subjected to this practice. [5]

There is little equity in how this form of punishment is doled out. In the U.S., the incidence of school paddlings are highest in the southern and southeastern states, while in the northeast, where many states have outlawed this form of discipline, the frequency is much lower. Further, corporal punishment is more common in elementary and middle school than high school, more widely used in rural schools than on urban campuses, and inflicted more frequently on boys than girls, as well as disadvantaged children, disabled children, and ethnic minorities. [6]

Sad childThose are the numbers. But behind every statistic is the heart of a child—and the impact of every incident that child has withstood—or witnessed. [7] “Human society has moved away from hitting other human beings. . . The only beatable person left is the child,” says Jordan Riak, director of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education. [8]

A large and diverse group of professional organizations have come out against corporal punishment and many have worked actively to abolish its use in families and schools, as the wide-ranging and long-lasting negative outcomes of this outdated practice become more well-known. [9]

For all it’s hurtful potential, perhaps the most logical argument against corporal punishment is the fact that, in terms of achieving any long-lasting, positive outcomes, it simply does not work. The Society for Adolescent Medicine affirms that “physically punishing children has never been shown to enhance moral character development, increase the student’s respect for teachers or other authority figures in general, intensify the teacher’s control in class or even protect the teacher.” [10] Retired principal Sid Leonard agrees: “The same ones kept coming back for more. Hitting children did not seem to improve their behavior. It seemed to be reinforcing the very behaviors I was attempting to eliminate.” [11]

Child advocate Penelope Leach notes that if corporal punishment worked, “you’d expect that one or two beatings would have been enough to ‘teach a lesson’ to any child.” But, she argues, history tells the opposite story. Looking at “the naughtiest pupils” who supposedly needed physical punishments the most, she affirms that the beatings “did not make them into better pupils who ‘needed’ it less.” [12]

Not only does corporal punishment not change students’ behavior for the better, it can actually make it worse. “Physical punishment harms the child physically and emotionally,” reports columnist Michael Pastore. “Hitting children increases their hostility and teaches violence. And because hitting creates a frustrated and unhappy child, hitting increases, not decreases, the child’s antisocial behavior.” [13]

One long-term study confirmed that the more hitting children suffered at the beginning of the study period, “the higher the level of antisocial behavior at the end, independent of other traits that can affect such behavior.” [14] Then, too, there is the risk of retaliation. Riak compares hitting a child to “pouring gasoline on a fire you want to extinguish.” [15] In a report on crime in school in Australia, author Dennis Challinger warns, “Many students no longer accept punishment gracefully, and there is always the risk of a student reacting to violence with violence.” [16]

Leach cites as “the clearest evidence that physical punishments don’t help to produce well-behaved, socialized people,” studies of violent criminals and other “notorious individuals” whose childhoods included excessive physical discipline. [17] Many other studies and observations concur, suggesting a high correlation between corporal punishment and increased bullying, disruptions, and other violent student behaviors. [18]

Corporal punishment is part of a product-oriented system that obstructs opportunities for children to experience valuable learning processes, like those involved in finding more constructive ways to get their needs met. Leach warns that no matter how calmly, logically, or carefully we explain our reasons for hitting, “reason always gets lost in the feelings the punishment produces.”

Depending on the child’s age, feelings can range from amazement and horror to rage and humiliation (which is often taken out on someone or something else). These feelings “leave no room for remorse or determination to do better in the future.” [19] Keith and Janie Osborn share concerns about children whose behavior indeed appears to be inhibited by a fear of physical (or other) punishments, only comply until the authority turns his or her back. Once the threat of reprisal is removed, there is no internal reason for restraint. Even when this threat inhibits unwanted behavior, in and of itself, it fails to teach or inspire children to make more appropriate choices on their own. [20]

angry studentCorporal punishment has been linked to low self-esteem, depression, alcohol abuse, suicide, and adult violence. [21] In schools, it contradicts our goal of connecting and creating community, and it significantly undermines emotional safety and a child’s enthusiasm for learning. [22] (In addition to compromising emotional safety, the fact that during the 1986-1987 school year, somewhere between ten and twenty thousand students in the United States required medical treatment as a result of school corporal punishment makes this a concern for children’s physical safety as well. [23])

Studies also show that corporal punishment has a negative impact on a child’s intelligence. Researcher Murray Straus observed that while children who were hit “didn’t get dumber,” they did fall behind the average rate of cognitive development. He attributes the impact on intelligence to the fact that parents who did not hit tended to use more verbal interaction and cognitive stimulation in dealing with their children. [14]

Corporal punishment has also been shown to aversely affect school achievement. By the same token, children raised without corporal punishment are more likely to complete a higher education and reap greater job benefits as adults. [25]

People argue the need for corporal punishment as a way for teachers to protect themselves, but using physical force to protect oneself, or others from harm, to gain control of a weapon or protect property is not considered corporal punishment, and few, if any, would dispute the value of physical intervention in some survival situations. When we’re talking about corporal punishment, whether we refer to it as part of a system of violent childrearing or, more euphemistically, as a spanking or a “swat,” we’re talking about the intentional use of physical force designed to cause a child physical pain, but not injury, ostensibly to correct or control the child’s behavior. [26]

And while its value is also professed as a “last resort” in favor of preserving order, evidence indicates that corporal punishment is often a first response, even for minor infractions, and that at worst, in schools where this practice is abolished behavior remains about the same. (In fact, when more positive alternatives are invoked, there is usually a significant decrease in disruptive student behavior.) [27]

But there is cause for hope. When Sweden became the first country to outlaw corporal punishment of children—not only in schools, but at home as well—Pastore reports that adults found “gentler and wiser ways to work with their children.” In fact, in countries in which corporal punishment has been banned, a shift in thinking seems to have occurred as well. Instead of seeing this practice as a normal, accepted method of teaching or parenting, adults who resort to physical punishments are widely thought to lack competence and skill in dealing with children, and seen as people in need of help. [28]

The bottom line will always come down to our intention: If our goal is to teach responsibility and self-control, build community and raise kids to be respectful, considerate citizens, we will choose different behaviors than we would if our goals included exacting revenge, causing pain, or disempowering children. If our goals are positive, corporal punishment will not be among the intervention strategies we select, no matter how well-supported by tradition they may be. “Good school discipline should be instilled through the mind, not the behind,” says president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment, Robert E. Fathman. [29]

The sheer hypocrisy of using violence to try to teach respect, self-control or non-violence should, in itself, stop us in our tracks. For it makes absolutely no sense for us to raise our hand to a child—much less a strap or a paddle—and then bemoan the rise of violence and antisocial behavior in our schools and communities. Hitting kids sacrifices values and long-term outcomes for an occasional short-lived victory. It makes us look weak, ineffective, unskilled, and unprofessional. Cut it out. There is a better way.

*Note: As of late 2018, corporal punishment is still allowed in 19 states in the US. This number is only one state down from the 20 states as those included in Becoming a Win-Win Teachera 2009 book in which I addressed common discipline patterns and more positive alternatives.

[1] Einstein.
[2] Quoted in Patricia Daigle, “Opposing Corporal Punishment in Two Lands,” Contra Costa Times. (13 December 1986)
[3] Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and Stephen Glenn, Positive Discipline A-Z (Rocklin, Calif.: 1999), 152.
[4] “Corporal Punishment: Myths and Realities,” Fact sheet prepared by The National PTA (1991). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[5] “Facts About Corporal Punishment,” presented by the National Coalition to Abolish Punishment in Schools, (October 20, 1998). Available: Center for Effective Discipline Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; also “Corporal Punishment in Schools,” Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, Journal of Adolescent Health (1992): 13:240-246. Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[6] “Corporal Punishment in Schools” (Society for Adolescent Medicine); “Corporal Punishment: Myths and Realities;” “Corporal Punishment,” Position Statement of the National Association of School Psychologists (April 18, 1998). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: Note: Compare the 1984 statistic in which one in 2000 students were physically punished in Connecticut and Utah, with Arkansas’ ratio of one in eight.
[7] Robin Warnes, Robin. “Childhood Abuse: Corporal Punishment, A Survivor’s Testimony,” Available: [Internet, WWW], Address: Note: Warnes was one of a number of people who felt that the act of observing a classmate being humiliated, berated or paddled was a serious trauma for most children.
[8] Quoted in Augustin Gurza, “Spanking: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone,” Los Angeles Times (March 21, 2000). Available: PTAVE (Parents & Teachers Against Violence in Education) Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[9] Among these organizations are the Americn Medical Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, The National Center on Child Abuse Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, the National Education Associaiton, the National PTA, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the American Association for Counseling and Development, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Association of Junior Leagues, the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Mental Health Association and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children.
[10] “Corporal Punishment in Schools,” (Society for Adolescent Medicine).
[11] “Facts about Corporal Punishment.”
[12] Penelope Leach, “Spanking: A Shortcut to Nowhere,” (1999). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[13] Michael Pastore, “Too Many Parents Still Hitting on Wrong Idea,” Philadelphia Inquirer (16 January 1999).
[14] Brenda C. Coleman, “Study: Do Not Spank,” San Francisco Examiner (15 August 1997); also “Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial,” excerpt from The American Medical Association News Update, (August 13, 1997). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: Note: In this study, antisocial behavior was defined as “cheating or lying, bullying or being cruel or mean to others, not feeling sorry after misbehaving, breaking things deliberately, disobeying at school or not getting along with teachers. Also note: In this same study, researchers discovered that children who had been spanked even once during the week before to the base interview showed an increase in antisocial behavior two years later. (Physical punishments other than spanking were not included.)
[15] Quoted in Carol E. Robinson, “Alamo Advocate Aims to Ban Punishment at Home, School,” San Ramon Valley Times (3 July 1994)
[16] Quoted in Quarles, 23; also Derril Farrar, “Hands Off!” Sunday Telegraph. (4 September 1983).
[17] Leach; Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 142-145; Jordan Riak, Plain Talk About Spanking (Alamo, CA: PTAVE, 1996), 4-5.
[18] “Corporal Punishment in Schools (RE9207), Position Statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on School Health (1991). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; “When Discipline Silences, Forever,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metro Section (14 January 1999). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; “Corporal Punishment in Schools,” Policy Statement by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Approved, June 1988). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; “Corporal Punishment: Myths and Realities;” Coleman; “Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial;” Pastore; Beane, 125; “United Nations Committee on Rights of Child, Eighteenth Session, Geneva (May 18-June 5, 1998). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, “Experts Speak Out on Punishment,” How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon Books, 1980), 115-117.
[19] Leach.
[20] D. Keith Osborn and Janie Dyson Osborn, Discipline and Classroom Management (Athens, GA: Education Associates, 1977), 27; also Doyle; “Corporal Punishment: The Position of the American School Counselor Association,” (Adopted 1995). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[21] Laurie A. Couture, “Corporal Punishment: Society’s Remaining Acceptable Violence,” Available: Child Advocate Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://; Pastore; “Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial;” “Corporal Punishment in Schools (American Academy of Pediatrics).
[22] Jordan Riak, “Abuse in Schools is Out!” Article reprint prepared by Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education. Alamo, CA: PTAVE (Copyright waived, no date); Rogers and Frieberg. Note: In addition to condemning the use of corporal punishment, Couture also notes that being subjected to corporal punishment as a witness is traumatic itself.
[23] “Corporal Punishment in Schools,” (Society for Adolescent Medicine). Note: This report suggests that these numbers represent fairly conservative estimates.
[24] “Want Smarter Kids? Don’t Sapnk Them,” Reuters, (August 3, 1998). Available: PTAVE Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[25] Pastore; “Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial.” “Corporal Punishment in Schools” (American Academy of Pediatrics).
[26] ”Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial;” Couture.
[27] “Corporal Punishment in Schools,” (Society for Adolescent Medicine); Doyle; “Corporal Punishment: Myths and Realities.” Among the infractions which resulted in physical consequences reported in the literature and survey responses were incomplete homework, not singing loud enough, talking, not understanding an assignment, laughing, not holding pencils correctly (Epp, 15), whispering, giggling, not finishing their milk (“Corporal Punishment: Myths and Realities”), not being able to spell a word, being late to class, forgetting gym shorts, touching sports equipment left on the playing field (Warnes), spilling milk or talking in class.
[28] Couture; “Bigotry by any other name…” Report to Friends—August 1999. Available: PTAVE (Parents & Teachers Against Violence in Education) Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; “A Lesson Learned: Spare the Rod,” Bangkok Post (Sept. 15, 2000). Available: PTAVE (Parents & Teachers Against Violence in Education) Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[29] “Facts About Corporal Punishment,” presented by the National Coalition to Abolish Punishment in Schools, (October 20, 1998). Available: Center for Effective Discipline Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:

Excerpt from Chapter 17, ”Behavioral Safety: Discipline and Cooperation,“ from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools © Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). This material was copied taken from the final draft of the manuscript. The material in the book may vary slightly. For additional details about the footnotes above, the complete bibliography of this book is available online. All links were active at the time of publication.

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Other excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:

Pretty and Popular: Discrimination and Belonging
Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Stressful or Painful School Events and Experiences that Can Compromise Emotional Safety

Test Time: Bringing Balance and Sanity to Our Schools
No Child Left Behind Parody: The Football Version!

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