Whatever Happened to Corporal Punishment?

Few policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents talk openly about corporal punishment in the 21st century. The phrase seems more appropriate to the 19th and 20th centuries rather than the present day when it was then liberally administered to children and youth in classrooms and principals’ offices. Paddling and spanking students (and other ways of physically punishing students) were common, legally permitted practices. In many states it was the law and in those states that banned the practice, legislators allowed district school boards to decide whether they wished to continue corporal punishment in their particular schools.

Today, many European nations have banned it in schools. Most states in the U.S. do so as well. Yet it persists in pre-K-12 public schools.

In this post, I will lay out both the past and present of this common school practice.

What is corporal punishment?

Corporal punishment is a euphemism. In Latin, corporal means “of the body” hiding that it is basically physical punishment. Rather than speak of “corporal punishment, administrators commonly call it “discipline.” Its purpose is to correct and deter what teachers and administrators define as student misbehavior. Misbehavior can be anything from chewing gum, one student hitting another student, disobeying teacher directives, writing on bathroom walls or destroying school property (and many other examples too numerous to include here) fall into the broad definition of “misbehavior.”

According to one researcher: A typical state definition of school corporal punishment is the one offered in the Texas Education Code, which specifies permissible corporal punishment as, “…the deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping, or any other physical force used as a means of discipline.” (Texas Education Code, 2013)

In a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ingraham v. Wright, the Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools is constitutional and the eighth Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment” does not apply to schools hitting students for breaking rules. Public schools could legally administer physical punishment to students when school officials decided it was appropriate to do so.

What problems does corporal punishment aim to solve?

Two problems generate corporal punishment in schools. First, student inattention to teacher’s lesson or her management of the classroom. Second, disregarding of school rules sufficiently to cause disruption outside of the classroom but within school grounds.

How is corporal punishment administered in schools?]

Much variation in spanking, paddling, and other physical punishments marked practices across school districts over the past century. In many districts, then and now teachers were allowed to administer the punishment. In other places, teachers sent students to the principal’s office and if the principal believed that, say, paddling was appropriate for the offense, he or she would give the swats. Physical punishment covered the age range from kindergarten to high school seniors, although the size of secondary school boys and girls often reduced the frequency of such punishments and alternative penalties such as suspensions from school and in instances where repetitive misbehavior occurred, expulsion.

Much evidence exists that much of the hitting of students occurs in southern states and that minority, poor children and youth got beaten in school in the 20th century more than white, middle-class students (see here and here)

Does it work?

Spanking and paddling in schools (or in families, for that matter) usually gain immediate compliance, the end of the misbehavior. In that sense, physical punishment works in the moment. But long-term adverse effects such as more aggressive behavior on the the part of the paddled student toward other students and family members have been found in many research studies.

What has happened to corporal punishment?

Overall, parents have shifted in their views of how best to raise children. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was mainstream wisdom shared by most parents in rearing children in the 19th century. By the early decades of the 20th century, physically punishing children at home for errant behavior began to give way to middle- and upper-middle class parents who used non-physical ways of gaining children’s compliance and “good” behavior (see here). Nonetheless, most parents (70 percent) continue to believe in hitting children for misbehavior, as an opinion poll in 2012 confirmed.

Nonetheless, changes in societal norms in raising children have led to changes in school norms. Paddling and spanking has given way in most districts to non-physical punishments such as verbal shaming, exclusion from certain student activities, and suspension from school. Hitting students in school occurred to four percent of all students (1978) and has declined to less than one percent in 2014.

As the map below indicates 19 states (2019) still allow corporal punishment.

1 Comment

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

One response to “Whatever Happened to Corporal Punishment?

  1. Interesting article. I had no idea it was still acceptable in some states to physically discipline children, though the culture seems to have changed. Even parents are discouraged from smacking in Spain where I live. The consequences for formal education are not clear, and I liked the way you resisted the temptation to come to easy judgments.

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