Corporal punishment is one of the most long-standing issues in education. There is no general consensus on the measures necessary to ensure student compliance in schools. Therefore, a number of techniques have been used, and some have involved the infliction of pain to alter misbehavior. This entry looks at the history of corporal punishment in schools, the contemporary situation, and research on its impact.
Caution and debate about the use of corporal punishment has a long history in education. The roots of corporal punishment can be traced back to the early history of the education system. Almost from the very beginning of schooling, there have been discussions about the use of techniques intended to alter misbehavior. The religious foundation of the American education system has had a significant influence on the conception and ultimate use of corporal punishment. Conceptions about the nature of childhood, based on the King James Version of the Christian Bible (i.e., spare the rod, spoil the child), have traditionally served as one of the most frequently cited justifications for the use of corporal punishment.
The use of corporal punishment also has another interesting aspect to its history. There is a general belief that the intensity of punishment correlates with its effectiveness. In other words, if a more intensive punishment technique is used, the child is more likely to engage in more appropriate behavior in the future. Thus, one of the most intense forms of punishment that can be applied is corporal punishment. There is no empirical support for this notion nor does it seem like a favorable prospect for children attending schools.
It was not until well into the twentieth century that some began to question the validity of corporal punishment in schools. This is not to imply that educators, parents, and community members in general did not have concerns about the use of corporal punishment, but as the knowledge base of child development and the negative side effects of punishment became clearer, more questions were raised about its use in schools.
Historically, one of the most significant events took place in the mid-1970s. In two landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the use of corporal punishment in schools neither violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment nor breaches the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment (Baker v. Owen, 1975; Ingraham v. Wright, 1977). Thus, the foundation was laid: Corporal punishment could be used in schools, and in many areas the use of corporal punishment has survived.
The United Sates is unique in a number of ways, and one distinction pertains directly to corporal punishment. The United States is one of two countries choosing not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989. The document calls for a number of protections of children, including protection from violence. Corporal punishment is legal in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia. The highest incidence of use is reported in the southern region of the United States, with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, making up the top ten. In spite of this, some major urban cities (e.g., Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York) have banned corporal punishment and some entire school districts have banned the practice in spite the legal status of corporal punishment in the rest of the state (e.g., Broward County, Florida).
Is It Effective?
The legal status of corporal punishment does not address the core matters regarding its validity. There is little debate about the intent of corporal punishment: All generally agree that techniques to alter student misbehavior should be used to promote a safe, effective, and efficient learning environment. What is often debated is the use of a technique that is based on the infliction of pain.
Punishment, like many concepts that have been empirically evaluated, falls victim to completely different meanings in and outside of the laboratory. Social science researchers (e.g., psychologists) and the rest of general society have completely different conceptions about the meaning and appropriate use of punishment. The meaning of corporal punishment to general society is accepted as any punishment that inflicts bodily pain to alter misbehavior. While many accept such a definition as clear and concise, for social scientists, this definition is problematic. In contrast, social scientists define punishment as any action or event following behavior that results in the likelihood of that behavior not occurring in the future. It is possible for particular actions or events to become “punishers.” For example, a student may have several unpleasant interactions with a teacher, and the teacher becomes a “punisher,” leading to the likelihood that the student will attend school infrequently or perhaps stop attending school at all. Thus, it is clear the meaning and intent of the term punishment does not necessarily coincide with past and current practices in schools.
The use of punishment is not only intended to stop the occurrence of misbehavior; many believe that the use of punishment techniques, most specifically corporal punishment, will actually teach children to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. This has not been supported in a number of rigorous tests, resulting in weak support at best for the use of punishment in general and corporal punishment in particular. Therein lies one of the most highly debated issues in education: Should corporal punishment be used, and if it is applied, when, where, and who should apply this technique?
Punishment has been researched for a number of years and there is solid evidence to indicate that a number of side effects can result from its use. These include the following: (a) it provides a model of aggression for students to follow, (b) it teaches that physical outbursts are an acceptable way of resolving conflict, (c) it may lead to decreased learning, (d) it may result in poor attendance, and (e) it may create an aversion to those responsible for delivering the punishment. Corporal punishment is often thought to be one of the most intense forms of punishment to be applied as a measure of last resort. This should lead to the development and use of progressive steps to be used when misbehavior occurs, ensuring that corporal punishment is not the first step and is used only sparingly, as a number of techniques will be applied before corporal punishment is even considered. This does not seem to be the case in many schools, especially those in urban areas. The arguments for and against the use of corporal punishment will continue to be discussed back and forth in the absence of empirical support for its use as well as a high level of social acceptance from general society.
- Hinchey, P. H. (2004). Corporal punishment: Legalities, realities, and implications. The Clearing House, 77(3), 96–100.
- Hyman, I., & Snook, P. (1999). Dangerous schools: What can we do about the physical and emotional abuse of our children? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Straus, M. A., & Donnelly, D. A. (2001). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
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