Controversial School Discipline: Collective and Corporal Punishment in Schools

Throughout the history of the U.S. public school system, discipline has been a controversial issue for parents and administrators alike, especially when it comes to collective or corporal punishment. The answer to how, when, and why a school should punish children is frankly complicated, because everyone has a different opinion on how much discipline should be practiced by the school and how much discipline is a parent’s responsibility.

It may be surprising to learn that school corporal punishment is still expressly allowed in 15 states, while there are seven states that don’t have any laws concerning school punishment. According to a report from the Children’s Defense Fund, an average of 589 children are subjected to corporal punishment every day in school.

Is Corporal Punishment Harmful or Helpful?

While schools typically claim that paddling is only to be used in extreme cases, the decision of when to paddle is left to the teacher’s discretion—and for some teachers, even a mild infraction may be worthy of corporal punishment.

For the past several decades, experts have overwhelmingly agreed that corporal punishment in school is a bad idea. Research shows that corporal punishment results in mental health issues and worsened behavioral problems. In addition, corporal punishment is also linked to significantly lower grades. In one research program involving 75 studies, spanking was associated with 13 out of 17 negative behaviors. Because of research results like these, 30 countries around the world have banned corporal punishment in school.

Another reason that such physical punishment is controversial is that every child reacts to punishment differently. As every parent knows, even the mildest of lectures might be more than enough to discipline a sensitive child. For many children, corporal punishment—especially inflicted by someone other than parents—is intensely traumatic.

Many teachers find it more effective and compassionate to utilize milder disciplines, such as keeping children in from recess, making them stay after class, putting them in detention, or taking away privileges. In fact, some school systems, including the Michigan Department of Education, have encouraged this way of thinking by publishing a handbook of recommended alternatives to corporal punishment.

Who Is Collective Punishment Really Punishing?

Group or collective punishment, when the entire class is punished for the actions of a few, is used by many educators when the student at fault is not easily determined or when enough students are disrupting the class that the teacher decides to end the activity for all. But students who are trying to follow the rules will understandably consider such punishment unfair. Group punishment may even hurt the motivation of those “good” students if they believe they’ll be punished despite their best efforts to behave.

Many adults still carry a memory of an incident when their teacher unfairly punished the entire class for the deed of one child. The very fact that adults still can pinpoint these events and still harbor bad memories of these incidents is a measure of how negatively they impact children, as well as an indication of the unfairness of this wholesale style of punishment for all.

How Can Parents Get Involved?

If you feel that your child is negatively impacted by incidences of corporal punishment or collective punishment—either practiced on your child or on other children—it’s crucial for you to talk to your school principal about this. In situations where this is ineffective, parents can achieve a great deal by finding other parents with similar concerns and meeting as a group with the regional school superintendent.

Likewise, if you feel strongly that your child should not be subjected to these types of punishments at school, you can make these feelings known to the principal where your child is enrolled. In many cases, principals will waive this type of punishment if a parent specifically requests it.

Every parent has a different perception about “how much is too much” when it comes to school discipline. Likewise, because every child reacts to discipline differently, parents need to continually pay close attention to the way punishment impacts their children, both in school and at home.

If you believe your child is adversely impacted by the discipline occurring at your school, it may be time to think about switching schools or to consider online learning as an alternative choice for your student.  Share with us below your thoughts on collective and corporal punishment and how it has impacted your students.

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