In 19 states, kids can still be paddled or spanked at school. Experts weigh in on the long-term effects of corporal punishment.

·9 min read
In the U.S., corporal punishment is legal in 19 states. (Photo: Getty Creative)
In the U.S., corporal punishment is legal in 19 states. (Photo: Getty Creative)

When children head to school each morning, they have a lot on their minds. They might be worried about whether there will be a pop quiz or if they'll be able to smooth things over with a friend. But, in a stunning 19 states where corporal punishment is still legal, students also walk into school knowing they might be paddled or spanked that day.

Corporal punishment, which can take the form of paddling, spanking or another deliberate infliction of physical pain, is the harshest form of punishment that can be delivered in schools. The United Nations (UN) calls it a human rights violation. According to UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang, corporal punishment, "conflicts with the child's human dignity and the right of the child to physical integrity. It also prevents children from reaching their full potential, by putting at risk their right to health, survival and development. The best interests of the child can never be used to justify such practice."

What happens when a child is paddled at school?

Tessa Davis from Little Rock, Ark. thought corporal punishment was best for her now 9-year-old son. When her son was 5, Davis received a call from his school asking for permission to paddle the then-kindergarten student because he had been physically aggressive towards another student. Davis asked to see a video of the incident, but says the school wouldn't show it to her. The school told her if she din't agree to paddling, her son would be suspended for three days instead.

Davis says she and her husband agreed, in part because they grew up in an environment where the statement, "they just need a good spanking," was ingrained into their way of life. Another major factor in their decision was that both parents work full-time and could not afford to take three days off if their son was sent home. Davis didn't think she really had a choice at all.

Davis' son was paddled by the school's assistant vice principal. "When I picked [my son] up from school he was defeated and he was sad," she recalls. The then-5-year-old, who had been through the foster care system and is adopted, had already been through a great deal of trauma in his short life. "I realized we had caused him more pain," she says, noting the incident broke his trust in the assistant vice principal and made him afraid to go to school.

The punishment was also confusing for him because he was punished for, "putting his hands on someone," by someone, in turn, putting their hands on him. Davis immediately regretted her decision to consent to the paddling.

Does corporal punishment breed shame and fear in kids?

Despite all of this, Davis says many parents in her community support the practice because they were spanked at home and school, "and turned out just fine." She wonders how well they really turned out, saying she was spanked at home as a child and it only taught her to lie to cover up her mistakes, hide her feelings and shut herself off because she was afraid of getting hit. "I was afraid to admit I made a mistake or ask for help," Davis says, explaining that even telling someone she didn't understand how something should be done might have led to a spanking if an adult in her life thought wasn't following the rules.

Since her son was paddled, Davis has sought out support for alternatives to paddling. She thinks schools need to do a better job understanding how trauma affects children like hers, leading to bad behavior. Davis' son also has multiple learning disabilities, and she says his frustration sometimes results in meltdowns. She's now working with a therapist to come up with alternatives, including working on her son's self-esteem and giving him color-coded cards he can use to indicate when he needs a break to address the root cause of why he acts out. Although he struggles at times, his behavior has improved.

The alternative to corporal punishment

Ross Greene, founder of Lives in the Balance, thinks adults should address children's behavior when they act out, whether it's at home or at school. However, since consequences like corporeal punishment harm children while not doing anything to hold them accountable, he does't believe paddling is the right approach.

Instead, Greene explains, children who act out are struggling. Like Davis' son, they may be having a hard time understanding class material or coping with a past trauma. Alternatively, they might be having problems concentrating. They may be preoccupied with a bully or problems at home. According to Greene, children do well when they can, and they may act out when they can't meet expectations. That means corporal punishment is not likely to lead to any lasting change because the root cause of what led to the behavior in the first place is never addressed.

Instead of using behavior modification strategies like corporal punishment, Greene thinks parents and school administers should focus on problem-solving. He advocates for the use of collaborative and proactive solutions that identify the problems that are leading to outbursts, then working with the child to solve those problems. With this model, the child is fully accountable and engaged in problem-solving rather than being the passive recipient of punishment. Using collaboration also avoids many of the risks of corporal punishment to the child, including the loss of trust of adults in their life and an unwillingness to ask for help or talk about their problems.

Since Davis started using a similar approach with her son, she's noticed a big difference. Now, instead of hiding things from his mom because he's afraid of getting in trouble, Davis' son will tell her if he's had a bad day and they talk about what he could have done differently.

Greene stresses schools are currently spending an inordinate amount of time addressing discipline. Instead of putting their resources towards punishment, he thinks their time and efforts would be much better spent focusing on why kids are acting out. Schools that have moved away from punishment and started using a collaborative and proactive approach have universally reported this approach saves time, with better outcomes. According to Greene, some of these schools have gotten to the point where they no longer have any behavioral referrals.

What's it like to administer corporal punishment to kids?

Jeffrey, an administrator from Arkansas who prefers to keep his last name anonymous for privacy reasons, saw the harm of corporal punishment firsthand and sees the benefit of a collaborative and proactive approach. In his previous job he was the person responsible for paddling students. He usually paddled a child at least once a day, although he did not make the decision about whether a child should be paddled or not. Offenses ranged from not staying on task in class to physical altercations.

At first Jeffrey just picked up the paddle because it was part of his job. However, eventually he began questioning what he was doing and why.

"[There was no] change in the behavior whatsoever," he tells Yahoo Life. "All it did was give the adults satisfaction because they saw the kid cry on their way back to class." On top of that, Jeffrey started noticing the long-term impact paddling had on some children including, "trauma, humiliation and even being subjected to teasing from peers when they returned to the classroom."

He also realized parents were offered only a "false choice" in opting out of paddling. This is because, just as at the school Davis' son attended, if parents opted out of paddling, children were suspended for three days as an alternative and most parents could not afford to take off of work for so long. Jeffrey finally reversed his pro-paddling stance completely once he realized Black students were paddled more frequently, even though they made up a small percentage of the student population at his school.

The long-term affects of spanking and paddling

At that point, Jeffrey started looking into the practice — which he hadn't before questioned because he grew up with paddling and thought it was common everywhere. Once Jeffrey learned more about how harmful paddling can be, he started advocating for children and playing a role in the, "school to prison pipeline." According to the United States Department of Justice, "for identical offenses, those punished severely were more likely to be in prison than those who were punished lightly, or not at all."

Although Jeffrey no longer works at the school where he was responsible for paddling students, he still works as a school administrator in Arkansas. Now, he uses, "restorative approaches, conscious discipline, trauma-informed care and teaching conflict resolution skills."

"I believe in building relationships and 'connecting before correcting' with students," he says.

Davis and Jeffrey now advocate for banning the use of paddling in schools through Arkansans Against Paddling. Both emphasize they don't hold anything against their friends, family and co-workers who are still pro-paddling, but think more education is needed about both the risks of corporal punishment and alternatives to the practice.

Progress is slow because in some communities, corporal punishment has been used for generations and is accepted as a way of life. Although Davis reaches out to teachers directly to talk to them about why she is against corporal punishment, she believes federal legislation might be the only way to end the practice nationwide.

For now, Davis' son is much happier in school. He never again trusted the assistant principal who paddled him when he was in kindergarten. However, his mom's efforts to get him the support he needed and work with his school on appropriate strategies to help him cope with his trauma and learning disabilities have paid off. He feels safe at school and is happy and kind to others.

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