HEALTH TIPS: Corporal Punishment in Our Schools
A publication of the California Medical Education and Research Foundation, prepared and edited by physician members of the California Medical Association

Index 479 - October 1985

Corporal punishment is the use of pain, discomfort or physical force for the purpose of punishment. It has been used as a form of discipline in this country for more than 200 years. Recent movements have, however, identified corporal punishment as a form of child abuse and are working to prohibit this type of punishment in public and private schools. Corporal punishment in the military and in prisons, although once condoned, has been outlawed.

Evidence indicates that corporal punishment is still used regularly at every grade level in virtually all regions of this country. Although several states, cities and school districts have banned the practice of corporal punishment, many of these restrictions are ignored. The types of corporal punishment vary from state to state and school to school. Although generally thought to be restricted to spanking with a hand or a paddle, other forms continue to be reported, including striking with sticks, ropes, fists or belts, choking, throwing against walls or desks, dragging by the hair or arm, tying to heavy objects, forcing strenuous exercise and confinement in closets, vaults, storerooms or boxes.

The majority of corporal punishment incidents result in minor injuries, such as soreness and redness of the skin. Although injuries requiring medical attention are rare, the use of corporal punishment has the potential of causing injuries such as hematomas, ruptured blood vessels, nerve damage, muscle damage and brain hemorrhage. Such injuries may result in permanent structural damage and disability.

Equally as harmful and much more common than the physical effects are the psychological effects of corporal punishment. These include loss of self-esteem, increased anxiety and fear, feelings of helplessness and humiliation, stifled relationships with others, aggressive and self-destructive behavior and limited attention span, all of which may lead to deficient academic performance. Forms of noncorporal punishment such as ridicule, name-calling and destructive criticism can result in many of the same psychological effects.

Although discipline is a major consideration in the administration of a school, the primary objective of the educational system is to prepare students to become healthy productive adults. Research concerning the effects of corporal punishment on the learning process has indicated that it is counterproductive to this goal. It increases disruptive behavior, hinders learning, is ineffective in maintaining order

Alternatives to corporal punishment are noncorporal punishment and positive disciplinary programs. Noncorporal punishment is administered when positive discipline fails and infractions of the rules occur. Types of nonphysical punishment are detention, chores, expulsion, discussion with students and parents, withdrawal of privileges, counseling, verbal reprimands and isolation, for the purpose of removing the student from the situation.

A more effective approach is a positive disciplinary program, incorporating activities that help teachers and administrators assume control and establish order with the cooperation of the students. Students receive rewards for controlling themselves. Examples of positive disciplinary activities are utilization of student input in the disciplinary policy, improvement of lines of communication, development of mutual respect between students and administrators and the modeling and reinforcement of good behavior.

Through these techniques, teachers and administrators can teach students to assume control of their behavior and take responsibility for their actions.

Prepared by the California Medical Association. Specific questions should be directed to your physician.

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