By: Nathaniel Beers, MD, FAAP
Schools are meant to be safe spaces where all children can learn and grow. When kids break rules or
act out, school must take action to keep all kids safe and maintain a positive learning environment.
But when schools use physical pain as a way of controlling kids, research shows they are
less likely to cooperate, not more. Corporal punishment has also been linked with stress, depression and low self-esteem, harming a child's chances for success in school and life.
At the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), we have a policy on physical punishment in schools, based on evidence that shows:
Spanking, slapping and similar punishments actually lead to an increase in problem behaviors over time.
Schools are much more likely to use physical punishments to control Black children and kids with disabilities than their peers.
Physical punishment is closely linked with
struggles in mental health, cognitive development, school achievement and many other negative outcomes for kids.
Fortunately, there are non-violent ways to
discipline kids that have been proven to work. These strategies help create the safe, healthy learning environment that every young student deserves. (See "Alternatives to physical punishment that work for kids, families and schools," below.)
Here's what the AAP wants parents, caregivers and the public to know about the current state of school discipline in the U.S. and the policies we've set with the well-being of all children in mind.
Physical discipline is still widespread in U.S. schools
Physical (or corporal) punishment means using physical force, no matter how light, to cause deliberate pain or discomfort in response to an unwanted behavior. In school settings, this often means striking a child on the buttocks (spanking or paddling), but it can also mean slapping, hitting, throwing or shaking a child, or forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions for long periods.
Based on a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1977, states have authority over the issue of corporal punishment in schools. Most states have banned it in public school settings. However, the practice is still legal (though sometimes restricted) in 17 states as of August 2023, and only three states—Iowa, New Jersey and Maryland—have banned physical discipline in private schools.
The latest estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that
more than 70,000 public school kids face physical punishment at least once during the school year.
Children of color and children with disabilities are hit more often
Racism and discrimination are
serious threats to the health and academic success of children. Unfortunately, these practices are closely linked with physical punishment in U.S. schools.
U.S. Department of Education figures on public school students in grades K-12 show that Black males are nearly twice as likely to be hit or spanked as their white peers. Black females are more than three times as likely as their white peers to face physical punishments.
Children with disabilities also face higher rates of physical punishment at school than their peers. An estimated 16.5% of all kids who are hit or spanked during the school year are eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Many of these students, especially those with intellectual disabilities, may not fully understand why they are being punished. Their confusion can intensify the negative impact of the physical pain they feel.
Why physical punishments don't work
Decades of research have shown that physical force doesn't help kids manage difficult feelings or choose positive behaviors. In fact, family studies show that spanking, hitting and other painful punishments actually lead to
more problematic behavior in kids.
In 2018, the AAP released a policy statement on the role of
effective discipline in raising healthy children, emphasizing that:
Spanking fosters aggression and anger in children. This is supported by numerous studies, including one that looked at outcomes for kids in 20 U.S. cities. Researchers found that the more they were spanked, the
more they misbehaved later on, triggering even more spankings.
Pain teaches kids that hurting someone—even someone you love—can be justified. Kids who are spanked, slapped or hit often may be more likely to hit others when they don't get what they want.
Hitting and spanking can affect brain development. One study found that young adults who were repeatedly spanked as kids had less gray matter—the part of the brain involved with self-control—and scored lower on IQ tests than young adults in a control group.
Harsh discipline is linked with mental health problems in children, including
substance use and more. These effects can continue into adulthood.
The World Health Organization names additional sources of
harm stemming from physical punishment, including:
Poor school performance, higher dropout rates and career struggles in adult life.
Overloaded biological systems in children that can increase risks for cancer, substance use, migraine, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and obesity in adulthood.
AAP's policy on physical discipline in schools
Evidence that physical punishments do more harm than good affirms that this practice has no place in our schools. Kids who do not feel safe and supported will struggle to learn. And when we make it hard for them to succeed in school, we hurt their chances for a healthy, successful life as adults.
As advocates for the well-being of all children, the AAP has taken a decisive stand against corporal punishment in schools. Specifically, we are calling for:
A ban on corporal punishment in all schools, public and private, in all 50 states.
Use of non-violent, age-appropriate ways to manage student behavior that have been proven effective.
Making physical discipline illegal in school settings will reduce the harmful effects of systemic racism on children of color, especially Black students. It will also address the harm and injustice that painful punishments inflict on students with disabilities.
Many factors could prevent states from passing laws that protect kids from corporal punishment at school. These include concerns about infringement on school district rights, concern for cultural practices, and preferences that many parents have for paddling over school suspensions. Federal legislation may be needed to overcome these barriers so that kids in all 50 states will have equal protection under the law.
Alternatives to physical punishment that work for kids, families & schools
Here are some of the non-violent methods that enable students to cope with difficult feelings while choosing positive behaviors and responses.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an evidence-based framework for student behavioral, academic, social, emotional and mental health
Restorative practices that emphasize kindness, not consequences
Conflict resolution techniques to address and resolve tensions in school settings
Mentoring to reinforce self-esteem and draw on positive role models
Some students will also benefit from individual or family-based therapy that empowers them to address sources of stress, helping them develop positive ways to manage frustration, fear and other triggers that can lead to difficulties at school and in the community.
The role we can all play in ending physical punishment
While our first goal is to protect and support the health of children in the U.S., the AAP strongly encourages pediatricians, parents and educators to think globally about the issue of corporal punishment in schools. We hope all adults will come together to advocate for an end to physical discipline in schools, not only here but around the world.
About Dr. Beers
Nathaniel Beers, MD, MPA, FAAP is a general and developmental behavioral pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Council on School Health.