March 29, 2019

Trends and Resources on Corporal Punishment

From: Pent
Sent: Friday, March 29, 2019 1:16 PM
Subject: Trends and Resources on Corporal Punishment

Hello PENT Cadre members, SELPA Directors, and supporters,

I hope that you all had a fun and invigorating time at the PENT North and South conferences! As one of the newest members of PENT, I'm hoping to use my monthly emails to share and contextualize research, policy papers, and other issues relating to supporting positive student behavior. Basically, I want to read long papers so you don't have to, and distill the information into some consumable "take-home" points for folks. Of course, I'll always provide my sources in case you want to learn more about the information I'm providing. The link at the bottom of this email will take you directly to a page with all of the PDFs for the papers and materials I'm using.

Given the flurry of work that has taken place over the last couple years on corporal punishment, I thought that that would be a good topic to start with. I'm completely open to suggestions for future email topics, so please never hesitate to email me with thoughts or ideas at

Corporal punishment, spanking, and moving forward

There's some evidence that a generational shift is taking place with respect to spanking; general parent support for spanking dropped from 87% in 1995 to 81% in 2013, and younger parents are less likely than older parents to support spanking or to actually spank their own children [source: Four in Five Americans Believe Parents Spanking Their Children is Sometimes Appropriate External link opens in new window or tab.]. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of spanking to date was conducted in 2016, which drew from a total sample of over 160,000 children [source: Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses External link opens in new window or tab.]. Helpfully, this meta-analysis exclusively looked at spanking; previous meta-analyses had combined spanking with other forms of physical punishment like hitting children with objects. No studies showed a link between spanking and improved behavior. Instead, their results suggest that spanking is significantly associated with a large number of negative outcomes, including aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, and negative relationships with parents. The largest effect size that they observed was with physical abuse; as the authors state: "the more children are spanked, the greater the risk that they will be physically abused by their parents".

In December of 2018, the American Academy of Pediatricians (the largest group of pediatricians in the country) updated their position paper on corporal punishment with more recent evidence and some broader recommendations, all focusing around the recommendation that parents should not spank, hit, slap, threaten, shame, insult, or humiliate their children [source: Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children External link opens in new window or tab.]. As educational professionals who focus on supporting positive student behavior, I hope that we can all agree that these practices are in opposition to the work we do. However, in a statistic that continues to shock me, school-based corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states [source: Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: Prevalence, Disparities in Use, and Status in State and Federal Policy External link opens in new window or tab.]. This punishment is not distributed equally across student groups, as the authors note that "Black children in Alabama and Mississippi are at least 51% more likely to be corporally punished than White children in over half of school districts, while in one fifth of both states' districts, Black children are over 5 times (500%) more likely to be corporally punished."

Although there is some evidence to suggest that parents' spanking is on the decline, a majority of American parents across all age groups still agree that spanking is sometimes necessary [source: Four in Five Americans Believe Parents Spanking Their Children is Sometimes Appropriate External link opens in new window or tab.]. The arrest of a California Assemblyman in December 2018 on allegations of physical child abuse brought the issue of spanking's legality back into the spotlight; under certain circumstances, spanking a child in the state is not illegal (of course, I Am Not An Attorney) [source: Is spanking child abuse? Fresno Assemblyman Arambula's arrest opens debate External link opens in new window or tab.].

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to discuss spanking with a parent, there are a number of resources you can utilize. I'm a big fan of the AAP's documents for parents through their website, and would highlight this one, Where We Stand: Spanking External link opens in new window or tab., on spanking and this one, What's the Best Way to Discipline My Child? External link opens in new window or tab., on responding to behavior. The National Association of School Psychologists also have a position statement External link opens in new window or tab. on spanking (spoiler alert: they oppose it) with a nice list of alternatives that educational professionals can use to inform their conversations (although these are mostly school-based solutions, not parent-focused ones). If you're interested in learning more about cultural considerations when addressing spanking, Cultural issues in corporal punishment use: Forging new paths External link opens in new window or tab. is a succinct article providing one perspective from the American Psychological Association.

We can say "don't do that!" to kids or parents all we want, but fundamentally, we all need ways to get what we need. For some kids, that's throwing a desk to get attention from an adult, and for some adults, that's spanking in the hopes that it will decrease the future frequency of an undesired behavior. In order to intervene effectively with kids and adults, we need to provide alternatives; so, if we say that a parent shouldn't spank, we should follow that up with recommendations for what they should be doing instead. I'm sure we all have our favorite recommendations for parenting books at this point, but I'll provide one plug for an extremely parent-friendly text that's based in all the behavioral principles so many of us know and love: The Kazdin Method For Parenting the Defiant Child External link opens in new window or tab. (for tough kids) and The Everyday Parenting Toolkit External link opens in new window or tab. (for not-that-tough kids). They're pretty much the same book, just aimed as either general parenting or parenting a kid with more-significant behavior concerns.

I hope that this has been helpful, and I greatly look forward to doing some more research distillation as the months go on. If you want to see a comprehensive list of the sources I provided above, you can view them all here: External link opens in new window or tab.. Please don't hesitate to get in touch with any questions or suggestions for future topics to cover or materials to provide!

All the best,


Austin H. Johnson, PhD, BCBA
Licensed Psychologist (CA#29540)
Assistant Professor, School Psychology
Graduate School of Education
University of California, Riverside
Phone: 951-827-5958
Web: External link opens in new window or tab.