Skip to main content

Discipline in Schools: Why is Hitting Still an Option?

A pediatrician discusses the prevalence and effects of corporal punishment in schools, and what it might take to end it for good
Boy sitting in classroom with head down

While most schools in the United States do not report using corporal punishment — the use of pain as punishment — it still impacts tens of thousands of students annually, particularly in states where it remains legal.

Jaime Peterson, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a call this fall again to end of such practices in school. “As pediatricians, we don't recommend corporal punishment. We know it's not an effective form of discipline. Spanking and hitting a child might help a behavior in the short term. They might be fearful and obedient,” she says. “But in the long term it has a lot of negative consequences. But if it's how you discipline your child at home, parents are often teachers, and school personnel, and school board members that that's a practice in their community at home that seems acceptable. It may be hard to change it.”

It also disproportionately impacts certain demographics such as Black students and students with disabilities.

With 17 states where corporal punishment is still legal today, Peterson urges parents, educators, and policymakers to mobilize and push for abolition of this practice. Calling this form of punishment ineffective, she urges parents and schools to adopt more supportive and positive disciplinary practices that work.

“Saying that it's not allowed isn't going to change a school culture entirely. We don't know what other forms of discipline will come in,” she says. “I think really in the simplest forms when I talk with families, I remind them that our goal is no pain — so that's corporal punishment — no shame, and no blame when we discipline children. No pain, no shame, no blame.”

In this episode of the EdCast, we discuss the prevalence and effects of corporal punishment in schools, and what it’s going to take to end it for good.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Jaime Peterson knows corporal punishment is ineffective at disciplining students and doesn't create safe spaces to learn. Yet it's still legal in 17 states around the country and affects tens of thousands of students each year. She's a pediatrician, who along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, renewed a call this school year to outlaw corporal punishment.

Despite advances in education and child welfare, the practice of using physical pain still persists in some schools. Teenagers being paddled, students being left black and blue, and district leaders defending the practice have been reported in the past year. I wanted to know more about the prevalence of corporal punishment and what is standing in the way of abandoning this practice.

When I first heard about this many, many, many years ago, I was interviewing somebody. And they mentioned this is still happening in schools. It was shocking. And to think it's 2024 and a policy recommendation even has to be released telling not to do this is really shocking. 

What is corporal punishment? And what does that look like in schools today?

JAIME PETERSON: Corporal punishment is usually defined as the use of pain on a person's body as a form of punishment. So often defined as paddling, spanking, or the use of other objects as a form of punishment. The good news is that it's really not happening in a lot of schools. I think the most recent data is that 96% of schools in the US do not report any use of corporal punishment. So that feels good. Yet, the answer is not zero. There are still children who are experiencing it today.

JILL ANDERSON: I think the policy statement — and again, this may have changed since it was released several months ago — 70,000 students experience corporal punishment each year.

JAIME PETERSON: You're right. That number is from 2017 from the Civil Rights data collection, which is done by the US Department of Education. And I think in that school year there were close to 51 million children enrolled in public schools. So you're right. 4% of 51 million is close to 70,000 children experienced corporal punishment at least once, which they define as being struck at least once by school personnel during the school year.

JILL ANDERSON: And so where are we at? Because I think it was maybe 18 or 17 states still allowed this. Has that number changed at all?

JAIME PETERSON: They only report this data every four years. So the 2020 to 2021 data is now out, which wasn't available when we released the most recent statement. And the numbers dropped. But you have to remember, what else was happening in 2020? Schools were locked down for COVID. You have to always remember the context within which you look at this data.

So the numbers I think dropped to closer to 20,000 in 2020 to 2021. But children were not in school for a large portion of that time. The in-person time was much lower. So those numbers look better, to your point. There are now 17 states — and I do feel like this is constantly evolving — 17 states where it is still legal.

It is legal in all private schools, except for Iowa, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey. But corporal punishment remains legal in 17 states in the US.

JILL ANDERSON: What would you say is keeping some of these states or most of these states from banning this form of discipline in schools?

JAIME PETERSON: Yeah, I think this was a really interesting thing to learn when we went back to the policy statement, is that a lot of this comes from a Supreme Court case. And I'm not a lawyer. I'm a pediatrician. So I'll use my understanding.

Around 1977, there was a student, James Ingraham, who had corporal punishment inflicted on his body more than 20 times and resulted in the need for medical treatment. And so this was brought to the Supreme Court essentially under the Eighth Amendment for cruel and unusual punishment. But the court decided that because children are not criminals or prisoners that it doesn't apply. 

And so they left the matter to the states, for the states to decide on this issue, and really feel like it's a somewhat private and family-based issue too and that it should be decided at the state level. So the reason it can't just be banned outright is that it is at the level of the states. And then I think some of the other reasons is it's not happening in every state.

So if the rates are reported as zero, does the ban really need to get put in place? And you can sort of look at this map from the Civil Rights Data Collection. You can see the rates are higher along in the South. And so there are certain states where there's more of the cases are happening than in others. There are some great examples.

Colorado, for instance, in 2023 has now banned it. I don't think they had any reported cases in 2017 or 2020. But it is now illegal. So it took two representatives bringing it to the state to pass it.

JILL ANDERSON: But in some states, it is still happening in the past six months or so. And we see cases that have made the news, where you have high school students being given the opportunity to choose whether they get hit or get suspended. And you have a bunch of other cases. So it's definitely still happening in some places. What are the barriers that are keeping it banned?

JAIME PETERSON: I think that's such a good question. I think it really is probably nuanced. But what you can see in the data and the literature is that in places where parents may use corporal punishment, it may be more accepted. So as pediatricians, we don't recommend corporal punishment. We know it's not an effective form of discipline. Spanking and hitting a child might help a behavior in the short term. 

They might be fearful and obedient. But in the long term it has a lot of negative consequences. But if it's how you discipline your child at home, parents are often teachers, and school personnel, and school board members that that's a practice in their community at home that seems acceptable. It may be hard to change it. I mean, other barriers is awareness. This is an opportunity for people to realize it's happening.

That's why we wrote the policy statement again, so that you could have some movement. Just because it's allowed in your state, doesn't mean everyone agrees with it. And I think Mississippi is a great example. They tend to have the highest rates in the past. And they also in July I think of 2019 passed a ban on the use of corporal punishment against any child with a known IEP, so individualized education plan, or 504 plan.

And I think it's really interesting to look at the data from 2017 to 2020, with the COVID caveat, so I think we need to keep an eye on things, that their numbers of all children, not just the children with disabilities, went down who experienced corporal punishment, like a marked decrease.

JILL ANDERSON: So does that mean that something is breaking through or the culture is changing in some way? Is that what we can suspect from that data? Or is it still too soon to say?

JAIME PETERSON: It would be great to hear from their local leaders because I don't know. I think culture is really hard to change. I think if you put a ban in place and people get nervous and follow it, but if you don't come in with alternative parent practices for discipline and support teachers with an alternative, then is that going to be sustained?

JILL ANDERSON: You mentioned there can be long-term negative effects from this type of punishment and discipline. Can you just expand on that? What is the dangers of using this type of discipline in school?

JAIME PETERSON: We know from decades of research that it's not effective in the short term or the long term with educational implications, more likely to have behavioral and mental health issues as they get older, more likely to be violent themselves if they were disciplined with violence. And so you can extend that into the school setting.

So now instead of that data is based on parents, but someone else, another trusted adult using the same form of punishment is tied to the same consequences. And so a lot of the studies we have are across different countries, where they've looked at when you stop it, what happens? Less fighting, better grade point averages, better self-esteem, better relationships with teachers, the same implications as within a family within the school setting.

JILL ANDERSON: People seem very protective in a way of this as a reasonable form of discipline.

JAIME PETERSON: Yeah, I mean, I feel like as a pediatrician I hear that with families. My job as a pediatrician is to help their child grow, and develop, and navigate all of the different stages, toddler tantrums to teenagers, and really help them find the tools to do their very best. It's really hard for parents. They tell me. This is how I was raised. Isn't this the way I'm supposed to do it? And you often look to who raised you.

And so it really takes support from other people to change those patterns and behaviors and to be encouraged to do something different than what's being done in your home, or in your community, or in your family structure.

JILL ANDERSON: Can you talk about how this type of punishment affects specific populations of students?

JAIME PETERSON: What we know is that children who identify as Black are more likely to experience corporal punishment. So they disproportionately represent the number of children who are struck in a school. So they represent, I think, close to 15% of the US student population. But depending on the year, they're in the 30s, somewhere in those 30 percentiles of the number of children receiving corporal punishment.

So if you are a Black male identifying child, you're twice as likely to be struck in a school setting. And if you are a Black female, you're twice as likely compared to a white female. And if you're a child with a disability, those rates are higher as well. And then you can imagine intersectionality. What if you're a Black male with a learning disability or a developmental disability? Then you are even more likely to experience it.

JILL ANDERSON: Sounds like we know a lot about how this type of discipline affects kids who've grown up in these environments, where they're beaten or hit. Do we know anything about how this behavior impacts students later in life?

JAIME PETERSON: Yes. And a lot of those same concerns continue with mental health issues, educational outcomes, challenging relationships ongoing with parents and other children. I think often we think about the school to prison pipeline. You can't directly connect it. But a lot of the same impacts. 

So if you're less likely to feel engaged in school, and you're not doing as well, and you don't feel safe, and you're already struggling, even children without disabilities, it's going to have an impact on high school graduation and future educational attainment. And a lot of the studies we reference in the policy statement are sort of these ecological studies of what children report who have had corporal punishment, how they have felt it impacted them because you can't randomly control it.

Our gold standard is a randomized controlled trial. We're not going to randomly control children who receive corporal punishment and those who do not because that would be unethical.

JILL ANDERSON: What would you say is a better form of discipline to use in schools?

JAIME PETERSON: So there are a lot of other evidence-based programs that are better. And I think educators are going to be the people who know the best. As a pediatrician we can sort of cite what we know. But positive discipline models where you have trauma-informed practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, where a behavior that is problematic is approached with an intervention rather than with corporal punishment.

So when that behavior is not present, they receive — you can imagine as your educators a sticker chart, or they meet with a counselor and they get a prize, or they're earning bucks, school dollars to turn it in at the end of the week. Where the behavior is identified, there's an intervention in place and supports. Access to counseling and therapy services within schools.

So if there are other things contributing, so that the behaviors that are causing concerns in the school, we're addressing those as well. And at the same time as you're adopting a new practice, making sure that teachers are getting the support, and school staff and personnel are getting the support to be positive role models. What does it look like to do an alternative discipline practice, so that kids can see that shift happening, that school culture can change, and trust can be rebuilt over time?

Saying that it's not allowed isn't going to change a school culture entirely. We don't know what other forms of discipline will come in. I think really in the simplest forms when I talk with families, I remind them that our goal is no pain — so that's corporal punishment-- no shame, and no blame when we discipline children. No pain, no shame, no blame.

And so you can take away the pain portion, the corporal punishment portion. But you have to make sure it's not being replaced with shame and blame in those settings and that staff have the tools to do things differently, and the support of parents and community.

JILL ANDERSON: When I was looking and doing some research for this conversation about when this is happening, a lot of times it's happening for what are considered minor infractions. I mean, talking back, or not listening, or things that are not what you would maybe consider major infractions.

JAIME PETERSON: Yeah, I think we often think of behavior as communication. What is the reason behind the behavior? So why are they talking back? What's going on in this situation? And who has a relationship to connect with that child, after class, in between class? If it's really not bothersome, it's not going to cause anyone any harm, does it need to be dealt with in that exact moment and with that form of punishment? What are the alternatives?

JILL ANDERSON: You mentioned that a ban isn't necessarily what is going to change the culture of a school. But I'm wondering, what can be done to actually get this to the point, where it is outlawed in these remaining states?

JAIME PETERSON: I think the first step is a ban. The first step is to mobilize parents, and school board members, and legislators. Talk to your representatives and your senators and say, this is a thing that you may not be aware of. We need to petition for this to end. It's the recommendation of many, many groups, educational groups, health groups, psychology groups. 

You could probably cite all of the different collective bodies that support families and children that do not think this should continue. And you start there. And then I think there's sort of grassroots and coalition building to think about, how do you make sure that is implemented well? And that's going to need to take cultural and local contexts into account.

If you're in a state where the rates are zero, get the ban passed so that you're a model for other states. And you apply some pressure. It's not going to come down unless there's a new Supreme Court case brought. But right now, I think states have a lot of power. And I think parents, and teachers, and school districts, and leaders in the states have an opportunity right now.

I think the simplest thing to say is children can't learn when they don't feel safe. We want every child to have an enriching, supportive learning environment and home environment. And when there are other needs, health, or educational, or family, or structural barriers, we need to address those. But this one, this one to me is a no brainer. And I think if you're a parent listening, where do you want your child to be? And when they make a mistake, how do you want them to be responded to?

JILL ANDERSON: Jaime Peterson is a pediatrician and assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles