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Ban spanking in all schools, pediatrician group urges. Do this instead

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

(CNN) — Spanking or striking children in school, or corporal punishment, should be “abolished in all states by law,” according to an updated policy statement by the Council on School Health and released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The use of corporal punishment has dropped over the years, but it is “either expressly allowed or not expressly prohibited in 23 states,” US Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona said in March before Colorado banned the practice. “Furthermore, researchers have determined that the use of corporal punishment in schools is likely underreported.”

Although 96% of public schools say they no longer strike students, nearly 70,000 students a year are struck “at least once by school personnel,” and corporal punishment is most widely used in the US South, the AAP statement said.

Blacks and disabled children hit most often, AAP says

Black and disabled children are most likely to bear the brunt of corporal punishment, the AAP said. Black girls in the United States are three times as likely to be struck at school than White girls, while Black boys are twice as likely as White boys to receive physical punishment, the statement noted.

Children with disabilities were struck at higher rates than students without disabilities in more than half of the schools practicing corporal punishment between 2013 and 2014, raising “troubling concerns about the disparate treatment of students with disabilities, who are too often punished for behaviors arising from their disability,” according to a 2019 report by the Civil Rights Project.

“This isn’t acceptable — all children need to feel safe to learn,” said lead author Dr. Mandy Allison, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, Colorado.

“While a child or teen might become fearful, obedient and quote ‘get in line,’ that’s only in the short term after being struck,” Allison said. “Research shows corporal punishment does not improve behavior over the long term, is not an effective means of discipline and does not foster a positive learning environment and supportive school climate.”

The stance against spanking extends beyond school grounds. Parents also should “not use spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming” when discipling their children, the AAP noted.

Instead, age-appropriate, nonviolent behavioral strategies should be used, said coauthor Dr. Nathaniel Beers, executive vice president of community and population health for Children’s National in Washington, DC.

“Some healthy forms of discipline as alternatives to corporal punishment may include the use of positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, setting limits, redirecting, and setting future expectations,” Beers said in a statement.

Positive approaches work better

It isn’t the first time the APP has called for a ban on corporal punishment — the organization released its first policy statement on the issue 23 years ago. The update, Allison said, adds recent scientific evidence on the harms of corporal punishment and the effectiveness of a nonviolent approach.

“Additional studies in the US and other countries have continued to find no evidence corporal punishment is effective for achieving behavior improvements,” Allison said. “In fact, we can show a strong association between corporal punishment in school and lower academic achievement, standardized test scores and higher rates of dropout.”

In addition, there’s been newer research on the success of more positive interventions, such as conflict resolution, mentoring, individual therapy, “restorative justice concepts, trauma-informed school concepts and positive behavioral interventions and supports,” she added.

Positive behavior interventions and supports, also known as PBIS, is an evidence-based school intervention funded by the US government. It provides teachers and schools with training on how to focus on positive behaviors, such as teaching students about expectations in the classroom and using logical consequences for any negative behavior. It is the only approach allowed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Trauma-informed schools are tackling the issue of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can include poverty, experiences with or the witnessing of violence, suicide, abuse, neglect, addiction, mental disorders and the growing number of school shootings.

Nearly 1 in 6 people in the US have experienced four or more such events before age 18, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such adverse experiences as a child have been linked to “chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood,” the CDC said. “ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.”

Another method showing promise in schools is called “restorative justice” in which peo­ple who have caused another person harm sit and talk with that person, accepting responsibility for their actions. The two parties talk about the harmful event and work together to find an acceptable restitution without involving the authorities.

The Oakland Unified School District in California implemented a restorative justice program in 2005: Nearly 76% of the students successfully repaired the harm they did or resolved the conflict, according to a 2014 report on the program. Suspensions from school for disruption or willful defiance decreased by 40% among Black students, who have traditionally bore the brunt of zero-tolerance disciplinary actions for minor behavioral infractions, such as verbal disrespect, fighting, or truancy, the report said.

“All of these approaches are trying to understand kind of the underlying reasons why a child is acting out instead of being reactionary to that behavior,” Allison said. “They are trying to understand the systemic structures, including racism and poverty, that are the antecedents of poor behavior.”

Here’s the approach educators should take, she said: “You’re not just a bad kid. Let’s understand what’s going on in your life and why you’re acting out, and then let’s try to help manage those things so that you don’t need to act out.”

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