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Experts to Oklahoma lawmakers: Corporal punishment not effective long-term, has detrimental consequences

 Tulsa Union high school teacher Brittney Johnson (left), a student (middle) and student teacher Jenna Todd (right) watch a short video before an activity on the Mayan civilization.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Tulsa Union high school teacher Brittney Johnson (left), a student (middle) and student teacher Jenna Todd (right) watch a short video before an activity on the Mayan civilization.

This spring, despite national outrage, lawmakers failed to pass a bill prohibiting corporal punishment on students with disabilities. At a legislative interim study Thursday, lawmakers questioned experts on the impacts of corporal punishment.

Lawmakers heard presentations on several aspects of the use of corporal punishment on children with disabilities, such as its legal risks to school districts, lack of long-term effectiveness or direction on how children should appropriately respond, and potential long-term harms like increased aggression, withdrawal and making original unwanted behaviors even worse.

Is corporal punishment effective?

Dr. Scott Singleton serves as a psychology professor at the University of Central Oklahoma where he oversees a center for teacher training and behavioral consultation.

Singleton said it’s not necessarily that corporal punishment isn’t immediately effective in the short term, but its long-term risks outweigh any momentary benefits.

“Corporal punishment is one of the weakest interventions available and yields little, if any, long-term benefit,” Singleton said. “But it can have some short-term effect in suppressing the behavior in the minutes after, but so can some other interventions. Under some circumstances, corporal punishment can actually make the targeted behavior worse in the long term.”

Singleton cautions against using a punishment without evaluating its impacts outside of it just being effective. While a golf cart and a car are both effective ways to get you somewhere, he said, one is obviously more effective than the other.

He said students with disabilities can often present communication and language challenges, leaving them unable to express their needs in conventional ways. Many adverse behaviors occur because they produce an outcome of social interaction and attention — even if it’s negative, Singleton said.

“What may seem to be a negative social interaction can actually act as a reward. That is, the brain and central nervous system is so attuned to social interaction that the intense social interaction of corporal punishment and everything that surrounds it can act as a reward for the behavior.”

Another argument Singleton cited is that corporal punishment doesn’t redirect a child’s bad behavior to good behavior.

“It leaves it up to the disabled student to learn a new skill on their own,” Singleton said. “It expects them to be their own teacher and somehow identify the behavior they should do instead of the behavior that resulted in the physical punishment. So corporal punishment has little and often no effect in the long term.”

Unintended consequences

Singleton said teaching children to use physical pain as a tool can backfire. Though it can yield “very temporary compliance,” one issue that can arise with corporal punishment — especially for children with disabilities — is increased aggressive behavior.

“This can be especially true of students whose disability makes it difficult for them to understand why they’re being hit,” Singleton said. “Pain-induced aggression is one of the most well-documented effects of any pain-delivered stimulus. It’s not uncommon to see a rapid increase in aggression. … As the disabled student habituates to the pain that comes with the stimulus, what we’ll see happen is the likelihood of aggression will increase.”

Singleton said as a student feels more helpless against physical control and painful stimulation, they often internalize it, leading to anxiety and depression. That can manifest in behaviors like emotional outbursts, avoidance and withdrawal.

One particularly dangerous side effect is “elopement,” which he defines as leaving an area without permission. The environment, he said, is associated with that painful stimulation, so the child learns to avoid the environment. That could mean the child leaves the school campus on their own.

“Nearly half of children with autism in particular engage in elopement behavior,” Singleton said. “Additionally, more than one-third of children with autism who do engage in that type of behavior are unable to communicate their name, address or phone number.

Singleton said a particularly tragic outcome of elopement is accidental drowning, which accounts for 71% of the lethal outcomes with elopement wandering. Traffic injuries, heat and cold exposure, harmful encounters with strangers account for additional grave outcomes.

In addition to avoiding the environment, corporal punishment can also lead students with disabilities to avoid the adult responsible for doling out the punishment. Singleton said because corporal punishment does not teach a new appropriate response, the child can often become resistant and inattentive to instruction.

A mother’s testimony

In addition to the experts, lawmakers also heard from the mother of an 11-year-old student with autism who was administered corporal punishment in a rural district in 2018.

Jessica Gilliam says her son was “highly withdrawn” when he was picked up from school. Later that evening, the boy came to her crying after a shower, saying his behind hurt when the water touched it.

“I asked him to turn around and let me see him, and when he turned around, I screamed in disbelief,” Gilliam said. “My son was bruised and his skin was shaped from the swats that he received. At that moment, I knew it was more than swats. This left marks and bruising.”

Gilliam’s son then told her of his experience that day. He had listened in terror outside of the principal’s office while another child ahead of him was paddled.

“The child fell to the ground upon the first strike,” Gilliam said. “He begged and screamed not to be hit again. This went on and on. The former principal told him it would be even harder upon the next strike, the longer it took him to stand up. He was struck twice and urinated on himself. He was struck two more times. My child began to cry when he heard the other child being beaten. The secretary, while sitting at her desk, laughed at him and told him he should not have gotten into trouble.”

Gilliam said the other child’s mother reached out to her and showed her pictures of him. She said she had never seen anything so severe as to what happened to the other woman’s child.

She reported the incidents to the former superintendent, who told her the paddle that was used on her child was received “from a local state representative whom I have known my entire life.” The principal called and apologized, saying he had spanked the boy like he did his high school students — that is, too hard.

Instead of reporting to the authorities, Gilliam said the school contacted their attorneys and met with the local district attorney before a police report was ever submitted. The families ultimately reported the incident to law enforcement.

She learned the principal had used the same paddle on at least 20 other children, including a kindergarten student.

Gilliam said the effects of the incident were long-lasting and devastating. She decided to homeschool her son for two years due to his PTSD, anxiety and depression. He eventually returned to school, but at a larger district that does not use corporal punishment.

“My son and I made a pact that he would continue to fight to keep this from happening to any more children,” Gilliam said. “I promise to do my best to ensure all children’s voices were heard.”

Consensus against using corporal punishment

Singleton said the consensus among most professional organizations is that corporal punishment is harmful to children.

This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the organizations against corporal punishment, more information and additional resources can be found here:

  • American Psychological Association
  • National Association of School Psychologists
  • Council for Exceptional Children
  • American School Counselor Association
  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • American Academy of Family Physicians
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Bar Association
  • American Psychoanalytic Association
  • Association of University Centers on Disabilities
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Children’s Advocacy Institute
  • Children’s Defense Fund
  • Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
  • Human Rights Watch
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
  • National Association of School Nurses
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals
  • National Association of State Boards of Education
  • National Council of Teachers of English
  • National Education Association
  • National Foster Parent Association
  • National PTA
  • National Women’s Law Center
  • The Society for Adolescent Medicine
  • Academy on Violence and Abuse

Are there more effective behavior interventions?

Dr. Gary Duhon teaches psychology at Oklahoma State University and is a board-certified behavioral analyst with over 20 years of experience. He said several more effective and compassionate alternatives to corporal punishment exist.

One tactic is called “extinction.” Duhon defines that as withholding the consequence of a behavior. He said if a child is lashing out for attention, one intervention is to not respond. If bad behavior is a result of needing attention, giving it to the child — even if it’s negative — reinforces that behavior.

Another tactic is “response cost,” which is removing a portion of something good when the behavior occurs. For instance, if a child wants to escape or take a break from a task and does something inappropriate, an adult can intervene by taking away something the child wants. If the child is refusing to do their classwork, Duhon said a response cost would be keeping them in from recess to do their work.

“We’re not telling kids, ‘You shouldn’t access these things you want.’ We’re telling them, ‘We want you to do the right thing for it. We want you to engage in appropriate behavior for it,” Duhon said. “So the need is still present, but instead of problem behavior, we promote good behavior, and then we allow those needs to be fulfilled.”

Another more well-known technique is timeout. He said in contrast to extinction, timeout goes a step further by isolating the child and not giving them access to anything positive for a short period.

“If a child wanted a toy and they resulted in hitting, grabbing or biting a peer, we remove them from that setting,” Duhon said. “They don’t get access to the toy and they don’t get to interact with peers or anything else for a little while.”

Duhon also recommended “overcorrection,” which he defines as presenting outsized consequences for problem behaviors. For example, if a child wants attention and throws food in the cafeteria, they don’t have to just pick up their food — they have to clean the whole cafeteria floor.

“That consequence is pretty aversive, but it’s also non-punitive in terms of, it’s not providing corporal punishment,” Duhon said. “But kids tend not to like cleaning cafeteria floors, so they don’t do that.”

He cautions a one-size-fits-all approach, saying punishments should only be employed when the child can perform the appropriate behavior and knows when to do it.

“You would never punish a four-month-old for not walking. You would never punish a four-year-old for not reading,” Duhon said. “And you shouldn’t punish a fourth-grader for being out of their seat or being disruptive if they don’t know where to be and when to be there.”

So how do you correct a student who may not know better without it being punitive?

Duhon said much of the conflict originates from the child’s inability to communicate their needs effectively. Functional communication training is a technique a student works on long term, so it reduces the need for punishment because communication mishaps don’t happen as much.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if when they were sick, they knew, ‘I can go to my iPad and press this button, the sick emoji, and it says ‘sick,’ and I know that I’m going to get comforted when that happens,” Duhon said. “It’s very effective at going from a child who has difficulty communicating their wants and needs to teaching a child more effective ways of getting what they want through appropriate behavior.”

Another non-punitive technique is called “non-contingent reinforcement.” Duhon said this approach boils down to identifying the needs a child has and giving it to them before the problem behavior occurs. For instance, if a child is screaming for attention in class, a school psychologist can analyze the situation and provide preemptive guidance.

“How about we look at how often he’s asking for attention? Well, it looks like he’s asking for attention about every 30 minutes. But every 25 minutes, let’s go over there and give him 15 seconds worth of attention,” Duhon said. “And we oftentimes, in these procedures, we see the behavior drop down dramatically because they don’t want any more attention — they’re getting what they need.”

Legal liability

Duhon said in addition to adverse effects on the child, the adult or school district could face consequences as well.

“I have never in my career recommended corporal punishment, never will I ever, because of the risk to the people involved,” Duhon said. “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Kyle Reynolds is a retired superintendent of Woodward Public Schools and holds a doctorate in education and administration leadership. He said one example from his district exemplifies why schools should be wary of using corporal punishment.

At the school, a student committed an offense, and their parent was notified. The parent signed the consent form to authorize corporal punishment. Reynolds said it was administered “by the book, did it exactly like it was supposed to be done.” But things turned south.

“Five o’clock, there was a picture of that student’s naked rear end on Channel Four News, bruised,” Reynolds said. “And so from the public’s standpoint, how do you justify that is not child abuse? The school is silent — you’ll never hear a comment other than ‘We did everything by the book’ because that is a student issue and there are privacy issues at stake. So you don’t win the battle in those terms.”

Andrea Kunkel’s expertise is in special education law. She serves as general counsel for the professional education organizations Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration and the executive director of the Oklahoma Directors of Special Services. Kunkel said when she was in her private practice as a school attorney, she discouraged corporal punishment because it was too risky from a legal standpoint.

“You can do everything exactly right. You follow your policy. You use the paddle that you’re supposed to use. You call the parent, they say, ‘Yes,” Kunkel said. “But the child is bruised, and they go down to the district attorney’s office and they file a lawsuit and they hire an attorney. And here you are, you’re probably going to lose your job and you know, your district is going to get sued.”

Pro-corporal punishment lawmakers respond

Following the interim study, two lawmakers said in a news release they felt the presentation was “one-sided, without an opportunity for anybody with opposing viewpoints to present.”

Rep. Randy Randleman (R-Eufaula) pointed to a study by Dr. Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University that touts its effectiveness. Randleman is a former school psychologist.

Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland) also spoke out against the study in the release. During the spring legislative debacle over the corporal punishment bill, Olsen quoted Bible verses on the House floor, saying “god’s word is higher than all the so-called experts.”

He echoed similar thoughts in the press release, quoting Hebrews 12:11, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterword it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

“It’s best to take God at his word and do things his way,” Olsen said. “When we do, things turn out much better.”

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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