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Physical Punishment May Impair Child’s Cognitive Functions

Physical Discipline May Impair Childs Intellectual FunctionsEmerging research suggests corporal punishment in schools may harm a child’s cognitive ability.

In a study of two private West African schools, children in a school that uses corporal punishment performed significantly worse in tasks involving executive functioning — psychological processes such as planning, abstract thinking, and delaying gratification — than those in a school relying on milder disciplinary measures such as time-outs.

Researchers believe this suggests a harshly punitive environment may have long-term detrimental effects on children’s verbal intelligence and their executive-functioning ability.

As a result, children exposed to a harshly punitive environment may be at risk for behavioral problems related to deficits in executive functioning, the study indicates.

Researchers including Prof. Victoria Talwar of McGill University, Prof. Stephanie M. Carlson of the University of Minnesota, and Prof. Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, followed 63 children in kindergarten or first grade at two West African private schools.

Demographically the students were similar as their families lived in the same urban neighborhood and parents were employed as civil servants, professionals and merchants.

In one school, discipline in the form of beating with a stick, slapping of the head, and pinching was administered publicly and routinely for offenses ranging from forgetting a pencil to being disruptive in class.

In the other school, children were disciplined for similar offenses with the use of time-outs and verbal reprimands.

While overall performance on the executive-functioning tasks was similar in the younger children from both schools, the Grade 1 children in the non-punitive school scored significantly higher than those in the punitive school.

These findings compare with prior research that suggests punitive discipline may make children immediately compliant – but may reduce the likelihood that they will internalize rules and standards. That, in turn, may result in lower self-control as children get older.

“This study demonstrates that corporal punishment does not teach children how to behave or improve their learning,” said researcher Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., of McGill University.

“In the short term, it may not have any negative effects; but if relied upon over time it does not support children’s problem-solving skills, or their abilities to inhibit inappropriate behaviour or to learn.”

Experts have debated the benefits or detriments of corporal punishment for centuries. However, few studies have examined the effects on executive functioning.

This study used a quasi-experimental design to obtain information from a naturally occurring situation in which children were exposed to two different disciplinary environments. The parents of children in both schools endorsed physical punishment equally, suggesting that the school environment can account for the differences found.

However, despite the knowledge gained, researchers say there are many questions that remain unanswered.

“We are now examining whether being in a punitive environment day in and day out will have other negative impacts on children such as lying or other covert antisocial behaviors. Also, we are pursuing the long-term consequences of experiencing corporal punishment. For example, what would children’s cognitive and social development be 5 or 10 years down the road?,” said study author Kang Lee, Ph.D.

The findings are relevant to current issues in education.

“In the U.S., 19 states still allow corporal punishment in schools, although more of them are now asking for parent permission to use it. With this new evidence that the practice might actually undermine children’s cognitive skills needed for self-control and learning, parents and policymakers can be better informed,” said study author Stephanie M. Carlson, Ph.D.

The study is published in the journal Social Development.

Source: University of Toronto

Physical Punishment May Impair Child’s Cognitive Functions

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Physical Punishment May Impair Child’s Cognitive Functions. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 27 Jul 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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