I Wanted to Change a School’s Perspective on Corporal Punishment: My Wins, My Losses
The 2017–18 school year I was presented with an opportunity I thought would have been a positive experience. Along with my Physical Education classes, I was also “promoted” to Dean of Students of my school. The school that I worked at still used corporal punishment. I was initially open to the idea but my experiences with corporal punishment led me to seek other methods. It was met with some skepticism, but I’ll go deeper into what led me into changing my perspective.
My Initial Experiences
Going into the role I came in tough! I wanted to be Like Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me. The Principal of my school made final rulings on what disciplinary action to take on a child who goes into her office. If a child were to receive corporal punishment, I would be called in to the office to deliver it. Even during times I was teaching PE, when students needed to be paddled, I had to stop my class, go to the office, deliver the punishment then try to teach again. I’ll never forget the first time I had to actually do it though. I walked in the office and saw a girl — kindergarten, extremely small, clothes, shoes old and dirty. This led me to believe that she had a tough time at home which was common at our school being that we served almost 90% low income students. “This child needs 2 swats coach.” The girl was shaking. In my head I was thinking on how forceful I should be. When I asked the reason behind her needing swats I was told because she “refused to do her work in class.” Another thing that was terrible about this new role is that I really had no say on if I thought certain behaviors caused for corporal punishment, I just went in and did the job. An executioner if you will. That moment was very alarming however I continued to play executioner for that year and part of the next year. I started noticing trends on the students I saw and once I started reading the data from other schools as well as ours, I started to change my initial perspective.
Arkansas is one of 19 states that has not outlawed corporal punishment. Furthermore, around 80% of Arkansas schools still use corporal punishment. With most schools in small remote areas in Arkansas, I can see how that percentage remains high. The school I worked at fit the description of what I call a “corporal punishment school”: remote, rural, Less than 500 kids kindergarten through 12th grade. Everyone knows everyone therefore when a child misbehaved, parents never hesitated to give the green light on paddling their child. A common phrase I often heard was “oh Yea go ahead tear em up!” Tear ‘em up is exactly what Arkansas does: According to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (2019), Arkansas school districts hit students 15,453 times in 2017–18! Being that we are in the bible belt you also hear the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child.” This way of thinking is embedded in southern ideology. Many thinks that the lack of spanking children in school is what leads to the misbehavior to begin with. Therefore we can conclude that academically, Arkansas is up in the educational rankings statistically when it comes to subject matter right? According to US News and World Report (2017), Arkansas ranks 39th in education. Based on state popularity in general, we are ranked 48th.
Act 1015 of 2017 requires Arkansas Department of Education to report data on discipline practices each year from school districts including race, income, and disability. Once I looked into these numbers I honestly was not surprised at what I found. Arkansas as a whole used corporal punishment more on people of color than on Caucasian students even though Caucasian students make up well over 60% of students in Arkansas k-12 schools. Sadly this trend was definite in my school: In the 2017–18 school year, although there were only 34 African American students in the k-6th grade, they received corporal punishment at a rate of 24 times per 100 students. There were 189 white students in the school but only 18 per 100 students received corporal punishment. I don’t think the disparities are intentional but they are alarming. I was sick knowing I helped aid in those numbers. Furthermore, of the other discipline actions schools have the option to take, most schools chooses corporal punishment more than any other action. Understandable being that it is a quick fix to behavior: student misbehave, goes to the office, no questions asked, get paddled and go back to class. If done swiftly it could be a five minute process. The school’s handbook specifically discusses how corporal punishment should be administered as a last resort yet it seemed to be primary option for some students. Personally, I wanted to get the root causes of why students misbehaved. I was interested in more logical consequences rather than just hitting a child for reasons the child may not even comprehend. I knew this type of work would take longer.
Logical Consequences, The Law and Relationships with Students
There is no definitive evidence that proves physically hitting a child in school makes them perform better academically. If anything it is the opposite. Many Arkansas students are victims of Adverse Childhood Experiences. What we do know is that the more adverse childhood experiences a student faces, the more likely they are to misbehave in school. It is well past time we try to get to the underlying issues of misbehavior instead of using quick fixes.
These band aid approaches to misbehavior only leads to more misbehavior later. I remember giving several student’s swats in the morning only for those same students to be back in the office later that day. Its the adults that gets satisfaction in thinking something was done because the child put on the waterworks after he or she got paddled. We feel good about ourselves because for that moment the adult won and the child did not. Sadly, most children that are recurring office visitors never really learn their lesson through corporal punishment and continues the misbehavior. Schools should give ample opportunity for the child to win. When the child wins, the teacher automatically wins, learning takes place and behavior goes down.
I got so frustrated in seeing the same students coming into the office for the same exact behaviors and receiving the same exact punishment. In addition, I got tired of being just an executioner. I did not want students to view me as the person who just paddles kids. It also didn’t help that I was the only black male working in the district. I wanted to help them deal with their behaviors and teach them how to make better decisions. What was equally as frustrating is what the students were getting office referrals for: “No pencil” ,“excessive talking”, “won’t listen.” The majority of discipline referrals (statewide) are of that manner. these type of behaviors can be handled in the classroom when there are well established routines and procedures. In the 2012–13 school year, the k-6 had 188 discipline referrals while only having around 270 students. I understand that when you’re trying to teach and a student is being disruptive to the learning environment and has been given several warnings then yes send them my way. But I also argue that traditional instructional techniques, teacher-centered classrooms, boring-ass classrooms and no tolerance policies leads to disengaged students which leads to discipline issues. I wanted to focus more on natural approaches that the students could process. I started thinking outside of the box.
One morning, two 2nd grade students were caught throwing food in the cafeteria during breakfast. Usually that would have resulted in paddling but it bothered me that we were essentially moving them away from where the behavior started. I had talked to the students about why they were throwing food. One responded “it was funny.” So with a broom and dustpan in my hand I replied “you know what else is funny?” Both students had to help the lunch room ladies clean up the cafeteria after everyone got finished eating . Not only did this consequence fit what the students did to get in trouble, it also developed empathy. Neither student got in trouble in the lunchroom again and even started volunteering to clean up after breakfast.
I also started Saturday schools or Saturday Alternative Learning. Saturday School was done in the past but was recently discontinued. I wanted to pick this back up. What I learned is that all the students did was busy work that wasn’t going to get graded. I was thinking to myself on how much of a golden opportunity this was to sit one on one with students and get down to the bottom of why they were in Saturday school to begin with. I made some students write stories about a character of their choosing. I knew most students would write about a character similar to who they were and what they were going through in real life. I learned a lot about some of the students. One of the students that I had was an incredible artist but the reason why he was in Saturday School was because instead of listening or being on task he’d draw instead. He’s considered the outcast of his class with not too many friends and gets bullied every now and then. Now, I did not condone his drawing during instruction but I did find out that the reason he draws in class is because he wants people to compliment his drawings which, he thinks, will make people like him.
For the first hour or so, the students are reflecting on their behavior through writing stories. I then sit with them one by one and we discuss what they wrote and what we can do the change the narrative of their character. The last hour they do something that seems to be a lost art for kids that age…..clean! Once again trying to developing empathy by making them put on the shoes of a custodian and have them clean windows and mop hallways and also take pride in their school building. This particular student never came back.
(Note: When I make students sweep the cafeteria or mop hallways I’m always helping as well. )
“How is squeezing a ball and walking helping anything?!”
When a culture of a school is used to quick fix punishments, its easy to assume inserting a different perspective may not work. Especially when dealing with behavior this way takes a lot longer than corporal punishment. It is in our human nature to want quick results which includes swift actions taken towards disciplining students. I agree when a situation arises, you must be swift in defusing the situation but also be aware of everything that occurred in the process. We had a younger student who showed out any chance he could get. This was a reoccurring incident. When I finally got my opportunity to try something different I would have the student in my office and we just talked. The student seemed to calm down when he had one of my small squishy balls I use in PE class. He liked the texture of the ball as well as how the ball deflated each time he squeezed it. In class he would always have outbursts which at times got violent. When we sat and talked he discussed home, being new to this school and the other schools he was at before this one. I’d take him on walks while we talked. Walking seemed to ease his mind as well. One day he pushed a teacher. When he came to my office the teacher wanted him swatted. “How is squeezing a ball and walking helping anything?!” Changing the mindset of individuals that’s been so hard wired to thinking corporal punishing students is a viable means of discipline in schools was beginning to get tough. Especially students in which my perspective has not shown much progress yet. However, I always told frustrated adults that true behavior change is a marathon, not a quick fix and once you build relationships with your students, behavior goes down.
I also encouraged the practice of yoga during my PE classes. That deep, southern, traditional mindset could not process how meditating, self reflection, and deep breathing can change behavior in students. I have read a few articles on schools using yoga instead of sending kids to detention or paddling as a way to help kids with behavior. These practices are being seen in urban schools but has yet made its way down to rural south. I’m not a huge yoga fanatic but I do practice self reflection and meditating with music. I bought 24 yoga mats for my classes but the idea of yoga did not pick up. Some of the yoga mats are still in plastic.
If Schools are Going to Continue With Corporal Punishment, Keep That Same Energy and Extend it to the Adults.
What we know about the human brain now that we didn’t know fifty, sixty years ago is that it does not fully develop until the mid 20’s. Unfortunately, there are schools still operating as if it was still fifty, sixty years ago. Youth ages 12 to 17 are less psycho-socially mature than 18 to 23 year olds. This means that they are more susceptible to making irrational decisions, taking risks, thinking short term and failing to anticipate consequences of their choices (aka: teenagers). So how can we possibly expect 6 to 10 year old children to take true responsibility of their behavior when we now know that psycho-social maturity is not fully developed until around the age of 25? there are adults who still do not take full responsibility for their behavior despite their brain being fully developed. You can make the argument that it is the adults who need corporal punishment while we spend adolescent years learning extensively about behaviors and decision making in relation to the growth and development of the brain. Imagine being a teacher and you’re late for work or miss deadlines to turn in items. Instead of getting written up or losing your job you just get paddled. Sounds dumb right? Would you subject yourself to be bent over while another adult hits you with a paddle? I highly doubt it. Kids everywhere, especially in southern states receive corporal punishment for less. Kids are essentially being hit for behaving the way they’re supposed to behave at that age. There’s a paradigm shift in education that needs to happen and part of that shift is how some schools discipline students.