Research showing the long-term negative effects of physical abuse on children has been extensive and conducted over the course of decades, and now a new study coming out of Pennsylvania State University is showing that those effects can appear in the classroom, as well.
Sarah Font, an assistant professor of sociology at Penn State, and Jamie Cage, assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, observed 658 children between the ages of 8 and 14 over the course of 3 years. The degree of punishment was measured in three categories: mild corporal punishment (like spanking), severe corporal punishment, and flat-out physical abuse (such as hitting or beating).
Results showed that children exposed to both mild and harsh physical abuse displayed low cognitive performance, while those children coming from environments with non-abusive physical punishment still suffered from reduced school engagement and peer isolation.
The study, published in Child Abuse and Neglect, revealed that even physical punishment that didn’t result in any noticeable injury was bound to “impact the structure of the brain, development, and overall well-being in a negative way” due to the fear and emotional distress experienced by the child.
“This punishment style is meant to inflict minor pain so the child will change their behavior to avoid future punishment, but it does not give children the opportunity to learn how to behave appropriately through explanation and reasoning,” Font stated. “Our findings were relatively consistent regardless of whether physical punishment was reported by the child or caregiver.”
The report concluded, “Overall, our findings suggest that the prevention of physical abuse may enhance children's cognitive performance, but that alone may not be sufficient to ensure children are engaged and well-adjusted in school.” While Font suggested that “preventing physical abuse could promote children's cognitive performance," parents should be educated on alternative forms of punishment.