Hitting children in school linked with poorer test scores later on

19 November 2015

A new study shows that corporal punishment is still common in countries where it is outlawed, and for the first time using data from low- and middle-income countries researchers have shown a link between schoolchildren experiencing corporal punishment and later test scores. Researchers found that corporal punishment experienced by eight-year-old children is linked with lower maths scores when the same children reach the age of 12 as compared with their peers who did not report being hit. The research based on surveys also reveals that boys and poorer children were the most likely to report being struck by their teachers.

The Young Lives study of childhood poverty drew on surveys with 8,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. In India, nearly eight out of ten eight-year-old children interviewed by researchers said they had been hit in the last week. More than nine out of ten eight-year-old Indian children said they had seen someone else being struck in school that week. In Peru and Vietnam, more than half of the eight-year-old children surveyed said they had seen someone else being hit in the school in the last week; one-third of eight-year-old children in Peru and one-fifth in Vietnam said they had been struck themselves in the week before the survey. Eight out of ten children in Ethiopia reported seeing corporal punishment being used in their school.

In India, Vietnam and Peru, researchers found that children who reported experiencing corporal punishment when they were eight were associated with lower maths scores even after controlling for a range of child and household characteristics and when comparing children in the same community. Examining the same children’s test scores at the age of 12 showed corporal punishment linked with a negative effect equivalent to that of having a mother with between three to six years less schooling (depending on the country) than their peers. It is widely accepted that a mother’s education has a strong influence on her children’s educational attainment. In Ethiopia, while there was still a negative link between corporal punishment and test scores, the researchers found it was not significant, which may be due to much lower test scores in general in Ethiopia.

The children’s surveys show the reported incidence of corporal punishment among children at the age of eight was twice that of 15 year olds (in all four countries). Boys were significantly more likely than girls to say they had experienced corporal punishment. The study suggests that gender norms might play a part so hitting boys may be perceived as more acceptable by wider society in the countries studied. It adds that it is important to note that girls are often at greater risk of other forms of humiliating treatment and sexual violence, according to existing academic literature.

Lead researcher Dr Kirrily Pells said: ‘The Young Lives longitudinal data tracks the same children throughout their childhood. This way, we were able to identify links between earlier experiences of corporal punishment and academic performance later in school. Previous studies have found negative consequences associated with corporal punishment, including students being absent and feeling scared and confused. What’s new is that our results suggest that corporal punishment has a lasting impact on children’s education. Since poorer children are more likely to be hit that reinforces educational disadvantages.

‘In all four countries greater efforts are needed to make school a safe place for children. Although corporal punishment is prohibited, a large gap exists between the law and the daily reality experienced by many children. Greater attention is required to tackle the culture in some schools that prevents such laws being implemented properly. This study also shows that good teaching practices should be promoted if we are to build safe, supportive environments for all children to flourish.’

This research is funded by UNICEF as part of its Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children. The Multi-Country Study is building the evidence base to work with national partners in order to strengthen violence prevention.

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office at +44 (0) 1865 280534 or email news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes for Editors:

  • Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty, involving 12,000 children in 4 countries over 15 years. It is led by a team in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford in association with research and policy partners in the four study countries: Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.
  • The full study is on the website at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/CORPORAL%20PUNISHMENT%20IDP2finalrev.pdf
  • For more details about UNICEF’s Multi-Country Study see http://www.unicef-irc.org/research/260/
  • The use of physical punishment, such as smacking, slapping or hitting with a hand or implement, is contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by all states except the United States. However, only 47 states have introduced legislation to protect children from corporal punishment in all settings, including the home and school.