Researchers from American and Canadian universities found that children who were regularly physically punished were less able to focus on and complete tasks and regulate their emotions, compared to their peers who were given verbal reprimands or put in time-out to control their behaviour.
The authors of the study monitored 63 nursery and reception age children attending two private schools in West Africa.
In one school, children were smacked or pinched for bad behaviour or being disruptive in class. In the other school, children were disciplined with the use of time-outs.
The findings show that nursery children from both schools performed no differently on ‘executive functioning tasks’, tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act and solve problems. However, at five-to-seven-years-old, children from the school which used corporal punishment performed significantly worse than children attending the school which used non-physical punishments.
The authors say the findings suggest that children who are continually subjected to smacking or beating as a form of punishment are more likely to comply with the rules in the short-term to avoid getting beaten, but in the long-term they could fail to take them on board. They warn this could lead to lower levels of self-control and poorer behaviour in the long-term as a child gets older.
Professor Victoria Talwar of McGill University, who led the research, said, ‘This study demonstrates that corporal punishment does not teach children how to behave or improve their learning. 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.’
The study, Effects of a Punitive Environment on Children's Executive Functioning: a Natural Experiment, is published in the journal Social Development.