Effects of a Punitive Environment on Children’s Learning Ability

There are two ways of enforcing discipline in children. One is to give physical punishments and the other is to use strategies like verbal reprimand and time-outs. Harsh punishments can produce immediate control over undesirable behavior, but their long-term consequences might be negative. The current study compared children belonging to two schools employing different punishment strategies. The study found that although the scores on tests are similar at kindergarten (the beginning of school life), there is a marked difference between the two groups by first grade. The children from schools using harsh punishment score less on executive functions like verbal skills. They also have problems in delaying gratification in a particular environment and in facing gift denial.

Executive functions are brain functions that are aimed at goal-directed problem-solving. They start developing between 2 and 5 years of age, and most adult-level abilities in executive functions are reached at 12 years. A deficiency in the development of executive functions can produce behavioral problems. Thus, social factors like family and school environment are considered important in this aspect. Discipline at school is one such factor that influences children’s executive functions. The reports of the effects of disciplinary measures adopted in schools on the development of children are contradictory. This research was aimed at finding the effect of disciplinary measures on executive function development in children in western African schools.

* In this study, the experiment was performed in two groups of children. The first group had 36 children belonging to a punitive school, which employed physical methods like beating and slapping to enforce discipline among the children. The second group had 27 children belonging to a non-punitive school, which used non-physical methods like verbal reprimand for enforcing discipline.
* Executive functions are of two types, namely, emotionally arousing (hot) and non-arousing (cold). The children participated in both hot and cold experiments that tested response to delay in gratification and gift reception.
* The children’s cognitive functions like verbal skills were tested by suitable tests. Other information like school characteristics and record of disciplinary actions was obtained.
* The correlation between disciplinary practice and results of the tests of executive functions was studied.

* Children in the punitive school witnessed, on an average, 40 incidents of physical punishment.
* The overall executive functions were similar at the kindergarten level, but by first grade, the children from the non-punitive school had higher scores on executive functions tests than the scores of children from the punitive school.
* The children from the non-punitive school used more strategies to delay gratification than the children from the punitive school did, indicating that they had more self control.
* On the verbal performance test, there was no difference between two the groups at the kindergarten level. However, in first grade, the children from the non-punitive school had higher scores compared to those belonging to the punitive school.

Next steps/Shortcomings
A limitation in this study is that the children were not randomly allocated to receive physical punishment or verbal reprimand. It is of course ethically impossible in such experiments. A single experimenter performed the tests in both schools. Hence, he/she was not blind to the condition and his/her own attitude might have influenced the results in this study.

The findings of this study suggest that a harsh punitive environment may have long-term detrimental effects on children’s verbal intelligence as well as their executive function ability. At the kindergarten level, there was no significant difference between the two groups. In first grade, the difference became significant, indicating possible environmental influence of punishment in the school. Although it is possible to gain short-term control over behavior by harsh punishment, the children might not internalize the values. Thus, the long-term benefit on impulsive behavior might be absent. This is highlighted by the finding in the gratification denial experiment. It showed that children belonging to the non-punitive group used more strategies for gratification denial, indicating better self-control. In conclusion, harsh physical punishment should be avoided due to its negative influence on the cognitive and behavioral capabilities of children.

For More Information:
Effects of a Punitive Environment on Children’s Executive Functioning
Publication Journal: Social Development, 2011
By Victoria Talwar, Stephanie M. Carlson; McGill University, Montreal, Canada; University of Minnesota

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