Dec. 17, 2018: Introduction: Corporal punishment is broadly defined as using physical force to correct or control a child’s behavior. More than half of parents report using corporal punishment for children younger than 10 years, and 75% to 95% of parents reporting using corporal punishment for children aged 2 to 8 years.1,2 Although corporal punishment is legal in every US state and often a common practice, it is also a source of toxic stress and a leading risk factor for physical abuse.3–7Corporal punishment may include pain but is not supposed to result in injury3; corporal punishment resulting in injury is physical abuse.8
The goal of corporal punishment is to attempt to increase a child’s compliance with parental expectations or rules, and as such physical abuse is often accompanied by parental anger about a child’s behavior or failure to meet demands.9,10 A thorough review of the variants, precipitants, and outcomes of corporal punishment is beyond the scope of this study but can be found elsewhere.11,12
One context that may elicit corporal punishment and in turn lead to physical abuse is poor behavior or academic performance at school. Children who receive poor grades or negative remarks on their school report card may be at risk of physical punishment if their performance is not to the parent’s standard or if they are reported misbehaving, inattentive, or disruptive in the classroom.
Importantly, short-term consequences associated with physical abuse include poor academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, and conduct disorders.13–15 Thus, the nature of an association between school performance and abuse may be reciprocal.
Anecdotal evidence from physicians and other child protection professionals suggests that the incidence of punishment-oriented physical abuse for school-aged children increases within a short window of time after the release of school report cards (R. Alexander, MD, PhD, written communication, January 30, 2017). However, to our knowledge, no empirical examination of this association has been undertaken. This study used a unique, multisource, state-level data set to examine the temporal association between school report card release and incidents of child physical abuse. The main hypothesis was that the incidence of physical abuse increases after the release of school report cards.
Discussion: The primary aim of this study was to empirically test the association between release of school report cards and telephone calls that led to verified cases of physical child abuse using state-level data. Release of report cards on Monday through Thursday was not associated with increased IRs of verified cases of child physical abuse the same or the next day. However, a nearly 4-fold increase in the IR of verified physical child abuse occurred on Saturdays after a Friday report card release.
One possibility for this unique finding is that when report cards are released earlier in the week, caregivers are distracted by other activities such as work and caring for other children. Thus, caregivers may not have the same opportunities to react negatively to a child’s report card when released on a Monday through Thursday. Another possibility is that caregivers may avoid harsh punishment when children will have guaranteed exposure to mandated reporters (eg, teachers) the following day.
This study fits with others in which researchers have identified temporal variation in child abuse and neglect, including more cases in spring and summer21,22 than in autumn and winter,23 more physical abuse–associated visits to the hospital in the afternoon to evening hours,22 and more physical abuse–associated hospital admissions during weekdays.24 One study of children in China25 found peaks in physical abuse–associated hospital admissions in the 2 months preceding school examination periods. Although not discernable from their data, those researchers25 speculated that parental stress and reaction to their child’s school performance might explain these temporal peaks in abuse cases, as we do.
Given that this study, to our knowledge, is one of the first of its kind and that our findings do not indicate causality, ideas about the mechanisms linking report card release day and physical abuse are still largely speculative, and additional studies are needed to elucidate this possibility. Subsequent studies wherein additional, potentially influential, factors are measured (eg, days missed from school for children with verified cases of physical abuse after report card release; quality of report cards; parental beliefs about corporal punishment) would be helpful. In addition, randomization of the report card release day would create steps toward understanding pathways of causality.
Association of Friday School Report Card Release With Saturday Incidence Rates of Agency-Verified Physical Child Abuse
Question Are school report cards a precipitant to child physical abuse?
Findings This study of report card release dates and state child welfare agency–verified incidents of child physical abuse across an entire state included 1943 cases of abuse. Release of report cards on Monday through Thursday was not associated with increased incidence rates of child physical abuse the same day or the day after the release; however, nearly a 4-fold increase in the incidence rate of verified child physical abuse reports was found on Saturdays after a Friday report card release.
Meaning These findings offer an actionable, policy-level strategy for school districts that may reduce incidents of child physical abuse linked to report cards.
Abstract: Importance Corporal punishment is a leading risk factor for physical abuse. Strong anecdotal evidence from physicians and other professionals working in child protection suggest that punishment-initiated physical abuse for school-aged children increases after release of report cards. However, no empirical examination of this association has occurred.
Objective To examine the temporal association between school report card release and incidence rates (IRs) of physical abuse.
Design, Setting, and Participants This retrospective study reviewed calls to a state child abuse hotline and school report card release dates across a single academic year in Florida. Data were collected in a 265-day window from September 8, 2015, to May 30, 2016, in the 64 of 67 Florida counties with report card release dates available (16 960 days). Participants included all children aged 5 to 11 years for whom calls were made. A total of 1943 verified cases of physical abuse were reported in the study period in the 64 counties. Data were analyzed from October 2017 through May 2018.
Exposures School report cards release across a single academic year, measured daily by county.
Main Outcomes and Measures Daily counts of calls to a child abuse hotline that later resulted in agency-verified incidents of child physical abuse across a single academic year by county.
Results During the academic year, 167 906 calls came in to the child abuse hotline for children aged 5 to 11 years; 17.8% (n = 29 887) of these calls were suspected incidents of physical abuse, and 2017 (6.7%) of these suspected incidents were later verified as cases of physical abuse before excluding the 3 counties with no release dates available. Among the 1943 cases included in the analysis (58.9% males [n = 1145]; mean [SD] age, 7.69 [1.92] years), calls resulting in verified reports of child physical abuse occurred at a higher rate on Saturdays after a Friday report card release compared with Saturdays that do not follow a Friday report card release (IR ratio, 3.75; 95% CI, 1.21-11.63; P = .02). No significant association of report card release with IRs was found for any other days of the week.
Conclusion and Relevance This association of school report card release and physical abuse appears to illustrate a unique systems-based opportunity for prevention.
Accepted for Publication: September 7, 2018. Corresponding Author: Melissa A. Bright, PhD, Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, University of Florida, PO Box 11050, Gainesville, FL 32610 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Additional Contributions: Lucia Gonzales-Llanos, BS, and Samantha Cresoe, BS, medical students at the University of Florida, Gainesville, assisted in the collection and organization of data and received compensation through a summer student research program.
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[Association of Friday School Report Card Release With Saturday Incidence Rates of Agency-Verified Physical Child Abuse. Bright MA, Lynne SD, Masyn KE, Waldman MR, Graber J, Alexander R. JAMA Pediatr.Published online December 17, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.4346]