Article: School Grades Trigger Family Violence

By Melissa Bright
April 30, 2019


In elementary school, I was typically excited for report cards to come out. I knew my grades were good–which would earn me a reward from my parents–and any notes about my behavior would be neutral at worst. I didn’t realize that for some of my peers, bringing this piece of paper home would be a completely different experience.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I’ve started to learn how my peers’ experiences may have differed. A colleague of mine, a pediatrician, explained to me that he and many of his peers, as well as many K-12 teachers, believe that for some children, report cards result in punishment so severe that it turns into physical abuse. It turns out that this idea has been around for some time. I doubted my colleague. But he was right.

To test his theory, my colleague and I, along with the rest of our research team, conducted a study of all calls to a statewide child abuse hotline for a single academic year. We then narrowed the data to just calls for children aged 5-11 years and calls that were later investigated and verified physical abuse. Next, our team integrated the dates of report card release (typically 4 per year) for each school district. We found that there was more than a two-fold increase in the risk of a child physical abuse report on a Saturday when report cards were released on a Friday.

Our study has inspired several new questions around the timing of report cards and physical abuse.

That is all we can say definitely from the study. We cannot say why this link appears on a Friday but not on other days and we cannot say why there is a link. But we do have some thoughts based on the current scientific literature and anecdotal cases from expert clinicians. We believe that we observed a link between school report cards and physical abuse because these report cards were poor. Parents responded to these report cards with corporal punishment, and this corporal punishment crossed the line to physical abuse.

Corporal punishment is broadly defined as using physical force to correct or control a child’s behavior. Corporal punishment is legal in the US, common practice among parents of young children, and effective at stopping unwanted behavior in the short-term (e.g., eliminating a behavior for 10 minutes or less). The practical line between corporal punishment and physical abuse is gray and the legal line differs between states. As a result, corporal punishment can quickly turn to physical abuse.

Corporal punishment is associated with poor academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, and conduct disorders. It is not effective at changing behavior long-term, including improving academic performance or reducing poor behavior in school. Numerous expert psychologists and pediatricians have written extensively on the evidence against using corporal punishment.

Our study has inspired several new questions around the timing of report cards and physical abuse. In a series of studies, our next steps will be to measure these assumed middle steps–bad report cards beget corporal punishment which leads to abuse – and to gain systematic feedback from experts in the field. We are anxious to hear from teachers, pediatricians, administrators, parents, and children about their experiences about report cards. Understanding the details of the problem, and then generating ideas for tackling it are key to developing prevention strategies.

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