Should We Use Physical Force with Students?

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ust about any occurrence in society has the potential of ending up as raw video on social media these days. One of the latest classroom witness videos that went viral is one depicting an officer forcibly removing a defiant child from a classroom. This sparked much discussion about the appropriateness of using such physical force on children.

School in the 1960s. Things were much different back then - including how we disciplined.When I went to elementary school in the 60s, teachers using physical force was quite commonplace. I especially remember my fifth grade teacher who seemed to relish the opportunity to lower the boom on misbehaving children. If you swore, you got dragged to the back sink and had a bar of soap shoved in your mouth. If you disrespected her or fought, you got dragged to the front of the room and bent over her knee and paddled. If you talked out or didn’t pay attention, you got the stinging whack of a wooden ruler across your knuckles. I even remember a student who got his hair hacked off when she noticed it was too long for her liking. As far as I know, parents never complained about her discipline and control techniques.

Old school discipline. Should teachers use physical force today?When I began my teaching career in the mid-80s, being physical with students was far less accepted, but still done to some degree. I remember some parents personally giving me permission to spank their children for misbehavior. Although I never did resort to that technique, my principal at the time routinely used spanking as a method for reigning in misbehavior.


Today, however, I have found that using corporal punishment or any form of physical aggression toward students usually backfires. Teachers and other authorities are under the microscope and parents have become ultra-sensitive, defensive and litigious. Even if physical force worked to some degree, over the course of my 28 years in the public schools, I have found techniques that are much less traumatic and much more effective.

The recent case of the teen forcibly removed from the classroom that sparked such a divisive outcry from many is one such example of an inappropriate use of force that completely backfired. Certainly we must not allow students to violate policy and be non-compliant, but there are more effective ways to deal with such misbehavior. My position is that physical force should only be used to address an imminent safety hazard. All other times is “hands off.”

Students of today often feel entitled and a lack of respect for authority figures.The girl in question apparently had recently lost her only parent and was placed in a foster home. So, there appears to have been extenuating circumstances that the teacher should have been fully aware of. That should have resulted in a more understanding and compassionate reaction. But putting that aside, even a student without such emotional distress should have been handled differently.

The girl in question was texting in class and she refused to stop. The teacher told her to leave the room which she also refused to do. Most teachers that have a “respect account” built up with students can usually spend some of those “respect points” and get them to comply. But that apparently wasn’t the case with this teacher and student.

The teacher now has to deal with a non-compliant child and has a decision to make. Unfortunately, he chose poorly. He requested the school counselor to come in to ask her to leave. She refused and was now digging in her heels in front of the other students. They called for the resource officer to come to the room for final showdown and she even refused to leave under his orders. This put the officer in a tough position because the girl was openly defying his authority. And once he decided to place her under arrest, he had no choice but to get her off the chair, cuffed and in custody. She clung to the chair which made the officer even more upset and he ended up flipping the chair over with her in it and then pulling her out and flinging her against the wall and then cuffing her.

Some claim that the girl got what was coming to her. She refused to comply several times – even to an officer. What did she expect would happen? Well, what “I” expect is a much better approach from the beginning.

There was never any need to involve the counselor or the officer during class at all. This is actually a fairly easy non-compliance situation where the teacher can use simple choices and consequences to resolve. As long as the teacher follows-through, the child will learn an appropriate lesson. So, what would have been a better course of action?

Teacher interacting with studentsIn situations of defiance, it’s better to err on the side of calm and matter-of-fact. In order to avoid embarrassing her and involving the other students, being as inconspicuous as possible is best. The teacher could have given the other students some work while he circulated around the room and next to the defiant student. Then, bending close, he could have whispered, “you either need to leave the room or you’ll have to spend a day in detention tomorrow. Your choice.” And then he could simply walk away and go back to teaching and let her make her choice. If she makes the better choice and leaves, then the teacher could meet with her later on to have a chat about what’s going on with her. If she doesn’t leave, the teacher would then meet with her and her guardian after class or after school and dish out the consequences.

Some might claim that if she chooses badly and stays in class, she is not being “punished” and she’s getting away with disturbing the other students. That is not true. One of the biggest myths in child discipline is that consequences must be immediate. They don’t. In fact, delayed consequences might even have more impact since they result in the child being worried and anxious about what’s coming later. That, in and of itself, is a negative consequence. Texting or sitting there doing nothing is not much of a distraction to the others. But whether it’s a distraction or not, an effective teacher should be able to focus a class. I have taught when construction workers were in the room drilling and hammering to finish some remodeling WHILE I was teaching. It wasn’t ideal, but I could still focus the students just fine.

By following through with the consequences after class, the student will know that that the teacher means what he says and follows through with consequences and there is a price to pay when they act inappropriately. The other students will likely learn a lesson as well when they see her in detention and not in class and connects her behavior with the consequence. Delaying the consequences still allows the student a choice and her dignity, but ALSO enforces strong consequences for her choices.

Compare that approach with using physical force. Using force would be MUCH more distracting to the other students. It would also be MUCH more emotionally traumatizing for the other students – which may linger for several days – even weeks. It would likely backfire, and instead of her suffering any consequences, she would likely get all consequences dropped and actually be rewarded by messages of support and celebrity status, and even financial compensation for abusive force – which appears to be happening in this particular case. In other words, it completely backfires.

Physical force should only be used in cases where safety in threatened. In all other cases much more effective and less traumatic techniques should be used. The goal is to use the least disruptive and traumatizing method while still preserving the integrity of the learning environment and still having students experience the consequences of their misbehavior.

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