Timing of Negative Communication May Increase Child Abuse

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We know that far too many students with whom we work have already been traumatized by life. They have seen and experienced what no child should have to endure. They may live in families that struggle to find resources to live. They may be in uncertain and unpredictable environments where conflict and violence are too frequently present. Or, they may be in a household where mental and psychological issues are constant companions.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, we do not want to add to their stresses, struggles, fear, and trauma. Our mission is to make their lives better, not add to their suffering. Yet, a report published last month by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that actions as simple as the day of the week when report cards are sent home may unwittingly be contributing to the trauma in some students’ lives.

The study compared reported incidents of child abuse to state child welfare agencies to the days of the week when report cards are sent home. Examination of almost 2,000 cases indicated that on Saturdays following Friday distribution of report cards, reports of child abuse jumped 4-fold compared to reported incidents following the release of report cards on other days of the week.

Predictably, several factors might contribute to this outcome. Weekends typically provide more time for adults to notice and react to information provided on report cards. Adults in children’s lives who may already be feeling anger and stress can choose to take out their frustrations on children whose report cards carry negative information. Parents who see education as crucial to a better life, but without a broad range of skills and strategies to respond may resort to punishment to motivate greater commitment to learning and school success.

On its face, the study might lead schools to a simple solution: Send report cards home on days of the week other than Friday. However, the findings of the study hint at a broader set of implications and cautions for school personnel.

We need to do all that we can to help parents and caregivers develop and utilize a broad set of strategies to discipline and motivate the children for whom they have responsibility. Physical punishment remains a preferred means of discipline, especially for young children. According the JAMA study, between 75 and 95 percent of parents report using physical or corporal punishment for children between the ages of 2 and 8. More than 50 percent of parents of children under the age of 10 report using corporal punishment with their children. While there may be circumstances where corporal punishment is warranted, studies show that physical punishment that escalates to physical abuse is associated with poor academic achievement and emotional and behavior problems, the very behaviors the punishment is intended to eliminate.

We also must give careful attention to the consequences of other communication with parents and caregivers that contain negative information about the behavior of children. If poor grades on a report card can stimulate abuse, it is reasonable to assume that similar information conveyed through other means may lead to similar consequences. This is not to say that we should keep any information that is not positive away from parents. Rather, we need to be thoughtful and sensitive about the timing, means, and contexting of what we share. Often, when we take the time to share the full picture surrounding negative information and provide suggestions for actions to correct the situation, we can lessen the intensity of emotional response and create a positive path forward.

We also need to be alert to situations where negative information is likely to lead to physical abuse. For example, when students show unusually intense fear about how an adult will react to information we plan to share, it may be an indication that the consequences will be extreme. We may need to share the information verbally or in person to gauge the reaction and provide coaching about appropriate responses and corrective action. Of course, we need to remain alert and report incidents of abuse we suspect.

Far too many children live in environments that leave them vulnerable and traumatized. We may not be able to prevent the negative forces in their lives or intervene in ways that fully counter their vulnerability. However, we can remain alert to dangers they face and do all that we can not to contribute to their troubles.

Resource:
Bright, M. A., Lynne, S. D., Masyn, K. E., Waldman, M. R., Graber, J., Alexander R. (2017, December 17). Association of Friday school report card release with Saturday incidence rates of agency-verified physical child abuse. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2717779

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