Schools across the country are reporting lower grades and increasing course failures over the past several months. Of course, there are many reasons for the achievement slide, and it is reason for concern. In the coming months, a major focus will be on how to fill learning gaps and accelerate progress to help students get back on track.
However, as I read the reports, I was reminded of a research study recently published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study drew a concerning connection between the timing of negative news, such as disappointing report card contents, and increases in child abuse. 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 fourfold compared to reported incidents following the release of report cards on other days of the week.
Predictably, several factors might contribute to this sad connection. 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.
The study was conducted prior to the pandemic, so it is difficult to predict whether conditions have changed significantly. Yet, we know that the pandemic has increased stress levels for just about everyone. For people who are already facing challenging circumstances and do not handle stress well, the situation may be even more volatile.
We also know that far too many students 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 ongoing concerns.
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, especially in light of the challenges and stress brought on by the pandemic.
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 to the JAMA study, between 75% and 95% of parents report using physical or corporal punishment for children between the ages of two and eight. Studies also 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 must also give careful attention to the consequences of other communication with parents and caregivers that contains 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 framing of what we share. 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 to avoid contributing to their troubles.
Bright, M. A., Lynne, S. D., Masyn, K. E., Waldman, M. R., Graber, J., & Alexander, R. (2018). Association of Friday school report card release with Saturday incidence rates of agency-verified physical child abuse. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(2), pp. 176-182. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.4346