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Corporal punishment in South Africa’s school system has been prohibited for 21 years.  However, although smacking a child (your own or someone else’s) in the home environment was classified as an assault, there was a potential loophole with the parent being able to plead the special defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ in the event of being taken to court on the matter.

This common law defense has now been revoked by the High Court’s ruling which has rendered this plea inadmissible and not in keeping with the Constitution.

“This judgement is a significant statement to parents to rethink their disciplinary procedures and to ask themselves whether the current measures in place for discipline are resulting in the desired outcomes,” says Supervisor Jenna White of the Star Academy, which specialises in behaviour intervention programmes.

 “As a behaviourist, I am in agreement with the court’s decision,” says White who advises that when dealing with a problem behaviour, the first step is to determine the function of the behaviour, in other words the reason why the problem behaviour is occurring. 

Oftentimes, communication difficulties are at the root of problem behaviour. Teaching and reinforcing communication skills such as asking for something or expressing an emotion,  allows the child the opportunity to get their needs met in an appropriate and pro-social way, so that they no longer need to engage in challenging behaviour.

 When considering types of punishment the following needs to be taken into serious consideration:

There is the potential for the punishment behaviour of the parent to be modelled by the child.  In the case of smacking, this can mean inadvertently teaching a child an aggressive way of coping with challenging situations.

There is the potential for emotional responding and behaviour such as aggression to develop in response to being punished.

There is the potential for the person doing the punishing or the place in which punishment takes place to become associated with punishment, leading to the child avoiding that person or place.

 Alternative Disciplinary methods

“Behaviour can be improved  by increasing the relevant skills, managing the difficult behaviour when it does occur. Smacking is just dealing with a problem behaviour after it occurs, and not in the most effective way,” says The Star Academy Supervisor.  

It is advisable to rather use a behaviour intervention plan which is not only reactive in response to the behaviour but is also proactive, empowering children with alternatives and skills so that they need not engage in problem behaviour itself.

One of the most effective alternatives in dealing appropriately and kindly with challenging behaviour and enforcing discipline by using the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to bring about meaningful and positive change in behaviour.

 Applied Behavioural Analysis focuses on three elements using the acronym ABC as follows:  

1.) Antecedent (what happens before the behaviour)  

2.) Behaviour

3.) Consequence (what happens after the behaviour).

Jenna explains that when looking at a particular challenging behaviour, if we change what happens at A or what happens at point C, than it is possible to change the challenging behavior.  

“This mindset and way of thinking could assist parents in using the techniques of Applied Behavioural Analysis when considering disciplinary procedures,” says White.

As an example, using antecedent intervention:  in the case where a parent knows that the child always complains about having to go and bath,  the parent could implement antecedent modification by preparing the child in advance that bathtime would be at a certain time instead of just calling the child away from a desired activity to go and bath. 

This antecedent modification would allow the child time to transition to the idea that bathtime is coming up soon.

An example where consequence intervention can decrease inappropriate behavior can be used if a child tantrums about not getting something - be it a lollipop or anything else.  By waiting until the child is calm and quiet we can then explain to the child that they can use appropriate language to communicate their desire for a lollipop (or something else) by asking for one instead of screaming. 

The child learns that when they scream, they don’t get what they want, but when they ask nicely, they do.

“Of course each child is different and that is why it is essential to create a tailor made programme which deals with the needs of each particular child,” says Jenna who believes in the value of discipline to keep children safe while teaching kids about responsibility and that there are consequences for their actions.

“Rules and healthy discipline are important for children to understand boundaries.  It also makes them feel safe.  They are kids and don’t want to have to make adult decisions.  

Healthy discipline teaches kids to find different avenues rather than challenging behaviour in order to get their needs met.  In this environment children learn that there are appropriate consequences for their actions.   In this context, discipline is a learning experience, providing kids the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in a safe and loving environment,” concludes White.

(Adapted from a press release)