Study: When grades go home on Friday, child abuse goes up on Saturday

A teacher in rural Georgia once told me how much she debated contacting certain parents when their children misbehaved in her class. She had discovered calls home could result in a child getting a beating and she did not want to be the cause of a student being physically harmed.

I thought about that teacher when I read about a new study that found nearly a four-fold increase in the incidence rate of verified child physical abuse reports on Saturdays after a Friday report card release. The study appeared two weeks ago in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Using data from Florida, researchers reviewed calls to a state child abuse hotline and school report card release dates across one academic year. Data were collected in a 265-day window from September, 2015, to May, 2016, in the 64 of 67 Florida counties with report card release dates available. A total of 1943 verified cases of physical abuse were reported in the study period in the 64 counties.

One of the most interesting findings was that child abuse calls didn’t increase when report cards were released earlier in the week, suggesting the weekend proximity was a factor.

Education Week talked to Melissa Bright, the lead author of the study and a University of Florida assistant research scientist in early-childhood studies, who suggested some reasons why Friday report cards might foster abuse:

Parents might drink or use drugs more on weekends, Bright suggested, or they could calculate that any injuries the child receives on a weekend would be less noticeable a few days later. Or parents prone to lose their temper or use corporal punishment in response to bad grades may simply have less time to look at or stew over report cards delivered during the work week.

Bright recommended schools consider changing the way report card summaries are presented and including suggested discipline strategies (aside from corporal punishment) for students who received poor behavior grades.

"Focus on the positive, talk about discipline strategies and what a report card does and doesn't mean," Bright suggested. "Instead of focusing on negative behaviors that the child might be engaging in in school, focus on strengths—especially if it is a summary that is going to go home with no follow-up discussion."

Many adults tell me their parents threatened the paddle for acting up in school or poor grades and the threats had the desired effect -- they didn’t disrupt classes and earned good grades.

Should schools consider releasing grades early in the week and including guidance for parents that poor grades should not be met with physical punishment?