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Friday Report Cards May Raise Risk of Child Abuse, Says Study

No student is eager to show her parents a less-than-stellar report card, but a new study suggests bad grades may put some children at risk for physical abuse, and the timing of those grades matters.

A new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics finds a nearly fourfold jump in verified physical child-abuse cases on Saturdays after report cards were released the previous Friday—suggesting they may have been punishments related to the grades. 

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Researchers analyzed the timing of report card releases and calls to a 24-hour child abuse hotline in 64 counties across Florida during the 2015-16 school year. The Sunshine State has a broad mandatory reporter law that encourages not just teachers and pediatricians, but neighbors or parents of other children to report suspicions of child abuse. 

From September to May, the child-abuse hotline fielded nearly 168,000 calls about suspected abuse of children ages 5 to 11, and 1,943 of those cases were later verified as physical abuse. 

There's not much research on the timing or seasonality of child abuse, according to Melissa Bright, the lead author of the study and a University of Florida assistant research scientist in early-childhood studies. But anecdotally, teachers and pediatricians, including study co-author and child-abuse researcher Randall Alexander, had noted that bad grades can trigger abuse.

But the timing was also key, the researchers found. If report cards dropped during the school week, there was no significant increase in confirmed child-abuse cases. But Friday report cards led to a big spike in Saturday reports of abuse.

That was a surprise, and Bright said researchers still are trying to tease out why. 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.

While the researchers are continuing to study what might be behind the connection between report card release and abuse, there are already a few things teachers and administrators could do to reduce children's risk:

"We can't be sure moving the day would make a difference, ... but we do know this pattern is there," Bright said, advising educators to above all "be sensitive to that, and know that sending these report cards home might not lead to a good outcome for some of these children."

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."

In a separate editorial accompanying the study  in JAMA Pediatrics, pediatrician Antoinette Laskey of the University of Utah's Primary Children's Hospital warned that the rising popularity of real-time grade dashboards that parents can access electronically could increase the risk of parents lashing out at children for grades which "often fluctuate wildly from day to day and week to week as teachers use different approaches to recording student grades."

Laskey argued that school officials must reach out to families about positive discipline approaches and ways to discuss academic supports with their children, not just tweak data access. "Changing a report card release date may cause some change in the number of physical abuse cases, but it will not solve the larger issue: It is still socially acceptable to hit a child to correct their behavior," she wrote.

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