Photo of Catherine Taylor

Catherine Taylor, a public health researcher at Boston College who studies how to prevent child abuse, wants to reshape the way parents discipline their children and change attitudes toward spanking.

The vast majority of Americans believe that it’s sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a hard spanking. But research shows that kids who get spanked are more likely to develop aggressive behaviors and suffer from mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and drug abuse

Catherine Taylor, a public health researcher at Boston College who evaluates the efficacy of strategies designed to prevent child abuse, wants to reshape the way parents discipline their kids and change attitudes toward spanking. 

She recently recruited more than 800 mothers in New Orleans to participate in a study to test the ability of two strategies—Triple P-Level 2 and Play Nicely—to reduce the rates at which parents use corporal punishment to discipline their kids and increase the use of disciplinary techniques that promote the development of healthy children. 

“We’re really hoping to see shifts in behaviors and attitudes,” says Taylor, a newly hired professor in the Boston College School of Social Work whose research is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “The best case scenario is that parents will hit their children less, have less supportive attitudes toward hitting their children, and use other types of discipline strategies with their kids.”

Play Nicely, a video-based program developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, presents parents with 20 options to respond to an aggressive child. Parents view options that most interest them—revoking privileges, for example, doling out praise, or even spanking—and then learn why some discipline strategies are better than others.

The Triple P Positive Parenting Program, which comprises five levels of interventions of increasing strength, provides parents simple and practical strategies to help them build healthy relationships with their children. The Level 2 version of the program gives parents one-time access to a trained consultant who provides tip sheets to help them solve common problems, such as how to manage their child’s behavior at the grocery store. 

Taylor says the results of the study will determine whether she will work to implement these strategies in pediatric clinics and social service centers that cater to parents and their kids. The moms she recruited in New Orleans, for example, had been visiting an agency to receive a federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children known as WIC

“Having positive attitudes toward hitting children and believing that hitting is necessary for good discipline has stayed remarkably strong over many decades,” says Taylor, who comes to Boston College from Tulane University, where she directed the Violence Prevention Institute and served as a professor in the Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Science. “If behaviors and attitudes change as a result of these interventions, a good next step would be to consider implementing these strategies in real world settings in pediatric clinics in collaboration with doctors and other healthcare providers.”

I learned that exposure to violence really puts children at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to be as happy and healthy as they can be as adults. It became clear to me that if we could intervene in early childhood, we could set people up for better health throughout their lives.
Catherine Taylor, professor in the Boston College School of Social Work

Taylor says that her career path came into focus in the 1990s, when she was working with surivivors of sexual assault and domestic violence at a crisis hotline in California and a community health center in Massachusetts. She was a student at Boston University at the time, studying for her master’s degree in social work.

“I learned that exposure to violence really puts children at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to be as happy and healthy as they can as adults,” she recalls. “It became clear to me that if we could intervene in early childhood, we could set people up for better health throughout their lives.” 

Over the past three decades, Taylor has focused on conducting research aimed at preventing violence and promoting the health of children. She’s authored more than four dozen publications, including peer-reviewed articles that have appeared in the journal Pediatrics, Child Abuse and Neglect, and the American Journal of Public Health. And her research findings have made headlines in several prestigious media outlets, namely The Washington PostReuters, and Time magazine

One of her studies, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010, revealed that children who were spanked often at age 3 were twice as likely to get into fights, destroy things, and be mean to others by age 5. “Children need guidance and discipline,” she told Reuters. “However, parents should focus on positive, non-physical forms of discipline and avoid the use of spanking.”

Taylor says that the Boston College School of Social Work will give her the chance to expand the scope of her research, citing the potential to collaborate with faculty in the Center for Social Innovation and the Research Program on Children and Adversity.

“The School of Social Work really impresses me and I knew it would be a good fit because of its commitment to reducing suffering, catalyzing social change, and prioritizing equity, justice, and inclusion,” she says. “I’m open to new projects and new ideas that are broader but still aligned with my commitment to children’s health, health equity, and mental health.”