Many martial arts schools teach kids as a sidelight to their main focus: adults. They are not that interested in children, and only do it because it represents a sizable chunk of their school’s income. Not us at American Karate Institiute. Children are routinely thrown into adults classes or treated as “miniature adults.” A school that can focus on the needs of children will be very successful, as there are few that get it right. To be a successful martial arts school for children, it is important to recognize how teaching them differs from the teaching of adults.
The attention span of a child is much shorter than that of an adult. You must break the class into smaller segments, with more varied activities than an adults class. Games should be played to build fitness and martial arts skills, and to have fun at the same time. Otherwise, the children will get bored. The class itself will be shorter. The number of repetitions for each technique will be less than an adults class. Ten repetitions is a good rule of thumb.
The perception of time differs greatly between an adult and a child. Waiting six months for the next grading and belt seems like forever to a child. It is better to break up the belts into chunks such as degrees or stripes and grade them more frequently to encourage them to work toward their goals.
The differences in cognitive ability have a great impact on how to teach a child. You must ditch the big words to make it easy to for them to understand you. For instance, “back knuckle” is difficult for a child to say. “Back fist” is better. Wordy explanations of the techniques and theory will only bore children. The techniques must be demonstrated visually and broken down into the most basic steps.
With children it is much more important to emphasize the need for self defense only. An adult understands when it is appropriate to use martial arts skills. With children, you really need to stress that it is not ok to solve our problems with force. If this comes from a positive role model, children take it to heart.
Capacity for exercise
Stretching excessively is not good for small children. Five to ten minutes is enough. They are naturally more limber than adults. Make the stretches fun by having the kids imitate certain animals, including their sounds. Doing excessive exercises, like push ups or sit ups is not appropriate for children either. If you make them do dozens of push ups, you will lose most of your students. Doing a few is OK.
It is hard to discipline an adult for disrupting a class. Some try push ups or other exercises, but I don’t believe exercise should be used as punishment. People should want to do it and feel good about it. If you cannot reason with an adult who is disruptive or has a bad attitude, simply ask them to leave. A child can be sat down if they need it. They hate inactivity, especially if other kids are playing. It is very effective.
Adults come to class because they want to be there. Be aware that some children are there because they have no choice. If you sense that a child does not want to be there, try hard to encourage them. I don’t think it is a good idea to force a child to do any activity, but I have had many students, now black belts, who told me they are glad their parents pushed them into it. I can see both sides of the story.
Expect kids to be brutally frank, unlike adults. I’ve had children ask me “did you put on weight”, “did you dye your hair”? Children put up their hands and announce to the class “Jack here next to me just farted.” You just have to laugh.
When children are sparring, you need to supervise them much closer than adults. They do not usually have the same level of physical and mental control as an adult. They can lose control of their emotions, get angry, and hurt each other. Letting them do competition sparring, like point sparring with light contact, is great because it is like a game. Kids love games. Spar with your students, show them a few moves, then let them score on you with the moves. This will build their confidence greatly.
If you bend down and talk to them at their level, children understand and relate better to you. If you get down and do the exercises with them, they will respond. Children can sense your passion and interest. Let your personality and energy come out. Kids love to make loud noises, it is a great release for them–let them yell. Say “I can’t hear you,” and get them going. Have competitions between different parts of the class to see who has the loudest kiai.
You cannot teach from the front of the room. This is especially true with kids. You must get around to each student, give them encouragement, sometimes moving their arms and legs for them to give them the idea. They can learn from muscle memory if you physically show them the correct motion.
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