“Reward the Behavior You Want to See”

There’s an excellent blog I’ve been reading called Mokuren Dojo, with articles on judo, aikido, weapons training, and many other aspects of martial arts, as well as occasional pieces on teaching judo to children. I highly recommend it.

The author, Patrick Parker, was kind enough to send me a link to a post where he lists many of his articles on teaching kids. If, as I do, you teach a style that includes some matwork, you should definitely read this material. Even if your style is a pure kicking-punching art, you’ll still find concepts and approaches of value to any instructor.

Scanning down his list of articles I noticed one called “Reward the behavior you want to see.” Great, I thought, this will be a piece about a behavioral approach to teaching unpredictable or unruly kids; I look forward to his take on the subject. I clicked the link and what I found was even better than that: Instead of a theoretical piece of the kind (I have to admit) I would be more likely to write, it was an absolutely practical post about a specific training exercise and how he had modified it to get better results—better training—from the kids.

Instructors, I know you have all experienced this: a drill that works perfectly well with adults has completely unexpected results with kids. Or a training game that seems like a great idea turns out to favor the bigger kids (as in Mokuren’s example), and not necessarily the more skillful or harder working students. Or the drill just isn’t getting you where you want to go with the class. That’s when you have to get creative and change things up.

If you spend time at Redwood Dojo, you’ll probably hear me shout “New Rule!” after watching the kids work a drill for a few moments. Maybe I told them to kick the target with as much power as they could manage—and they’re doing it, but form and balance have gone out the window. “New Rule! You have to hit it twice before putting your foot down.” Or, “New Rule! You have to hit hard, then put your foot down without making a sound.”

Share some of your examples. How do you reward the behavior you want to see?

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8 Comments on ““Reward the Behavior You Want to See””

  1. Ricki Kay Says:

    Recently I have come to the conclusion that there is a definite vocabulary to the martial arts, just as there is in a science or math class. Of course we have all known this, but have we actually taught the words to our students? While teaching the white belts i have started asking them questions while teaching them and wanting them to respond out loud- and very loud. This pairs the physical learning with the “oral- out loud” learning. I ask them what is the name of the stance? what is the name of the block? I ask them individually and as a group. I give them high fives. I tell them they are being smart today. I thank them for listening and doing good learning. I use their names. It has been working tremendously well, especially for those students who may tend to zone out during class. it keeps the energy of the class very high and allows me to do more repetitions as well. And, they are doing better on tests in knowing their techniques.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Great point, Ricki. Lately I’ve been frustrated that when I call out a technique, kids who’ve been practicing it for weeks act like they’ve never heard of it. It’s the vocabulary, not the technique, that they’ve forgotten! I tend to assume that because I say the names of things all the time, surely they must be learning them, but clearly this is not necessarily so. I have always quizzed the youngest students on names, and it won’t hurt to do that more with the older kids (and even adults, I daresay).

      • Heidi Says:

        I LOVE that you tell them they are being smart today. That is such a great thing for the kids to hear – I am going to start saying that in class too. It has such a great positive ring to it. Thanks Sensei Ricki!

  2. redwoodojo Says:

    Down at Rohai Dojo for some sparring competition today, & I was reminded how sometimes in point-sparring matches, the bigger kids will just score 1-2-3 with backfist to the head on smaller kids; no one tries anything more risky and it’s all over in seconds. Pretty analogous to Mokuren’s judo situation, really. So I wonder whether a similar solution might be fun to try: In order to win a point-sparring match, the competitor would have to score with one hand technique, one kick, and a third hand or foot technique different from the first two. Let the judges just keep calling points, but the scorekeeper keep track of the techniques.

    What do you think, folks?

  3. Tanner Critz Says:

    I like talking about the vocabulary of martial arts as well. I describe the various techniques as words in a language that students need to learn. Proper performance is like proper pronunciation. Understanding how various techniques flow together or don’t is grammar. As they become more advanced they can form sentences. Kata can be like poetry, sparring like debate and the analogy goes on and on. At the core of it, though is studying your vocabulary and grammar.


  4. Kathy Varady Says:

    When learning a technique I like to have the class say the technique name while they do it. Say “inner” on the chamber and “chop” with the chop and so on with other techniques. You can use words for all the steps to help them slow it down and not skip steps. For example “front, snap, kick, down” with the four steps of a front kick. It picks up the energy to have then saying it out loud and can help them remember a sequence.

  5. Heidi Says:

    The mother of one of my students is a public school staff developer and she has given me some tips to help me with my class – I asked her what to do when class sometimes slips away from me into a meltdown of tired kids, too much noise/voices etc. She suggested I used thumbs up as non-verbal cues (ie to remove my voice and theirs at a time when I was starting to try to talk over their noises) and to reward the behavior i wanted to see repeated with a non-verbal type que. She said the kids would start to tune in and try to earn the recognition and it does seem to work most of the time. I also had a hard time with one 5 year old that didnt want to participate much and would run back to his moms lap during class often. She suggested that even if I see a small flicker of a behavior that I wanted to reinforce to announce it when it happened – like when he ran over and sat quiety with the others to participate, to say something like “John I really liked how you just came over and sat down with us to participate and share in our learning or drill etc”. The spontaneous “Spirit” or “Focus” or “Listening” certificate also seems to help. I keep some in my props bag that I bring to class.

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