Discipline versus Punishment, and other topics

There’s a guest post on the Martial Development blog by Matt Klein on the subject of teaching kids; I encourage you to read it and comment if you have time. It echoes many of the principles and techniques we’ve covered here in various posts. It also raises some topics worth revisiting.

Matt teaches in Australia, where he has a chain of schools specializing in children and youth. He also has a nice blog that came online a few months ago, and is well worth a browse; you’ll find it on our blogroll.

The opening paragraph of his post made me think perhaps things are a little different in Australia. While it was once the case (perhaps 20 years ago) that good children’s programs were uncommon here in the U.S., it’s no longer typical for kids to be thrown in with adults and taught as “miniature adults.” There are nowadays so many excellent kids’ martial arts programs available, it has become quite a competitive enterprise in many towns. It’s true that children’s classes are sometimes used to keep adult programs afloat financially, and also true that instructors teaching kids need to learn how to work with children (hence this blog, among other things), but dojos and dojangs with ongoing children’s programs generally have instructors who enjoy what they’re doing and are motivated to do a good job. Of course, as in all fields, quality varies–and opinions vary as to what constitutes quality! Rather than saying “few get it right,” I’d say many are getting it right; there are many ways of getting it right; and more are learning how every day.

The question of push-ups as discipline

Under the heading “Discipline,” Matt raises an issue I’ve talked about with fellow instructors many times over the years, and I thought I’d raise it again here to provoke more discussion. It concerns the use of push-ups as a disciplinary tool. Matt takes the view that exercises shouldn’t be used as a punishment, because exercises should be a positive–something the student should want to do and feel good about doing. I don’t disagree with this position, yet I continue to use push-ups for discipline in my classes. This issue has been around for ages; in fact, I discussed it at length in the early 1990’s when I wrote an essay for Carol Wiley‘s book, Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching. My piece was called “Learning from Children: Five Easy Lessons for Teachers,” and lesson 3 covers this very topic. You can read it at this link on Google Books. To put it briefly, I think there’s a difference between discipline, a positive, and punishment, a negative; and it’s all in the delivery. My students love doing push-ups, and they know we sometimes use them for serious purposes, like showing our respect for the rules, helping us remember things, and sometimes for dissipating anger or excess energy.

But what do you think, readers? Do you make a distinction between discipline and punishment? What kind of tools do you use? Post your ideas here, and don’t forget to let Matt know you appreciate his blog, too. The more voices in the discussion, the better!

Added on August 24—just for the sake of argument 🙂

It’s worth remembering the original context where experts stated what’s so often repeated now—that it’s wrong to use exercise for punishment. It was in discussions about corporal punishment in the schools, and school gym class; and they were talking about “forced exercise” administered in physically abusive and humiliating ways. If you read discussions surrounding corporal punishment laws, you’ll see phrases like “forced to do push-ups beyond their capability” (forced via physical threat or humiliation), or, “run laps to the point of exhaustion or collapse.”

It was like that back when I was in junior high. The coaches, some of whom doubled as teachers, had paddles (two-by-fours with a handle sanded at one end) with which they would “bust” unruly students. The “jocks” considered it a badge of honor to endure a busting, but it was humiliation for the non-jocks – the awkward, the overweight, the “nerd,” the outsider. Gym class was already a humiliation for those kids, and the threat of further punishment could make it unbearable. I remember one kid who, when he complained he couldn’t do some part of gym class because he had a sprained wrist, was ordered to do push-ups on his sprained wrist (under threat of the paddle)!

Clearly this is unacceptable. No one should be humiliated or abused—ever. And in a school population that includes many kids who are reluctant to exercise or go out for a team, to add more fear to the situation goes against a society that values physical health for all its young people.

The context of the dojo is somewhat different. Here, we have kids who are already proud to be part of an activity that glorifies physical prowess, and helps them to gain it by increments. (The kids’ fantasies about physical prowess are a powerful part of the appeal of martial arts.) Some parts of training are hard, but that doesn’t deter the kids from their overall enthusiasm. Learning to work through difficulty is part of what training is about. The kids’ feelings about push-ups don’t change when they’re used (in small, non-abusive sets) as one tool for discipline, and I say this because I’ve seen it, with hundreds of kids over many years. Their feelings about push-ups have to do with how hard they find them, and their attitude toward doing hard things. But they are universally proud of themselves as they see their abilities improve over time (push-ups are a belt requirement in our style).

Of course if an instructor encounters students who have a strong negative reaction to push-ups, or to any tool used for discipline—or if the tool isn’t working for someone—we need other tools in the bag.

So, back to the original question- What are your tools for discipline? Or, when and how do you ‘punish’?

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16 Comments on “Discipline versus Punishment, and other topics”

  1. Chris Says:

    Matt did a very good job with his post. I agree with him that exercise should not be used as punishment.

    What is the problem with denying a child the opportunity to participate, for five minutes or so, as punishment instead?

    It sitting out doesn’t bother them, I’d guess the class must be a poor fit. (And while I acknowledge that not every child is there voluntarily for every session, I don’t know that the problem of unwillingness can or should be solved by an instructor whom the student perceives as unwelcome.)

    If it does bother them, then it is a small and effective punishment–in contrast to push-ups they enjoy?

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Chris, thanks for coming by. Agreed re: Matt’s post.
      I hope others will chime in on what tools they use for discipline. Again, I think ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ are different. Discipline is often about being reminded, not punished, and I find push-ups one of many effective tools in the mix. I use them on myself at times, with good results–for example, when I mix up the kids’ names! A good instructor will use a variety of tools, hopefully suited to individual situations. Sitting out is sometimes the perfect thing; other times it’s not. And I look forward to seeing what other experienced teachers contribute on the topic. My own view is stated at length at that Google Books link in the post above.

      • Mark Brandenburg Says:


        Can you give an example of what action on the kids part would result in your disciplining them versus punishing? For my part, I agree that we aren’t punishing them if they act up and we have them do push ups but I do see it from the kids perspective–if they act up and we tell them to do push ups because they were acting up, to them it is a punishment. Like Chris, if a kid is acting up, I will have them sit out for a few minutes.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Klein, Matt Klein. Matt Klein said: http://bit.ly/dlyxzm Shoul you use exercise for discipline in martial arts for kids classes? […]

  3. Shawn McElroy Says:

    My teaching mentor once told me a great way to handle an unruly kid. He said the first time you discipline, clearly tell him what you want him to do, and not do. The second time have him do pushups, perhaps 10, but don’t focus on him while he does it. He should not feel like he is the center of class while doing pushups: as soon as he goes down for his first pushup, continue class like nothing happened. On the third infraction, remove him from the rest of the group and immediately go to a fun game. He will want to join, and after the game is over he can. Keeping the class rolling by changing things up and playing games keeps the kids on their toes, and if they get in trouble they may just miss their favorite game!!

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Your mentor was wise! You could call this “The Three Stages of Teaching Self-Discipline,” as I see it–

      1) *Communicate* what is required (that’s what self-discipline is about: doing what’s required)

      2) *Discipline* to reinforce what was communicated (push-ups get the student to stop and remember the rules; the small amount of physical exertion makes it more likely to be remembered)

      3) *Punish* in cases where discipline isn’t enough (sitting out is punishment; it separates the child from the group, and withholds a privilege)

      A fourth component, raised by Matt in the next comment, could be:

      4) *Praise* the student for improvement and/or for instances of good self-discipline.

      We needn’t wait to do #4; it should be generously scattered throughout the training experience.

      • Chris Baglieri Says:

        I agree wholeheartedly with this approach, and especially the way Didi conceptualizes it as four stages.

        I would add one thought – Praise is never superfluous. We need to praise specifically when we see the child meet the expectations that we set in #1.

        Discipline problems come in several flavors.

        If a student is seeking our attention (which is really affection) by negative behavior, give feedback and withdraw positive attention. Then apply discipline and add back the positive only when they show positive behavior.

        If a student is acting out of anger or fear, address the anger and fear. (This is one instance where some of the punitive methods don’t work.) A quiet conference or a peer support work better.

        If a student is resistant to class, acting out because they feel they have no control – “My mother makes me come!” Give them control.
        I let parents know that I don’t take “conscientious objectors,” and that kids must choose to be there, but that any kid is welcome to watch class free of charge. THEN I bust out the cool games, and invite them to join!

        Fit the tool to the task.

        I think that the most powerful class discipline we have is to make Karate itself the reward for showing the discipline that karate requires. Foster pride in being, “a karate student,” and they will line up straighter, sit silently, and run to follow the commands. 🙂

  4. Interesting insight Shawn. “He should not feel like the center of class while doing pushups”. I have seen once or twice in classes (not mine) where punishment was pushups and the kid was smiling the whole time. He was on stage and was loving it. That is exactly the problem. He craved attention, which is one reason he may have acted up in the first place; and he was getting it now. Like your suggestion of letting the misbehaved child sit out during the game. I have done this and it does get the message across.

    We should love pushups because physical activity is good for us. It should not be made into a punishment because children (and adults) should want to do it. There is joy in physical movement and exercise.

    Didi, for me sitting them out almost always works as well, because kids just hate inactivity, especially when all their friends are moving around and having fun. If a child does not respond after a several sit-downs, I just pull the child aside with the parent and suggest he (funny, it is very rarely a girl) come back again when he is a bit more mature. I very rarely have to do this.

    On the other side of the coin, if a child is making big strides in his behavior, I’ll pull him aside in front of his parents and say “You are doing a great job in class. Keep up the great work”. Your behavior has really improved”.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Matt, I agree wholeheartedly that, whether it’s push-ups or some other tool, the misbehaving kid shouldn’t be the center of attention. In my classes, the work goes on and the offender, having done his or her little penance, joins back in without fanfare. Unfortunately some kids are good at making themselves the center of attention even when they’re sitting out! (I recently had one of these.) An instructor needs many options to draw upon, because kids don’t all respond in the same way.

      I’m glad you raise the point of offering praise for improvement. Praise is powerful, but sometimes with difficult kids it’s hard for an instructor – who’s dealing not just with that one kid, but the whole class – to find how to praise the one who always acts up. I hope some other instructors will share their experience and insights on this!

      • Chris Baglieri Says:

        The best way to praise the acting up kid without interrupting the flow of the class is to make eye contact and smile when they are doing what you asked, or just touch them. The great part about Karate is we can give a literal pat on the back!

  5. redwoodojo Says:

    Mark- when I try to think of examples of when I’d discipline versus punish, I realize that philosophically, I would always discipline and never punish. Discipline is meant to promote good or proper behavior; punishment makes you feel bad. Giving a few push-ups for violating a rule about respect, safety or behavior promotes discipline, because it stops the behavior, lets the kid burn some energy while thinking about the rule in question, lets class continue relatively uninterrupted (we never stop the action to watch the push-ups), and lets the offending kid rejoin class quickly with (hopefully) a fresh start. It’s a quick, clean form of “penance,” and it will help them remember the rules better & therefore develop *self*-discipline, which is the goal. I make it clear what the push-ups are for- that it’s about remembering the rules and not about being “bad”- and that I do push-ups myself when I mess up. The foundational example is push-ups when you’re late for class (as I say, “Even when it’s not your fault!). This is a tradition in my style, we all do it, and it’s not a punishment; it’s a way of showing you respect the class and the teacher, and you know it’s important to be on time. If a new student is late, I have an older student who wasn’t late do the push-ups and bow in with them. Everyone quickly learns it’s not something embarrassing or bad. It is easy to build from there to explain the discipline of following the rules in class. (To answer your question re: examples, rules like– no horsing around with partners, no running & crashing into the wall :-), no talking at certain times, behaviors that are rude or disrespectful to classmates — I think these are pretty routine things…)

    It’s true, kids will sometimes feel “punished” when they are disciplined, because that’s how they’ve learned to think about things. Sometimes it’s because they are getting punished and made to feel bad at home or school. I have to educate them about what we are doing when we learn and practice self-discipline in martial arts. – Some kids are so conditioned in their lives, they feel “punished” when they get corrected on their techniques! That doesn’t mean it is punishment; they need to learn a new way to think about it. And of course we need to have compassion, and help them with it. …One mom believed I was “punishing” her son by not letting him test for a belt, when he hadn’t been in class and didn’t know the material! She needed to be educated about the meaning of the ranks and tests.

    But let’s not get too hung up on push-ups; they are only one tool among, hopefully, many useful tools, including sitting out, finding positive things to praise, finding new and better ways to communicate what is expected of the kids… And I hope more instructors out there will post examples of the effective tools you use to maintain discipline.

    • Chris Baglieri Says:

      There is one instance where I do punish, which is to say I use an aversive discipline process that is designed to make the student want to -never- repeat an action.

      When kids are in class, I make it clear that safety is first.

      When they work with a partner, I let them know that rule 1 is “Your partner’s safety is YOUR job.”

      When they are allowed weapons (safety-tipped sticks) they agree to a very firm set of rules regarding responsibility for weapons, and no “play-fighting” in or out of class.

      If a student breaks these rules, my discipline process is highly aversive. I WANT them to understand that safety has consequences, preferably before they find out the hard way.

      I have suspended students from sparring or confiscated weapons for a set period – usually one week.

      I have also threatened to “hold” a students belt after repeated incidents of attacking siblings or parents.

      I have made good on this threat, as well. Kids get one warning for using karate safely, then I walk the walk.

      I have never lost a student this way, and I have never had a repeat performance.

      I am open to comments, though.

  6. Joe Varady Says:

    I must say that I really like the distilled “3 Stages of Learning Self-Discipline” proposed above, it is a well-packaged formula that is easy to remember, easy to implement, and will likely remedy most situations. Switching to a game as soon as you take a student out is fiendishly clever, too. I might suggest, however, an expansion on step #4-Praise, which should probably be step #1. While it doesn’t work 100% of the time, when it comes to discipline an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. Preventive discipline techniques should be natural and unobtrusive so they can be slipped in without breaking the flow of your lesson. For example, let’s say that Billy is getting squiggly during a drill. Rather than address Billy directly, I might point out “Wow, I really like how Bobby is standing without fidgeting! And look how focused Susie is! I bet we can all be that focused, right Billy? Come on, let’s try together!” This type of prevention requires the ability to spot problems early, but allows you to nip them in the bud easily…true soft style. In the words of Bruce Lee, “It is the art of fighting without fighting!”

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Awesome, Joe! You have given an example of how Praise can serve as Prevention. It’s too easy to wait till there’s a problem- then it’s hard to see how to get anything positive, like praise, into the situation.

      On the Facebook page where I posted this topic, someone mentioned “P-C-P” — Praise, Correct, Praise — but the specific example concerned techniques, not behavior. You have supplied the example I was looking for. Thanks!

  7. […] martial arts at martialdevelopment.com drew a bit of controversy. Sensei Didi Goodman over at The Kids Karate Workbook wrote a recent post in response to it stating that although she agreed with the idea that exercise […]

  8. Hi Didi. Just posted my take on this issue. You and your readers are welcome to agree or disagree here. http://karate-kids.com.au/teaching-children-martial-arts-exercise-as-punishment/

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