Making the Connection Between Effort and Reward

A young student approached me today to ask when his belt test was going to be scheduled. He’d been scheduled to test before the holiday break, but became ill and missed a week of classes, then a couple weeks more over the holidays… He figured a new test date was due, now that he was back. Like many (if not most) kids, he’s very focused on getting that stripe or belt.

Normally, when a student misses a test date, I’ll schedule a make-up asap, but sometimes this doesn’t work out. This young man hadn’t kept up his skills during his absence, and when I ran him through the basics at the first class of the year – expecting to check off his test requirements one by one – I discovered he just didn’t know his stuff. He didn’t recognize the names of basic techniques we practice every class, and he couldn’t show the difference between lunge punch and reverse punch. When I scheduled him to test back in December, he was able to do these things. Clearly, he had lost ground during the time off. It happens, and when it does, we get to work. I put him (and the other white belts) through their paces repeatedly during class, covering the 1-yellow-stripe techniques and stressing the importance of focusing on these basics before trying to copy the advanced kids or learn new things. Today I ran through the list again, and again he wasn’t ready.

So, here he came after class, asking why he hadn’t gotten a new test date yet. I told him that, as much as I wanted him to get his stripe, when I looked at his basics, I didn’t feel he was ready. I pointed out the difficulty he’d had with lunge punch and reverse punch, and with performing the lower block correctly. (This is a child who is old enough to do these things well.) He looked disappointed, as is to be expected; but more than that – he looked shocked, as though it hadn’t occurred to him there was a connection between what we were doing in class, and what stripes he would get on his belt. I assured him that he would get his date as soon as I saw him getting the basics back up to where they’d been in December. He continued to look surprised.

We instructors talk about it all the time, but it still amazes me: Many kids seem to expect rewards they haven’t earned. They want the stripe or belt, and figure they’re entitled to it just for showing up, no matter how little effort they put in! But they’re good kids. Usually, all they need is for someone to clarify the connection between effort, accomplishment and rank (and then clarify it again, and again). Today’s young man, like so many kids, somehow didn’t understand that the things he was messing up on during class had something to do with his belt rank. And like so many, instead of focusing on what he needed to improve and practicing outside the dojo, he was walking out the door and forgetting about everything till the next class. (That’s why I wrote the book – to help those kids take their lessons home and make real progress, instead of forever running in place.)

Instructors – How do you help your young students understand the connection between effort and reward?
Please share some of your favorite lessons and strategies.

Explore posts in the same categories: Martial arts instruction

12 Comments on “Making the Connection Between Effort and Reward”

  1. I know this may sound strange, but I approach a lot of the kids training/rewards just like I approach the training and reward system I use with my dogs. A lot of it comes from a great book called “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. I highly recommend it for behavioral modification in all training areas. I like to give instant praise/reward right when they do what I want them to do. So the other day in class, I had this opportunity with one of my youngest kids. This kid has a really hard time listening and focusing and sitting still in general. The other day when I called for lineup, he ran over and was the very first standing in his lineup spot, all ready, natural stance, facing forward, ready to do. I went right over to him and made a HUGE deal about it. Gave a big whistle so I got all the kids attention and I immediately recognized what he had done. I told him I had something for him after class to recognize this great accomplishment. I gave him a respect badge. Not only does he lineup every class like a star, all the other kids do too. I use the merit badges to help improve behavior (hardly anyone has earned the listening one yet). I have also developed a collectible card system (kids love to collect cards). The cards are the size of business cards. I haven’t started using them yet but they will be rolled out this semester. There are philosophy cards (5 firsts of friendship – 5 cards for each), technique cards and theme cards (balance, focus etc.). The philosophy ones will be in packs that go along with the 5’s and 10’s. When a kid demonstrates for example sharing in class, right on the spot I will give him a card for sharing from the 5 First of Friendship set. When a kid does a fabulous roundhouse kick I will give him one of those cards – obviously they would have to wow me with a great one if they are already doing good roundhouse kicks. Or perhaps a kid that has struggled with side kick finally gets it right, they get the card. Our new small organizer type karate binders have an insert to collect the cards in. I will let everyone know how the card reward system works out. I figure its similar to the merit badges and they have worked well. Cards are cheaper though so I can hand out more, which means more instant reward of doing the right technique or behaving the right way.

  2. redwoodojo Says:

    Concordekarate – Good stuff. “Catch them doing something right” – always a good technique for directing kids (as well as pets, spouses, etc) toward good behavior, good effort, and in turn good improvement…which leads to rank advancement… And that final connection is what I want them to make on a daily basis: Rank advancement is earned by what you learn – and perform – in and out of class.

    The badges, cards, binders etc, sound really cool – I can see where kids would love them, and they’re something I might consider using for my very youngest kids (4-5-year-olds). But I’m not likely to implement extras like that in my regular classes. Call me old-fashioned, but we’re too busy working on the curriculum and ranks, and I don’t have a bit of time left for handing out cards. (I might consider a student-directed trading-card system that’s done outside of class time, on the other hand. Something like that could be fun.)

    Just to get the argument going, here’s more about my position on badges & other extra rewards. The only extras I do at my dojo are stars for participation in seminars, demos and tournaments – in other words, outside events that required the student to put in time and effort over and above what’s expected in class. For this, they get to sew a small star on their gi. The kids love it, of course, and much as I would have preferred not to have to bribe them, when I implemented the star system, participation in these events did increase, which meant more benefit for more students.

    However, badges, ribbons and cards for doing things like lining up, trying hard, and so on – to me that seems like giving special awards for doing what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. And I actually think that kind of thing – widespread as it is – contributes to their assuming they’ll get ALL their rewards, including belt ranks, practically for free – like getting a trophy just for showing up. Of course I understand that kids need praise and encouragement – and they get plenty of verbal recognition, praise, direction and reward in the course of regular class. That’s an instructor’s job, after all. I just don’t give out “dog biscuits” on a regular basis 😉 – if I use them at all, they are reserved for serious problem students who need extra help.

    To take the dog-training analogy farther: When we work with dogs, we’re trying to get them to do things to suit us humans – things they wouldn’t do in a dogs-only society. That’s why they need training. In that respect, the very youngest kids have something in common with the dogs – they don’t yet know all the how-to’s, rules and expectations of the human world, so they need training in things like how to line up, listen, try, etc. “Extra” rewards make sense, then, to help them learn & keep them engaged.

    But once the kids have the basics of being in a class, the need for those extra rewards should disappear. The focus now should be on the work and the accomplishments, and besides the satisfaction of mastery and the confidence it brings, the visible reward system is already intrinsic – It’s the belt ranks. Which brings me back to my original question – How do we foster an understanding of the connection between effort, accomplishment and rank, so kids don’t focus on getting the belt as though it’s a free merit badge!

  3. Heidi Says:

    Most of my students are of the younger age group. I suppose when they get to be older I may develop a different approach. Good food for thought on the cards, I haven’t implemented them yet but will probably verbally note the event and provide the actual card after class during binder time. I think that just like parenting, you can’t give in and you have to stick to your principles and no matter how much they plead or pull on your heart strings with disappointed puppy eyes, they can only get their rank (or gain special recognition like trophies etc) if they really and truly earn it!

  4. Heidi Says:

    I’ve seen a lot of adults act worse than kids when it comes to rank and how much emphasis they put on it. Maybe we should come up with some good tools to help adults too…..

  5. Tanner Says:

    I like to describe techniques as having four stages:
    Stage 1 – On Track – Student knows the technique by name, recognizes it when they see it, can stumble through the kata, etc.

    Stage 2 – Details – Student knows the details that make the technique correct, where to put the feet and hands, how to load, etc. For kata, everything is correct though it may not yet be powerful. Often a student is ready to test on techniques when they can implement the details.

    Stage 3 – Principles – Student can tap into the underlying mechanics that make the technique or kata fast, strong, fluid, powerful, balanced, focused. This is the ongoing process of improving the techniques from past ranks, and is required before breaking with any technique.

    Stage 4 – Expression – At this stage, the techniques and kata become art. The student has mastered the details and principles and can now insert emotion, meaning, peace or tension at will.

    The thing I like about discussing these stages is that it gives me language to put up against students who know a new kata and think they should move on. I can say “You’ve got it at stage one. We need to work on stage two, but we also need to be working on bringing your old katas to stage three. Then they’ll become really powerful.” It also reinforces that there’s no end to the work we can do on any technique.

    Often times kids have trouble seeing the difference between themselves and the students ahead of them, but when they go compete in open tournaments, the medals seem to always come down equal to the stages that we’re working on, and the kids definitely notice that.

  6. Many people, even teens and adults sometimes think that time replaces or overrides lack of focused attention to details. I always call out an individual’sl name to give them instant recognition for doing something done well . When I ask the group to work on something very specific and after repeated repetition they start to get it right, I always praise the group. I used to give out stripes that adhered to the student’s belt with recognition statements such as “great punch”, “excellence attendance”, etc but found that kids’ were always expecting “something” and the younger kids (4-5) didn’t always handle it well when one child got a stripe and they didn’t.

    The lesson I try to teach is that first you must set the goal: know what it is you are trying to do and then know what you have to do to get it. To help people achieve this, one of the things I do repeatedly is to direct kids (and adults) to the requirements which I keep in a book readily accessible during all classes. I usually tell the group as a whole that it is their responsibilty to know what will be asked of them on their next test. I encourage the student to ask higher ranking belts to help them practice even if a sensei is available. This helps to build community and demonstrates the sharing and caring principle found in in the 5 Firsts of Friendship. I also ask the test group if there is anything in particular they don’t understand so I can cover it in class. This way they have to think about the curriculum and acknowledge what they don’t know or don’t really understand.

    My goal is to get them to take responsibility for their testing requirements and to help them make the connection between advancement and mastery. I also relate this to life lessons such as preparation for a test at school.

    If done repeatedly, the connection is made and the habit for properly preparing for an exam is created. Depending on the age of the child, expectations may have to be adjusted.

  7. A friend of mine is a staff developer in one of the top ranking schools in the country near where I live and her daughter participates in my class. She gives me helpful teacher tactics. One thing she stresses in her school system to help teachers is to focus on getting from point A (what the child knows right now) to some point beyond point A. Something that the specific child can actually achieve. When the child achieves it, pick another point beyond where they are and set another attainable goal. Chipping away until they finally make it to where they need to be (ie ready to test in Cuong Nhu or ready to move into 2nd grade etc). She says that too many teachers have large goals that are hard to grasp for the kids. They see a child that might not be up to grade level right now and they focus on how hard it will be to get them into the next grade. Instead she shifts their focus on making small progress and giving the kids accomplishments they can be proud of, building their confidence and tools. Little successes can build confidence and help move kids along to achieve things you may not have anticipated they could accomplish.

  8. This post rings a bell, Didi. More than once a child asks me (usually through their mom as an intermediary) “why did I not grade to green belt like Jim, since we both started at the same time?” My answer is the same: “Jim has continued his training uninterrupted, while you chose to play soccer for two terms.” His response: “Well, can I catch up if I double up on my classes?” My answer: “No, you made a choice to commit all your efforts to soccer for three months, while Jim made a choice to commit to karate. Would it be fair to him to promote you to the same level when you have not made the same level of effort?” His answer: “Well, no.” Clearly, he had not made the connection you so eloquently discuss in this post. Funny, but in some cases the mother or father will still fail to “get it.”

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Matt. – Yes, the parents are sometimes worse than the kids! Educating them is so important.
      I once had a young kid who had missed more than half the required classes before a test, and was nowhere near knowing what he would have to know in order to pass. So I didn’t give him a test notice when some others got one. His mother came in and said, “Don’t punish Davey just because I couldn’t bring him to class!” In her mind, if I didn’t give him a free stripe, I was *punishing* him for not showing up. Hmmmm. We had a long talk, in which I thought I clarified the situation and explained how Davey was very capable of earning the stripe in due time. On the day of the test, he cried and cried, and they never returned.
      On the other hand, parents who understand and support what we are doing can comfort their kids when they cry – and help them understand why it’s important to come back and keep trying.

  9. dneditor Says:

    This is all wonderful stuff. Now, if I could only get some of you to submit to Dragon Nhus.

    No wait: I have! If anyone has a problem we me using your comments in a Dragon Nhus piece, please let me know.

    The next issue is going to focus entirely on kids. I am looking for good material if anyone wants to contribute.

    What I’d especially like is a historic piece on kids martial arts training. Anyone interested?

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