Posted tagged ‘how to teach kids’

The Dreaded “Triple Push-Up” & More Martial Arts Fun

March 4, 2010

photo courtesy of Shawn McElroy

Shawn McElroy Sensei, head of after-school programs at Sung Ming Shu Dojo in Atlanta, loves the “triple push-up,” adding,

I have had groups up to 5 do this exercise. Great for team building and strength!

What’s your favorite fun, funny, weird, creative drill or exercise for kids? Share it here. Leave a comment below, or – if you have a photo – send it to

Can’t get black belt no matter how hard they try?

February 9, 2010

Several instructors have posed versions of this question lately: What if you have a child in class who is dedicated and tries hard — but is simply too uncoordinated to perform the required material up to par? Is there a point at which you stop promoting this student through the ranks, in spite of his or her best effort? If so, is there a “magic rank” where this happens? –They might get green belt, but not brown belt; or, brown belt but not junior black belt.

I think we’ve all had students at one time or another who’ve caused us to ask these questions. Other factors usually come into play, like the age of the students in question, the reasons for their physical difficulty, and the expectations for future change as they grow and mature.

Instructors: Tell us about your experience. What have you learned about working with less athletically gifted students? What decisions have you made at test time? What advice would you give an instructor who is dealing with the issue for the first time? And, bottom line, can this student get his or her black belt?

Kiai and Kihap for Kids and Teens (and adults?)

January 26, 2010

Last week I asked one of my classes, “Which is worse: a wimpy kiai, or no kiai at all?”

Instructors, you know what I am talking about. Kids, you probably know, too. Every class has some students who are too shy or self-conscious to make a loud noise. When called upon to kiai, they let out a thin little squeak that sounds more like a sigh of surrender than the spirited shout of a warrior. And as a teacher, it sometimes makes me want to sigh in surrender. I’ve done everything I can think of to get a shout out of these kids (and sometimes, adults), and there it is again: the incredibly wimpy kiai.

So I tossed out the question, and there were good arguments on both sides. Context matters, of course. In class that day we were practicing kata, but there are other times where kiai might be used, and the question could have a different meaning.

What do you say, readers? Is a wimpy noise better or worse than no noise? Why?

And what can we do to help students who are too shy to shout? Do you have a tip or foolproof technique?

“Reward the Behavior You Want to See”

November 30, 2009

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?

Praise is Overrated

November 17, 2009

Pam Consear submitted a comment on the earlier post “Tips for instructors who teach martial arts to kids,” but instead of approving it, I held it in the queue till I could set it up as a new topic. Here it is– and I hope others will have things to say on this important subject.

I agree with all the comments about keeping things positive, using all the kids’ names, working out and enjoying practicing alongside them, etc. I’d like to make a comment about PRAISE, though.

We should make sure that the praise we’re giving is thoughtful and specific, not just habitual. I think that some of our kids these days get showered with too much praise (and trophies, medals, awards…) for just showing up, and the words eventually lose their value.

According to research I’ve read about child development and teaching, praise doesn’t build self-esteem (assuming that’s one of our goals here), but skill mastery DOES. So we can help by pointing out specifically WHAT they are doing well (“good job raising your knee up for that snap kick!”), and being gently honest when they’re not doing something right, and telling them how to fix it. Not everything kids do in class is a “great job!” (Not in my classes, anyway!)

Research has also found that telling kids they’re “smart” or “talented” or “gifted”, etc., can actually be counter-productive. It causes some kids to either not try new things for fear of not being as amazing as everyone thinks they are, or to give up quickly if they don’t catch on immediately for fear that people might find out that they’re not actually smart/talented/gifted after all. More useful is to focus on the EFFORT they’re putting in, and point out how that is leading to progress and new skills. Everyone has the ability to try hard, so the kids start seeing success as something attainable through hard work, and not the birthright of a few “talented” kids.

Ok, that’s my two cents about keeping the praise real!

Any thoughts, readers?

Tips for Teaching Kids, Part II: “A Million Times”

November 9, 2009

Rohai Dojo in Berkeley sometimes posts on the bulletin board a story borrowed from Louise Rafkin’s book, The Tiger’s Eye, The Bird’s Fist: A Beginner’s Guide to the Martial Arts. –This book, by the way, is a nice collection of stories, legends, biographies and history, giving kids an introduction to martial arts in general, their culture and philosophy. It’s out of print, but sometimes available at Powell’s Books or Amazon. In fact I was in Powell’s recently and saw a copy there.

The story is titled “A Million Times.” Here’s an excerpt:

A legendary teacher once taught one of his prize students to punch. The student put his fingers together in a fist and hit the target a few times.
“Can you teach me something else?” the student asked.
The teacher frowned. “First practice the punch a million times,” he told the student sternly. “Then I will teach you something new.” The student was discouraged, and went in search of a new teacher.
The new teacher taught the student a kick. “Practice a million times,” he said.
“What? Not a million times!” The student once again went to find a new teacher.
[ . . . ]

I’m going to leave you hanging, readers, but if you teach martial arts to children, you know this story; you experience it every day. Which brings us to the topic of this blog post:

How do you get kids to put in enough work on the basics, while keeping their interest up and teaching them the value and necessity of repetitive practice? Another way to phrase the question: How do you disguise repetition, while at the same time teaching the importance of it?

Different teachers take different views, and may have equal success with opposite approaches. I want to start the discussion off by revealing my personal bias, and feel free to disagree.

While some seek to keep kids interested by making everything in class into a game, I’m not a big fan of this. I like using games for a few minutes as warm-ups at the beginning of class, or as a release at the end of class, but the heart of class for me is practice, and most of that is going to be basics. So I have to find different ways to break it up—and there are plenty: change gears frequently; change tone of voice, speed, or counting; intersperse bursts of calisthenics; switch between forward and backward, front foot and rear, alone and with partner, in the air and on the target; have the instructor do sneak attacks with a foam “bopper” during basic repetitions. I think Kathy Varady meant something similar when she mentioned “theme classes” in her comment on our previous post about teaching.

There are a million ways to get it done “a million times.” What are some of yours?

Tips for instructors who teach martial arts to kids

October 20, 2009

Ricki Kay, chief instructor at Fairwood Martial Arts in Renton, Washington, kicks off our series on how to teach great kids’ classes, offering this fundamental advice:

One of the most important things to remember when teaching kids is to touch each child with a physical correction while working with them. Move their fist, or their knee. Don’t teach from a “dais” at the front of the room.

Physical interaction with the students has multiple payoffs. It keeps kids engaged, and lets them feel noticed and included. Physical correction makes a deeper impression, too, especially for those students who may respond less well to verbal explanation.

Instructors: What do you think of that advice? How do you interact with your students in a typical class? What keeps you from just standing up front counting off the repetitions?

I look forward to hearing your perspectives.

How to Teach Taekwondo or Karate to Kids

October 11, 2009

Think back to when you first started teaching class, as an assistant or a junior instructor. How did you know what to do? Most likely, you started off by copying your own teacher.

Our teachers are usually the first, best source on how and what to teach. Then, when we have more experience, confidence, and the freedom of having our own class, we try out new ideas. We adapt things to our own personalities and interests. We look around at other instructors—our colleagues and peers—and borrow from them as well. We evaluate our students’ progress, and use this to evaluate ourselves. Through trial and error we develop what works, change what doesn’t, and improve ourselves as teachers.

Many of us, though, trained as adults in adult class, and teaching kids seems like a whole different game. What then?

If you don’t have a way to observe or assist with someone else’s children’s class, then imagination, trial and error must be your friends. Go ahead; jump in there. Just be flexible and ready to laugh when things don’t go as you expect.

Books and videos can be good sources of ideas. Some people buy expensive programs offered by successful professionals. These contain good material for those who want to spend all that cash.

I maintain that our best resources will always be (a) our colleagues, and (b) experience (trial and error). Sharing ideas and experience with others who teach kids will keep you on your toes and keep it fresh.

That’s why I want all of you out there who teach kids, or are interested in doing so, to participate in this blog. I’m not asking you to reveal your professional secrets for free. Just share some good ideas, small successes, and enthusiasm for the martial arts. Failures are great to hear about, too: What great idea did you come up with that totally flopped when you tried it in class?

Think of it as sharing selected entries from your teaching diary. You do keep one, don’t you? –Where you write down what you did in class that day, with some notes on how it all went? Or you could describe what you saw someone else do that worked well (or didn’t), or recount something the kids in your class accomplished.

Be sure to take credit, or give credit, where it’s due, and include a link to your blog or website if you have one. You can email your contribution to I’ll compile a few ideas into a single new post, or if it’s a longer piece, publish it as a guest post. Or—you can always send ideas by commenting on an existing post. For example, if you have some favorite martial arts puzzles or games, go to the previous post and leave a comment. If you have a good resource for teaching kids that you’d like to recommend, tell us about it right here.