As an instructor of the children’s program at YMAA Headquarters, I have found several keys to classroom success—a solid foundation of basics; understanding the age and maturity of the students; realistic expectations of behavior and performance; high-energy activities; and parental involvement. Other key components to a successful program: knowing yourself as an instructor and understanding your class as a dynamic whole.

In my conversations with parents I have learned that one of the main reasons they enroll their children in martial arts is the hope to develop their child’s focus and discipline. Quality martial arts will always emphasize the development of the mind and spirit as much as the body. All kids are different; age, personality and physical and mental development all factor into their ability to learn. With this in mind, how does one instill discipline and focus in young and seemingly un-trainable minds?

Basics are an important part of adult’s martial arts training. Kid’s training is no different. The structure created by a core set of basic drills will give them something to expect and to focus on each class. Regular practice of fundamentals enables an instructor to set clear, achievable goals. A standard warm up and basic stance practice makes up about a third of any kid’s class I teach. Knowing that other projects and fun activities won’t happen until the basic drills are finished and finished well gives the kids a goal to achieve and a standard with which to achieve it.

Basics will also provide an instructor with a platform from which to expand. A variation on a known skill set can be stimulating and can inspire excitement for learning newer and more difficult forms. Sometimes we practice basic stances combined with jumping drills or with different hand forms, we might do our kicking drills with focus pads or while walking backwards. These types of variations give the kids a chance to think creatively about their practice.

At YMAA headquarters we train all age groups together. This is an effective way for younger kids to learn from their peers. It can be difficult to keep classes interesting for all different age groups but peer involvement is a handy technique to keep everyone interested. We train our stances, kicks and hand forms as a group. New students are often paired with advanced students so they have a good model to copy. This motivates the advanced student to perform at his or her best as well. During our stance practice students who do a good job are selected to demonstrate in front of the class. Some kids jump at the opportunity to show off while others are more reticent. By being in front of their peers extroverted kids will be motivated to set a good example while introverted kids have a chance to overcome their fear of being in front of a group.

Age and maturity level are important factors to consider in a child’s ability to focus and learn. The attention span and learning style of each child affects his or her ability to focus and learn within the greater whole. As the instructor, this is something to take into consideration when giving both whole class and individualized instruction. Some kids learn well from verbal instruction while others learn visually. Demonstrating a certain move from a different angle can sometimes help a child to better understand the angle or direction. Sometimes physically placing a kid’s limbs in the right place is much more effective than any amount of verbal explanation.

Keep in mind each child’s level, and set appropriate goals. A complicated movement or form may be right for one student but may be too advanced for another. The elder child can be given highly technical corrections while the younger can be encouraged and rewarded for approximating the same maneuver. For example, coordinating the hip and shoulder to properly manifest power in a strike may be as challenging for an older student as learning how to perform a basic toe kick is for a younger one. If a child is praised for his or her personal accomplishment he or she will continue to make progress.

Classroom management is as important to the class as the material being presented. Rewards and punishments should be well defined and appropriate. The promise of a game or other type of fun activity is a reasonable reward for accomplishing a goal and is a reliable way to stimulate interest in a given project. Punishments, or consequences, must be realistic. Years ago it may have been acceptable to use corporal punishment but today it is not. If a child is given a choice, to do the work or loose out on a reward (i.e. not to play today’s game), he will often choose to stay with the class, opting for fun.

Acknowledgment is one of the best tools for maintaining a child’s interest. Addressing each student by name and recognizing their effort is often enough of a reward to stimulate further interest. Children want to be noticed for doing things right. Likewise, calling attention to inappropriate behavior in a non-threatening manner can be enough get a child refocused on his or her task. A hand on the shoulder; a stern look, or even a quick “time out” are other successful methods of correcting undesirable behavior.

Should a consequence be needed, the instructor needs to stay firm and consistent; students will consistently push the limits of what is accepted classroom behavior. This can be the most challenging aspect of a successful program. Above all it is imperative that an instructor keep his temper. To loose one’s temper is to loose control and this leads very quickly to chaos in the classroom.

Parental involvement makes an instructor’s job much easier. The few hours a week a child spends in class, while helpful, have far less effect on a his or her development than those hours spent at home. A parent who is involved in their child’s progress is a tremendous asset. Regular meetings with a parent, even quick after class chats, are valuable. Involve family members, they are paying for their child to learn and can be very willing to motivate their child with some reward. A promised trip to the ice cream shop or some such reward for a job well done in class can greatly boost a child’s attention level. Likewise, a parent’s unhappy reaction to a bad behavior report and loss of a privilege at home is usually a greater threat than a set of pushups or any other punishment an instructor can administer.

As important as an instructor’s techniques and methods is his or her ability to understand the energy of a class. The energy of a class can change depending on the instructor’s mood, the weather, and the amount of sugar the children have ingested that day. Early in my career I came to class one day and found every kid frenzied and wild. I couldn’t understand the mayhem until I realized it was Valentine’s Day and they had been eating candy all afternoon. While mildly traumatized that day, I was well prepared for Halloween several months later.

The ability to guide and control a class is directly linked directly to one’s ability to understand its mood. If a program is working, stay with it. While it is a good idea to approach each class with a plan in mind sometimes the best solution to a difficult day is to scrap the plan completely and improvise. On Valentine’s day for example, I remember we did little more than run and jump in circles for the entire hour.

An instructor’s personal energy will have a direct effect on the class. Kids feed off enthusiasm and energy. This doesn’t necessarily mean being loud (although it usually helps), but rather keeping things exciting. Kids learn well when having fun and they usually enjoy moving. When in doubt I usually return to running and jumping drills. We jump like frogs and monkeys, we crawl like lizards and run like horses. Sometimes I let the kids create their own animal forms, this exercises their imaginations as well as their bodies. Kids search daily for role models. By training with enthusiasm an instructor can be a very positive example from whom to learn. My enthusiasm usually builds with the kids’ and in the end I enjoy the class as much as any student.

Working with children can yield tremendous personal rewards. By watching a child approach his training one can learn how to view one’s own training through fresh eyes. As a teacher one often needs to simplify complicated things to make them understandable to children. I’ve found that working with kids has helped me develop the ability to distill simple lessons from complicated forms or movements. I’ve come to understand the basic movement principles of long fist kung-fu better by learning to explain them in uncomplicated ways to young kids. Above all else I’ve learned how to have fun while training. While always a challenge, working with children will always offer a chance to learn and feel young again.