The first step in becoming a competent teacher of children (be it in Karate or in any subject) is to prioritize what you are trying to accomplish. As a Sensei in karate, I have developed my program to emphasize the priorities as I see them. When reading this list, think of the priorities as you might list them, or add to them.
1. It is my intention to allow my students to become strong and capable individuals. I encourage my young students to be courageous enough to be their own person, while balancing that with a respect for others and an ability to learn from their own history.
2. I emphasize a love of exercise at all ages. I don’t want students to think of exercising and strengthening the body as drudgery. If I make the exercise portion of Karate boring or self-defeating, students will pick up that attitude and carry it away with them. Keeping exercise fun is challenging.
3. Self-defense was the catalyst for karate’s beginning, and I think it should remain a priority in children today. This is complicated. Without the balance of respect and humility, intense emphasis on self-defense could be misconstrued to create a bully. This balance is one of the trickiest to maintain.
4. Lastly, but nowhere near unimportant, I intend, in my teaching everyday, to keep karate traditions alive. I like to introduce my children students to karate as it has historically been handed down. This includes kata, ippons, and oral histories.
The process of growth in Karate is slow. In order to be successful at attaining the priorities above, it is important to keep the child interested in training.
What you will notice missing from the list above is the idea that any of my children students are going to be specimens of physical perfection. This is not a high level priority to me. I live by the old karate adage “The person who shows up in the dojo, willing to train, is the person who deserves karate”. I DO work with the ability that the student brings to class. If one of my children has a great natural ability, I push on from there. However, I DO NOT make physical ability the highest priority in my daily teaching. Nor do I prioritize this student higher than other students. Lastly, but very importantly I don’t believe in taunting less physically talented students to be as good as someone else. I try from a young age to have the child compare his progress internally. I want him to improve based on his talent, not based on an outside source or opinion.
This method of teaching is controversial. Old fashioned teaching dictates that the less physically capable student be left behind. In doing this, he or she will lose interest and quit karate. It has been my experience that if children stick with karate for 6 or more years, their physical competency shines through. This is true even if at the beginning the ability didn’t show through.
Having stressed my view that each child should be encouraged to grow as an individual, I’d like to mention that competition can be healthy. As a child gets older, stronger and more confident, I encourage competition. I base my teaching on this: Karate is an art form that focuses on both the external and the internal growth of all its practitioners. It is not a sport where the measure of success is based on competition and awards won. Karate has the potential to be a life long journey of self-discovery, building actual (not virtual) self-confidence that will allow for a safe, strong and capable practitioner without the need to prove anything. In order to achieve that, it is necessary for me to prioritize my teaching as it is listed above.
My goal (except in unusual circumstances) is to make the children feel better about themselves at the end of each training session, then when they arrived. That is my daily mantra. Occasionally I have to break that rule and ruin a child’s day. One example is when a parent asks me to talk to their child about keeping up with homework or his household responsibilities. These moments are not the norm. The rule of daily training is “kids are king, technology is secondary”.*
As is my nature, I challenge you to think about your goals when teaching children and prioritize your teaching skills accordingly.
*As opposed to the “Rule” of adult training, which is opposite: “Technology is our main priority, train hard, or be left behind”. The approach is completely different!