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Gradings for young children in martial arts – are you comparing apples with oranges?

We all want the best for our young ninjas but how do gradings help us develop the children? Developing their skills, physical abilities and positive physiological characteristics are at the top of our list of goals. So how do we use gradings to build these traits? Should we be using the gradings to measure competency like we do with the older children, teens and adults? While the feeling of mastery can be useful to build motivation, is it developmentally appropriate for young children. How can a belt system and gradings be used as a motivation tool to help build retention?

At such a young age, is it constructive to compare children via gradings?

While you probably have a good idea of the capabilities of an average student at a specific age, as children develop at different rates, there can be a huge difference between the youngest and the oldest (even if you break the classes down in to 3-4 and 5-6 year olds). 

Relative Age Effect is the phenomenon that describes the bias represented by the majority of youth team members being close to the cut of date for that year group. The fact that some children are at different stages of development on top of the difference in chronological age difference makes comparing one student’s abilities to another pretty meaningless. When students are selected due to their perceived skills (often when they are just more physically developed for their age), you tend to get a higher dropout rate of the underdeveloped participants. If retained, these students can often go on to be as good if not better, than the ones that developed first.

Why is this relevant to gradings in children’s martial arts? If you have fixed requirements for your gradings you could be comparing one student that has just gone 3 to another one that is almost 5. Not only could the older student be almost 2 years older but that’s without taking in to account that the younger student could be under developed for their age and the older one could be more advanced in their development too.

Are belts a good way of motivating students?

If you read last week’s post investigating the validity of using stickers to generate motivation, you have probably already realised that making it all about the belt and gradings will motivate them to …………. yep, you guessed it ………. get the belt and not necessary what you want the belt to represent. 

In the previous article we called this an ‘If, then’ reward. Having a set curriculum and then awarding the student with a belt after they have performed the skills for their grade makes it difficult to switch to a ‘Now, that’ reward. Fortunately, there are other things you can do reduce the extrinsic effect of using the belt from gradings as a carrot.

The research carried out by Carol Dweck on Growth Mindset suggested that rather than praising the child’s achievement (which actually leads to the child focusing on the result in future), we should redirect our praise to the effort the child makes and the process they follow that leads to the result. This would be the equivalent of praising the hard work a child did in preparing for the grading and how they diligently worked on areas that they knew were difficult for them. Obviously this praise is given out retrospectively when connected with being awarded the next belt. In this case it helps deliver the praise as ‘now, that’ reward.

In 2017 Dweck updated her book on Mindset (originally released in 2007) due to many people misrepresenting her theory and lavishly heaping praising everything that the children did. Jonny hits the pad, praise. Jonny lifts his leg off the floor, praise. Jonny licks the wall, yep praise. This ‘false praise’ is easily seen through by a child and much like a parent constantly shouting at their son or daughter, the constant praise just becomes background noise. If ‘everything is awesome’, everything is average. I don’t know of many martial arts coaches that would fail a 3 year old during a grading due to some technical inaccuracy so why award a belt based on a child’s performance when it will be obvious to everyone watching (including the children themselves) that not everyone performed to the same level.

If everything is awesome, everything is average - Martial arts Gradings for children

If ‘everything is awesome’, everything is average

We still have traditional gradings even for the 3-4 and 5-6 year olds, though we pre frame the belt as recognition for their efforts in class and their confidence to get up in front of their peers and do their best. Of course, due to the difference in stages of development and abilities we don’t really care how well they perform as long as they get up and have a go. Our role is to build confidence and motivation rather than judge children on their ‘ability’. For me, the only reason to have any measurement of a child’s ability in a class is so that you can regress or progress an exercise so it challenges the child where they are.

Competence, mastery and challenge point

Self Determination Theory (SDT) lists the feeling of competence as one of the areas that needs to fulfilled to build intrinsic motivation. Having spent quite a bit of time researching SDT and intrinsic motivation I tend to use the term ‘challenge point’ rather than competence. This is down to the fact that you can do something well and still become bored of the activity where as, if the challenge point is just right (often referred to as The Goldilocks Zone), you are more likely to be motivated to keep playing.

Each student should be encouraged to perform to the best of their ability without comparing themselves to others. This will enable them to feel competent without feeling out of their depth. This can’t happen if you have fixed standards that every child has to meet regardless of their chronological, development or training age. Use the belt system as a personal measure of progress through your system while also using it to modelling effort and confidence. I know this could easily be misconstrued as participation trophy / belt but we are not rewarding the child every time they take part in practice and as already mentioned, we are using it to model effort and confidence and not attaching it to their ability.


Ok, we have been through a few different areas that come in to play when running martial arts gradings for young children. Based on my research and the way we run our own gradings for 3-4 and 5-6 year olds, my recommendations are pretty simple.


  1. Reposition the belt system as recognition for their efforts in class and for having the confidence to get up in front of the instructors and their peers and perform (to whatever standard that may be). As well as mentioning this to the students, make sure the parents understand this too. If you are not clear on this it is only a matter of time before some parent pulls you up due to their son performing ‘better’ than everyone else and thinking that they should be receiving some kind of extra recognition.
  1. Don’t have a specific level requirement needed to attend the gradings or or even to pass. Yes, get them to perform elements of the syllabus on the day of the grading or graduation but don’t worry about the fact that some students will perform better than others. Don’t forget that many of the students at this age are pre schoolers and non of them should be training for performance at this age.
  1. If you do position the belt as recognition of their efforts both in your classes and getting up and performing at the gradings, it is going to be hard to justify awarding a belt if they just sit at the side and don’t take part or you can’t get them in the grading room. Try your best to get them involved but if they are just that way out, pass them back to the parent, thus missing the awarding of the belts at the end of the grading or in your graduation ceremony. By all means try and book them in to a different grading (if you have one) for them to try again but you will devalue your positioning in front of the parents and children if you still award a belt when the child did not take part in the grading.

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Final comment

Currently we do not have any qualifying requirements to attend grading for children ages 3-6 years. Due to this, parents sometimes see it as an extra expense they don’t need and they downplay the confidence needed to get up in front of people and perform. We may change this in future but obviously without relating the requirements to the children’s ability. In the past I have considered having a minimum lesson requirement (as we have in our Taekwondo programme) as this is generally in the control of the parent and attending more regular sessions usually means that they are more inclined to get the most from the programme.


I know my methods are not for everyone and many martial arts instructors that coach children will often grade the kids the same way as they do the adults. This blog and the MAPLE programme is based on the premise that ‘CHILDREN ARE NOT MINI ADULTS’. I don’t profess to know everything about coaching children in martial arts but it is something I have spent a lot of time researching and applying. If you have an open mind and appreciate someone going through all the research and pulling together the relevant information to help you build a custom martial arts programme for children, please ‘Like’ our Facebook page and come back next week when we will be looking at a physical aspect of coaching children. We have also now created an email list for those that want extra tips on developing their programme.


If anyone else has any ideas of this, feel free to leave a comment below.

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