If you teach martial arts to young children, understanding the psychological stages of development is a must. Taking a ‘participant centred’ approach to our coaching translates as meeting our students where they are. Before we can do that we actually need to know ‘where they are’ cognitively, emotionally and socially. This article will look at the various psychological stages of development the children will pass through and give you an idea of what to expect at different ages.
If you have taught children for any length of time you will already know that the speed at which they develop can be very different. While they will all usually go through the same stages, this can happen at different chronological ages. Understanding where our young students are on this development pathway will allow us to differentiate in martial arts classes to make the activity meaningful for each and every student.
As with my previous article on the ‘Physical Stages of Development’, I have included a description of the expectations for 2 year olds. For the reasons listed further down in this article, we don’t usually deliver classes to 2 years olds. I am hoping that including the description of this age group will give you a better understanding of the transition that normally takes place between 2 and 3 years old.
Psychological Stages Of Development (2 Years Old)
At this age, children are beginning to understand that actions have consequences. As an example, when something falls over and breaks. They will now be able to say around 200 words but will understand many more. They will be able to use some words in context but will often shorten sentences to a couple of words. It will be down to you to ask the right questions to find out what they actually mean.
Even at 2 years old they will be able to follow simple instructions. They will be curious, impulsive and eager to try out new experiences. They may sometimes be clingy and dependent and at other times, independent. They will often need reassurance from their carer and may cause them stress and anxiety. They will often feel frustrated when they are unable to express themselves and this may lead to tantrums on an almost daily basis.
They are not usually ready to play cooperatively at this age but will take part in parallel play alongside other children. This means that sharing will probably be a no, no but if they have their own items, they will be happy to play alongside others. Putting 2 year olds in a martial arts class and expecting them to operate autonomously will probably a step too far for most. Like all psychological stages of development, there will be exceptions to this rule and what I am trying to describe here is the general expectations at the different ages.
Psychological Stages Of Development (3-4 Years Old)
At 3 years old, their social skills are beginning to develop and they are more willing to share and take turns for short periods of time. This is the beginning of the development of the ability to delay gratification. We will have more on this in next week’s blog post. They will also have a better understanding of why it may not be possible for them to always get everything they want.
They will be able to understand the concept of time but this will usually be limited to previously, now and in the future. They don’t normally understand the difference between 5 hours and 5 minutes but will start to use some of your own time-based terminology on you. My 3 year old now commonly uses ‘In 5 minutes’ when I ask her to do something she does not want to do right now. After 10 minutes I can ask the same question again and she will still say again ‘5 minutes’.
Often highlighted as a difficult time, they will start asking more questions to try and work out cause and effect. This may also include nudging the boundaries a little. They may also use questions as a way of getting attention, often by asking questions they already know the answer to. In class, this is when you usually need to connect, acknowledge and redirect.
They will be able to sort objects into groups and will understand the difference between one and say lots. They will usually be able to identify primary colours and some will also be able to identify basic shapes such as circles, squares and triangles.
They will be able to count up to 10 and construct simple sentences. They will not necessarily pronounce the words correctly and may occasionally miss a number when counting. They will be able to hold simple conversations though they will often miss words out. Someone not known to the child will usually be able to understand what is being said.
It is at this age that they will start to develop control over their attention which is why we generally start our children’s martial arts classes at this age. They will be quite independent when performing tasks and will not always appreciate your help (even if they need it).
They will start to develop their social skills and will make friends easily. They will be willing to share equipment with friends and classmates and understand the idea of taking turns. They will be mature enough to start to understand other people’s point of view and will show affection for younger siblings.
Most children at this age will be able to use the toilet but will need help now and again. They will also be able to wash their hands though this could take up to 10 minutes if they are left to their own devices. My recommendation is to have parents of the 3-4 year olds nearby to take care of any toilet runs. This leaves you free to continue teaching your class. As children love to help adults, it is a good age to involve them in clearing equipment away. This also makes transitions between class segments faster.
At 3 years old they will be able to cope more with being separated from their main career. This is one of the main reasons that we start our classes from 3 years old. That said, due to the children developing at different rates, they are not always ready for learning independent of their careers. In this case, we usually just ask them to come back in 3-6 months time and try again. We usually invite them in to try several sessions before asking them to come back at a later date.
Between 4 and 5 years old the children will start school and get used to being around lots of other children. For most, this will not be a problem as they will have the social skills necessary to negotiate these strange and exciting new waters. When taking part in your martial arts classes, they will mostly cooperate with the other children but will still need a little reassurance and praise from the instructors now and again.
4 year olds will normally be able to count to around 20. They will have a better sense of time that the 3 year olds and will usually be happy to talk about things from the past as well as events that are up and coming. They will be able to talk fluently and will sometimes bombard you with many questions.
They will have improved memory skills and be able to describe an event from the past like a holiday they had three months ago or a birthday party they attended a couple of weeks ago, though they may sometimes confuse facts with fiction. They will enjoy telling stories, though it may be a long drawn out process with a few bits missing. We have all had that child in the class that has started to tell a story only to forget what they were talking about before they finish it.
When they have a problem, they will be able to describe the symptoms and in many cases understand how to solve the problem. They will understand that although they don’t like certain rules, they understand the need for rules.
At 4 they will be at an age where they can go to the toilet independently, get themselves dressed and even wash their hands with in a ‘normal’ amount of time. They will be less reliant upon their parents for every day tasks, though tying shoe laces and fastening their taekwondo, karate or Ju Jitsu belt may still be beyond their ability.
They will often be sensitive to the people around them but still enjoy humour both physically and verbally. I would encourage you to have a laugh and a joke with the children (on their level) but it’s also worth mentioning at this point that any sarcasm at this age will leave you with a group of children staring back at you with a blank look on their face.
Although they will like to spend time with other children, they will be quite independent and strong-willed. They will now have some closer friendships, many of which will be of the same sex. If you run a buddy system it is probably a good idea to use this knowledge and choose someone that is the same sex as the new student. They will look forward to seeing their friends in class and will sometimes be upset if they are not there. Coincidently, this can often be the same for instructors too. This is why we have two instructors for all our kid’s classes. If one instructor is ill, on holiday are decide to leave, you will still have at least one instructor in the class they know.
Psychological Physical Stages Of Development (5-6 Years Olds)
At 5 years old they will have a better awareness of the world. Developing a better understanding of self-control, they will be happy to take turns during your classes. Not only will they enjoy having rules but they will sometimes go to great lengths to make sure others follow them too.
If they do not understand something they will usually be happy to ask you to explain something such as a word or phrase they don’t understand. They will recognise many words including their own name and may even make a good attempt at writing it.
They will be able to talk about the past, present and future with a good understanding of the difference between them. They will have definite like and dislikes and will be able to use basic logic in their reasoning in these choices. Their attention will be much improved and they will be able to sit and listen to the explanation of the different elements of your class.
They will not only be able to show sympathy for other students but act on this and comfort classmates and friends. They will instinctively want to help other children if they are distressed or upset. It is during this stage of development that they will start to choose their own friends. They will start to understand the common social rules in society as well as the etiquette and values of your club.
With a better understanding of social dynamics, they will be in a better position to work together in a pair or as part of a team. It is also at this age that they will start to build affinity with different sports and physical activities. We need to make sure that they have a positive experience in our martial arts classes so that they choose to be a martial arts student for life.
Children at 6 year old are curious and are now developing their own interests. They understand the concepts of size, shapes, weight and distance and they are interested in how things work.
They will be able to talk fluently and communicate with confidence. They will continue to develop their literacy skills although their confidence to read independently usually begins between 7 and 9 years old.
Rather than indiscriminately making friends with everyone, they will base their friendships on their personality and interests. They will be able to hold long conversations with both adults and other children without speaking over each other. That’s does not mean that they won’t speak over the instructor or other classmates, just that they have the capacity not to.
At 6 years old they will also naturally start to compare themselves to others and fairness is also something they will start to focus on. They will be able to operate in class as an individual or actively contribute to group or team activities.
Psychological Physical Stages Of Development Summary
Just like my article on the Physical Stages Of Development, the psychological stages of development build on each other. I hope they will help give you a better understanding of the psychological, emotional and social development of the children in your martial arts classes.
3 years old is a good age to introduce young children to your martial arts classes if you want then to take part in the class without their parents in the room. Even children of 3 years old sometimes have to attend classes a few times before they will take part on their own. We usually let a parent in the class for the first 1-2 session and when trust has been built, the parents sit in the waiting area. They can see their children on the big screen TV via a CCTV camera but the children can’t see the parents without leaving the room.
When we first started teaching the 3-6 year olds, we would allow parents in the room the whole time but with siblings, mobiles phones, people going in and out and well-meaning parents shouting to their children during the class, we realised that more learning was taking place when the children were in control of their own learning experience.
Last week I covered developing a growth mindset in your kid’s classes and next week I will be exploring the benefits of children developing self-control and the ability to delay gratification. If you want to know how to plan sessions for the different age groups, please check out our free downloadable MAPLE Session Planning Framework.