Have you ever had an anxious child attend your class and refuse to join in?
You book a new starter in for a trial class on your young children’s martial arts programme. You email / text / message to remind the parent about the trial class and they tell you the child has been talking about attending the class all week. On the day of the trial, the parent arrives at your martial arts centre early and as soon as they pull in to the car park…………. the child says they no longer want to take part.
So what happened to the child’s enthusiasm? How can they be excited to attend the class one minute and then flatly refusing to take part in the next? There can be many reasons for this sudden change of heart but hopefully, we will be able to shed some light on some of the most common culprits. Most of the time the child wants to take part but is just an anxious child.
This theory suggests that the bond between the child and their primary carer is critical to the child’s development and confidence to explore the world. They understand that they have a safe space to return to should any experience be negative. If the bond between the child and the parent is weak, the result can be an anxious child that is afraid to leave the side of the parent. This can cause problems when the parent wants the children to take part in new activities that will be of benefit to them over time.
When children come to take part in our martial arts sessions for the first time, we need to acknowledge that as a new activity, in a new place, with new people, we may have a little connection building to do first. Before we can get them in the training room we need to build trust not only with the parent but the child too. Children that are securely attached are described as having higher levels of trust and are better at connecting with others. This not only helps them be more successful in life but also increases our chances of persuading them to leave their parent’s side and try one of our martial arts classes for the first time.
While there will be some adversity in their martial arts training at some point, we want to reduce the chance of this in their first few lessons. Once we have built trust, they will be much more likely to take new challenges in their stride. As the saying goes ‘Rome was not built in a day’.
In our venues, the parents don’t sit in the training room (other than in the first couple of sessions where we can’t get the child into the class), they sit in the waiting area next to the training hall. This allows the children to make their own decisions during training and take responsibility for their actions. Ownership is an important trait for us to develop and doing this in an environment with well-meaning parents in the same room is more difficult.
We don’t want to exclude the parents from the equation (far from it) but we are clear from the start that we put the welfare and development of the child first. The parents can still watch their son’s or daughter’s every move on a large screen TV via a high-resolution IP CCTV camera. If we have anxious children in the class, we will also leave the training room door open. Once the children understand that their parents are just through an open door, it makes it easier to build the trust required for them to just jump in the class and get on with the session.
One thing that sounds obvious but does not get much consideration is the fact that when young children are booked in for their first martial arts class, this is often triggered by the motivation of the parents rather than the child. Parents want the best for their children and as such, many select martial arts as one of their activates of choice.
Obviously, we are a little biased when it comes to recommending martial arts as a great activity to improve children’s physical and mental health but we are not alone. In a survey of independent strength and conditioning coaches, gymnastics, swimming and martial arts are the three sports they recommend to parents the most.
In my article on Self Determination Theory, I suggested that to be intrinsically motivated the student needs to feel a level of belonging or social connection. Although this is not a cure for anxious children, it can go some way to building trust that will ultimately help get them in your class. Obviously, this can be difficult to develop in an environment where they don’t know anyone else in the class. While you may not have space or time to host a mini private session between the child and the instructor, the least you can do is facilitate a quick meeting to introduce the child (and parent) to the instructor. Even just exchanging names, having a little small talk and showing some enthusiasm can go a long way to breaking down social barriers and putting them at ease.
When we book children in for a trial session, the parents will sometimes ask if they can watch a session first. We often push back on this and try get them on the mats to take part in a session rather than just watching one. The last thing you want is anxious children watching a class and thinking that they won’t be able to perform the exercises the other children are successfully performing. The perception of competence is important and we don’t want to risk damaging this before they even get started.
A situation I have noticed in the 3-4 year old classes on a few occasions is when the parents are nudging their son / daughter to go in to the training room on their own and the child pushes back and refuses to take part. You have to consider that 3 year olds have little control over their lives and for the most part, their parents are the ones that make most of their decisions.
If you look back to my article on the psychological stages of development, you will recognise that from around 3 years old, the children are starting to test boundaries while also become a little more independent. Not joining in with an activity chosen by their parents is one of the only occasions that a child can have an impact on the decisions made in their life.
If you have a 3 year old yourself you will also recognise that they sometimes make strange choices just because they can. In these cases, the ability to make a choice is more important to them than the outcome of that choice. This may sometimes leave you scratching your head trying to understand the reasoning behind their actions but at least know you will understand that they are just flexing their autonomy.
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The last area we are going to look at is mindset. If a child has a growth mindset, they are more likely to try new activities. They understand that if they continue to practice a skill or activity they will improve. A child that is described as having a fixed mindset will often talk in absolutes and think that they either have the skills to do something or they don’t. They think their abilities are fixed and that no amount of effort or training will enable them to learn a new skill.
If you struggle to motivate a child to join your class and they won’t leave their parent’s side, ask one of your assistants to take the class to them. By this I mean get some of the equipment you are using in the class, ask the assistant to kneel down next to them so they are on a similar eye line and replicate the activity that is going on in the main class. Differentiate for the child to ensure the challenge point is appropriate and just let them have a go.
If they won’t even do this, ask the parent to replicate the activity in the class with the child. When the child joins in, make sure they are praised for their efforts. If they start doing more and more of the class at the side of the room, see if you can get them involved in at least one or two of the class activities. The easiest of these during a FUNdamental Movement Skills game.
- Ask the parents of a new starter to arrive 5 minutes before the session starts. You don’t want them too early as anxious children will fill this space with negative thoughts. You don’t want them turning up late as they will often feel more conspicuous joining a class that has already started.
- Connect with the student before the class starts and make sure you are on first name terms. Ask them a few general questions and make sure you listen to the answers.
- Bring them into the class when the other children enter the room and start the class straight away.
- If they won’t join in the main class, get them doing a little from the side-lines.
- Make sure the class you have planned is not too challenging for them and differentiate where necessary.
- Give praise for effort and keep your interactions personal and upbeat.
- For the children that don’t join in, reassure the parent that this happens with around 10% of new starters of this age and ask them to come back and try again the following week. I have had some students attend 3-4 classes in the past before we have managed to get them in for a full class.
You can follow all the points above and sometimes still not be able to convince the new student to take part. This is sometimes down to the parent wanting the child to train more than the actual child. Other times it is the fact that the child is just not ready for this kind of class activity. That’s fine too. Just ask the parent to bring the child back in 3-6 months and don’t forget to reiterate the benefits to the child when do you eventually get them on your programme.