Kids martial arts class

25 ideas to help reduce excessive chattiness without impacting autonomy and motivation

You stop the class and start describing the next activity but there are a few children that continue talking. You know the ones, the usual suspects that find it almost impossible to keep their mouths closed. Although you probably would not call their behaviour naughty, it can still be immensely frustrating.  This problem is of course not unique to coaching children in martial arts classes and school teachers experience this problem more frequently than anyone else.

It’s can be really frustrating when you have gone to the trouble of planning a great class only for a few to make it challenging to deliver effectively. Rather than seeing this as a problem that you are helpless to solve (because it’s the fault of the students), see the situation as a challenge for which the students are the petri dish for your social experiment. If you state on your marketing blurb that you help students develop self-control or self-discipline, here is your opportunity to help them.

There is evidence to suggest that the use of electronic devices could be at least partly to blame for poor attention control. One study found that addictive behavior from the overuse of digital devices can lead to structural changes in the brains of teenagers that can lead to changes in cognitive control and emotional regulation. Upon closer examination, the issues may not be reserved for just teenagers and a meta-analysis of 87 studies studying children under 12 years old found that greater duration of screen time was significantly correlated with behavioral problems.

Although talking in class when the coach is trying to describe the next activity seems like something quite minor, there is research to suggest that low-level behaviours like these cause school teachers more stress than more significant behavioural problems. I guess the biggest thing we have in our favour over schools is that children don’t have to attend our classes. In most cases, children actually want to train in our martial arts sessions. That said, when this does occur on a regular basis, it can lower your motivation for coaching……..especially for specific classes.

Here are 25 tips to help you deal with excessive chattiness in your kid’s martial arts classes. I have pulled the tips together from 15 years of teaching children and a little research specifically for this article. Most ideas I have tried before and just to be transparent, I feel I still need to work on setting expectations and asking more questions.

1. Try not to go straight for the stick/(insert your favourite punishment)

When the children are not listening and you are fed up of repeatedly explaining the next activity, it’s very tempting to hit them with 20 burpees or a 5 minute exclusion but this rarely does this improve their self-regulation. If you want to help your students build more self-control, rather than punishing them, engineer an environment to helps them make the right decision. This can sometimes be as simple as removing distractions, changing your coaching position or asking for solutions rather than giving them the answers.

Martial arts kids planking

2. Plan your session with engagement in mind

Ask yourself ‘Is there any tweaks I can make in my session plans to add an element of challenge or fun?’. If you don’t currently plan your kid’s martial arts classes, I suggest you give it a go. Including simple FUNdamental Movement Skills (FMS) based games can not only help build their perceptual motor skills but also help them regain focus after technical sections. Never forget that the number one reason children drop out of martial arts training is because ‘It just wasn’t fun anymore’.

3. Use differentiation to set the challenge point in the goldilocks zone for each child

If students find an activity too hard or two easy, they are more likely to disengage and find something else to do with their time, like chat to their partner. You can’t hit the Goldilocks zone for everyone in your class in one go but you can walk around and differentiate for individual students. Some children will need the activity progressing to make it more interesting while other may need it regressing to make a little more accessible.  

4. Connect with each student every class

I find it really challenging to remember everyone’s name in classes so I make occasional visits back to the iPad with the register on so I can refresh my mind. Some wear t-shirts with their name on their back (which is really helpful) but for the others, I try to use their name several times a session. Each time I have to recall a name it helps me remember it again in the future. If you regularly use sarcasm, talk down to them or make them feel stupid, don’t be surprised when they don’t value what you say.

5. Stay calm when dealing with the chatterboxes

Often the children don’t notice that everyone else has stopped talking. They are so engrossed in conversation that they are unaware of what is happening around them. While I know this can be pretty annoying for instructors, don’t forget that you are modeling the response you want the students to have in a similar situation. If you are promoting self-control but you then fly off the handle when a student is talking, don’t be surprised when students copy what you do rather than what you say.

6. Keep it positive

If I start a conversation with you by suggesting your coaching is poor, most instructors would be closed off to further feedback and interaction. Don’t lie to the students when giving feedback but try to keep it positive. Rather than ‘telling’ all the time, try asking more. An example of this in action would be, rather than saying ‘I don’t know what that was but it wasn’t a front kick’, get down on their eye line, smile and say ‘Jonny, when we do a front kick, which way do we point the knee before we kick?’. If you want to learn more about delivering quality feedback, take a look at a previous article I wrote on coaching with CARE.

7. Set expectations

Not talking throughout the whole class is not only unrealistic but could also be detrimental to the children’s social development too. Be really clear about what you want to happen and why. You will get more ‘buy-in’ from students if they understand the purpose behind the ‘no talking amongst yourselves’ periods.

8. Practice the process you want them to follow

Self-control is a skill that needs development time just like other skills the children will learn in martial arts classes. When you first start implementing changes to your coaching environment, you will need to practice your routine a few times before it has the impact you would like. When you plan your sessions, include prompts to help you remember the routine you want to follow when speaking to groups of students. I find that making little acronym’s can help when session planning.

9. Ask them what they think they could do to help them self regulate

Each child is different, hence, so are their wants and needs. Asking them before or after class what they think they could do help prevent themselves from talking excessively while you are trying to run the class may give you a one or two lines of enquiry to follow up on. You may even be surprised when without prompting, they suggest something from this list. Involving the chatty students in the identification of solutions will have a higher chance of succeeding in the long run but just like the solutions in this list, they will take practice before they become habitual.

10. Have a conversation about the effects of excessive chatting

American psychiatrist and best-selling author, Morgan Scott Peck said ‘You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time’. This may sound obvious but just like older humans, children often do things that feel right in the moment without necessarily considering the impact it will have their future self, or others in the room. Ask the children ‘What do you think are the possible side effects of people talking while the coach is describing the next activity or giving feedback?’. This should start a brief but important conversation about the consequences of actions.

"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." quote

11. Reduce non productive downtime

If you have long queues of children waiting to ‘have their turn’ or you spend 10 minutes talking about the time you……(fill in the blank), you are not only reducing the befit of training, but the children usually find a way to fill that dead time. Often, they will use this time to chat to their friends. While this may not be a problem in every instance, it can have a negative impact on the learning environment you provide. If you want to read a little more about how to reduce queuing in your classes, check out the free article I wrote on ‘Queue busters’.

12. Pre plan ‘Connection time’

We usually have drink breaks in our kid’s classes, not because they need rehydrating, but more to give the children an opportunity to chat with their friends. Social interaction may not be the main reason that children start a physical activity but often it is one of the most important elements for them to continue to take part. While I am writing this article to hopefully help reduce chatting when it impacts the delivery of the class, I want to acknowledge the importance of social time somewhere in your classes.

13. Keep your instructions to the minimum required to get the job done

Try to keep your instructions to a minimum. In most cases, keeping this to under 30 seconds works well. Tell them the objective of the drill and a maximum of 3 short coaching points. Activities that involve peer discussion, may take longer. Managing these exchanges will take practice before you have a good balance between letting anyone contribute and spending too much time inactive.

14. Be consistent

Whatever plan or process you come up with, stick to it for at least a few weeks before judging if it’s making a difference or not. By all means collect feedback from students but don’t necessarily act on it in the same practice. If you change the way you operate your classes every session, it will not only be confusing for the students but it will also prevent you from getting in the reps you need to know that it works (or doesn’t).

15. Change does not usually happen on your first attempt

Developing your coaching practice in an infinite game. You don’t get up one day and think ‘The students listened really well in that session, I never have to change the format of my classes or my coaching again’. Like most other activities in coaching, maintaining a positive coaching environment is an ongoing process. You may think you have fixed the chatty problem in one session only to find it has popped up in a session you never expected. We need to look at each problem in context and just keep planning, doing, reflecting and researching to work through issues to create the best learning environment we can.

16. Include more physical based training within the sessions

Including too much technical content in your classes can be mentally fatiguing for the children. How do you know when the kids have had too much technical content? The chatting will start. If you can intersperse your technical content with quick physical elements, it will be much easier to keep the children on task and reduce the amount of time they spend chatting.

17. Ask more open questions that require a little thinking

Open questions can be included in your sessions plans or you can make them up during the class. Open questions along the lines of ‘What other technique would work well here’ or ‘What do you think are the disadvantages of using that combination’? Ask multiple students to give answers so they are not all coming from the same people. Using open questions in this way will help you to promote autonomy in your students while also increasing engagement.

18. Don't forget the praise

On the odd occasion they all manage to stop and listen promptly when you ask, feel free to let them know that you appreciate their responsiveness. You often get more of what you draw attention to and highlighting and celebrate positive behaviour can help improve the flow of your classes in future. Giving a little praise can also help build a growth mindset in your young students.

Growth mindset image

19. Help them understand that talking is an important part of communicating but so is listening and body language too

Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. We want our students to be effective communicators but for this to happen, the children need to understand the importance of listening as well as speaking. Communication is a two-way process and as well as speaking and listening, nonverbal methods such as body language also play a part. Ask the students what their actions and body language say to the coach when they are chatting while the coach is trying to pass on knowledge.

20. Be mindful that some children have ADHD (diagnosed or not) and they will find it much harder than others to zip it

If you have children in your session that have additional needs, they may find it really hard to not only stay still on task but to stop themselves talking over others (including you). The two main symptoms of ADHD are inattentiveness (difficulty concentrating and focusing) and hyperactivity and impulsiveness. The difficulty in focusing and controlling their impulsiveness can be almost impossible for some kids to control. As ADHD affects around at least 3-5% of children here in the UK and around 10% in America , it is something we need to be mindful of when interacting with the children in our classes.  

21. Shuffle partners

While it’s not motivating to micromanage your students, if find some tend to bounce off each other (not in a good way) when they get together, ask the whole class to change partners while also stating that they can’t have the same partner twice. Not only does this reduce time with a single partner, but it also nudges your members to interact with others and potentially make new friends.

22. Do not start giving instructions for next activity until you have everyone’s attention

Two students continue their conversation at the back of your class after you have requested their attention. You continue speaking in the hope that at some point they will stop and listen. What actually happens is that in not addressing the talking, you condone it. Then, others start chatting too. You stop talking and invite everyone to get started. The ones talking then disrupt everyone around them asking what they are supposed to be doing. TIP: for the ‘wait for ALL talking to stop’ strategy to work well, your proximity to your members matters.

23. Count down the number of people are waiting for

This is a technique that I have not used before as it feels a little direct for me but it may work well for others. Rather than naming students to prompt them to stop talking, you say ‘Just waiting for 2 people’, and then wait until they stop talking. If more are talking you can count down as they stop. ‘Just waiting for 4 people’……..’Just waiting for 2 people’.

24. Exercise your anchor

An attention anchor combines a trigger (from you) and response (from the students) to get their attention. Some of our coaches count down from 10 while others like an old school whistle. I know quite a few coaches that use a clap trigger the class then responds to by copying or replying with a different clap sequence. Personally, I use different anchors for different classes. In a small and medium sized class I often don’t need an anchor at all. In busier classes though I tend to pull all the students in so they are closer to me. I then combine this close proximity with the ‘wait for ALL talking to stop’ strategy. If there is pair or group in particular that are repeat offenders, I will stand next to them before asking the rest of the class to come in. This stops them hiding at the back of the group and puts them in close proximity to me.

25. Encourage Active Listening

Active listening is the ability to give the speaker your undivided attention, understand what they’re saying, respond and reflect on what’s being said, and retain the information long enough to put it into practice. It’s not only important that the listener understands what is being said but it’s just as important that speaker feels like they have been heard.

This is a valuable skill for your students to have and it’s well worth reviewing these points on a regular basis. Even better, include Active Listening in you social skills syllabus.


Martial arts children demonstrating active listening


Don’t forget the objective is not to try and control the students but for them to control themselves. If we want them to continue with a preferred behaviour long term, we need them to buy in to the purpose behind it. If we get them to a stage that they repeat the behaviour multiple times over the following weeks and months, it will become a habit. This is our end goal when looking at long term behaviour change.

If you have been using any of these already, please add a comment below describing how effective they have been and if you used them on their own, or in combination with another. If you have any more to add to the list, drop them in the comments section below.

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