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A Deep Dive Into Teaching 3 to 6-Year Olds Martial Arts

melody shuman Dec 14, 2018

A poll was created in the Century Martial Arts School Network about teaching 3 to 6-year olds martial arts. Here are my reactions to that poll and some pointers for making your early age program better.

By Melody Shuman 


Something interesting happened last week.

Something that if you weren’t on Facebook, could have got lost in social media’s short lifecycle…

A poll was created in the Century Martial Arts School Network.

In the poll, Danielle Rogers (who deserves all the credit for starting this conversation and to a lesser extent, giving me a spark to write this post) asked a simple question:


The question was:

“Do you have a program in your school for 3-6 year olds? Tell us why or why not.”

Now, if you go to the poll (which you can here if you're a member of the group) you can see gobs of people offering up their opinions on the early age class conundrum…

You can see people stating their cases for and against teaching this age group in their school...

But, it’s fascinating to see both sides of the coin.

To see the responses why people choose to teach the young ones. To see the reasons why people choose not to bother with it altogether.

And that’s why, in today’s blog, I decided to take a deep dive into this poll.

To discuss the 6 biggest benefits behind having an early age program…

To explore 3 common objections for why instructors choose not to teach this young…

And to give you 4 solutions that will make teaching this age group so much easier.

My goal at the end of this is to show you how valuable this age group can be for your school and, if you are struggling with this demographic, to give you some pointers on how to have better success on the mat with these tiny tykes.

So with all that said, let’s get started.


The 6 Biggest Benefits of Having a 3-6 Year Olds Program

Before we explore the reasons why some school owners choose not to have an early age program, it’s important to list out the benefits of teaching this age group.

This helps you gather all the information if you’re thinking about starting a program or revamping it if you decided to stop teaching this age group a while ago.

Keep in mind, there are numerous benefits for the children and the parents of children when children learn martial arts at this age, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to stick with the business benefits.

So here they are:


  1. It opens up a huge, new market for new students

This one is important. If you don’t have an early age program in place, you’re missing out on a huge market for enrolling new students. A lot of sports or other activities don’t offer programs to children this young so having a program in place for 3 to 6-year olds really shows that you’re invested in the little ones. You can show immense value to parents who are trying to get their children involved in a social setting at a young age. This is a big reason to start an early age program.

  1. It unlocks a new revenue stream for your business

Just from a financial perspective — if you have an early age program in your school, you’re going to do much better revenue-wise than you would without it. It’s another demographic you can serve to fuel your bottom line. Add in the fact that there aren’t a ton of options for children this age and you would be missing out on a giant income source if you didn’t provide it in your school.

  1. Your retention will skyrocket

Just look at the poll, this is a fact. If you can sign kids up to your early age program and you can provide them with a memorable experience, they will stay with you longer. Parents are very involved with their children at this age so if you can give their kids a consistently good experience, teach them some basic martial arts and develop them as human beings, parents will take note and they will stay with you much longer.

That’s a huge benefit but that’s not all parents will do… (see #4)

  1. Your referrals will increase

Parents like to talk about their kids A LOT when they are this age…and for good reason, these are the few years where parents get to see their kids grow and develop and come into their own as a person. So if you can provide their child with a fun, memorable experience, they will talk about you. The parents will talk to their friends, family and coworkers about the amazing experience Johnny had at his first karate class. This can pay endless dividends for you down the road.

  1. Younger siblings can get involved

Many times when you have elementary-aged students training in your martial arts school, they have younger siblings in their family. This can be a great way to get more kids on floor and in to your program. It also helps retention too — as the age-old saying goes, “families that kick together, stick together.”

  1. It helps the culture of your school

Granted this one is a little bit nebulous, but I believe a children’s program can improve the culture in your school. There’s something about seeing a little one start his or her journey in martial arts that just puts a smile on your face. Parents always respond joyfully to watching the kids train, even if it’s not their child, and it’s a good way to show your vested in teaching students from the very, very beginning to black belt and beyond.


3 Objections For Why Some Instructors Choose Not To Teach This Age Group

If you look at the poll, the majority of instructors that responded said they do have a program in place for 3-6 year olds in their school. This is great!

However, I also saw some objections sprinkled in there. This is completely fair and if you choose not to have an early age program, that’s fine. It’s your choice.

However, I wanted to try and dispel a few of these objections because I’ve heard them many times and I don’t want anyone to miss out on all of the benefits associated with having an early age kids program.

So here are the 3 main objections that I saw:


  1. “I Don’t Want to Babysit”

There is some truth to this but it’s not the complete truth. Yes, you will need to practice patience if you are teaching small children. Yes, you will need to teach more basic human development with this age group. And yes, you might need to be more lenient when it comes to perfect martial arts form. But this age group is worth it (see above). It might seem like work but there are many ways to make it easier if you understand the little ones better (we’ll discuss this more in detail later).

  1. “It’s Just Not For Me. It Doesn’t Fit My Personality.”

Certain types of people have a harder time teaching children than others. That’s just a fact. Maybe you’re introverted, maybe you’re shy, maybe it’s just exhausting mentally — either way, I understand there’s a human element to teaching small children. But there's just so many benefits to having this program.

Do you know someone that loves working with kids? Maybe they can help you out. It doesn’t have to be a black belt instructor with decades of experience (I built the PreSKILLZ program for this very reason).

More often than not, the best instructors for this age group are a volunteer parent or even an older, higher-level student. At this age, the majority of kids don’t have the fine motor functions anyway. So it’s a lot more about developing them as people rather than expert martial artists.

  1. “The Children Just Can’t Grasp The Techniques. They’re too young.”

Just as I said in the last reason — at this age, a lot of 3 to 6-year olds are just not developed enough for the majority of martial arts techniques. I can’t express this enough, if 80 – 90% of your class for this age group is martial arts, you are probably missing the mark. Unless you have anomalies in your class, the majority of 3 to 6-year olds are just not equipped physically and intellectually for most martial arts techniques. We will talk about this more in the next section.



4 Solutions That Will Make Teaching Your Early Age Classes So Much Easier

So we’ve highlighted the benefits. We’ve listed out the objections. Now, how do we improve our early age programs?

Here are some tips:

  1. Give your drills a goal.

Children learn best through play. You learn this very quickly when teaching this age group. However, if your play doesn’t have a specific goal or teach a lesson at the end, this is where it starts to feel like babysitting (See objection #1).

Except for the end of class game, your drills should look like games but have specific growth-minded goals to them like coordination or teamwork. To accomplish this, have skill-specific lessons for each class and then use your drills as the vehicle to teach those lessons.

For example: A drill where the student is hitting a pad out of the instructor’s hands while hitting a target is a play-based game that teaches the students how to “focus with their eyes.” Parents want their kids to look at them when they are talking, so use this drill as a vehicle to teach that “focus” lesson.


  1. Ease up on your curriculum.

As much as we want our students to perform at a high standard, it is not effective to teach curriculum that is above their stage of development. Some people make the mistake of assuming all students are created equal, and if one anomaly can do it, the rest of the class can too. This will discourage both your students and parents and hurt your retention. To prevent this from happening, take the time to study the physical and intellectual stage of this age group and make sure you’re not making things too difficult.

For example: Most children this age cannot perform a decent push-up, but this is one of the most common exercises done in early age classes. As parents watch their child attempt a push-up with lack of proper mechanics, they get embarrassed, and this ultimately can lead to them being discouraged and pulling their child out of class. Instead of doing push-ups, use shoulder taps to help the students build the upper body muscles.


  1. Build consistency into your lesson plans.

Children need systematic variety. This means that there is structure they can expect while also having enough variety to limit boredom. Without structure they are accustom to, they lose focus on the core lesson because they cannot anticipate what happens next. At the same time, if they know what’s coming next, then they are less distracted by the unknown and more focused on the task at hand. That’s why consistency is so important.

For example: Create a class planner format that is consistent.  The structure I use goes like this:

  1. A Warm-up
  2. A Mat Chat (explaining the lesson of the day and lesson for the next two drills)
  3. 2 Skill-based learning drills
  4. 3 Systematically-rotated martial arts-based drills
  5. And an end-of-class fun game

Here is a class plan we used for the first and second week of the PreSKILLZ program.

You see that the content within the format rotates for variety, but the format itself doesn’t change. This helps the students know what is coming, but keeps them excited for what’s coming next.


  1. Learn about the social and emotional needs of this age group

Children this age are still going through adolescent brain development. The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for rationality and decision-making, is not fully developed.

This means they will express more anxiety and behavioral issues than older children. This can be frustrating for both the students and instructors. To limit challenges associated with this topic, it helps to understand not just what to teach them, but also how to teach them.

For example: Children this age tend to wiggle when they are excited. The rational part of the brain that understands why they should sit or stand still isn’t developed, so they don’t have the self-control to limit their excitement.

Instructors who understand this are less frustrated and tend to deploy positive strategies to help foster better behavior, such as a healthy competition of seeing which student can sit or stand the best versus threats such as time-out punishments.


In conclusion, this age group might seem like a simple age group to work with because they are so young, but that makes teaching them even more complex. There’s a lot to factor in when it comes to meeting their physical, intellectual, emotional, and social needs. With that said, if you put in the time to understand their stage of development and meet them where they are, you will experience a huge success in this lucrative niche market.

If you want to learn more about teaching 3 to 6-year olds, feel free to join me in the Century Martial Arts Preschool Network. I’m always answering questions in there and responding to comments.

I also have 7 Steps to Teaching a Drill downloadable that is free for you. It's a training manual that will help you get all your staff on the same page when it comes to teaching 3 to 6-year olds. Students love the method and parents love it too. You can download it here.

Good luck!

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