As a parent you’ve heard that martial arts classes can be a very positive influence on your kids. But for parents who are new to the industry it can be very confusing.
What are the differences? Is One style better?
If my kid is impulsive or quick-tempered will martial arts help or hurt?
Will martial arts make my child more violent or angry?
So my goal with this post is simple. To walk you through the 7 Key Steps on How to Choose a Martial Arts School For Your Child.
Since my day job is Academy Director for Life Ki-do Martial Arts, one of the larger schools in the US with upwards of 500 students between 2 locations, I can speak with some authority on this subject.
I mentioned confusion above. For instance:
- What’s the difference between karate, kung fu, jiu-jitsu and all the many other styles?
- What age is best to start martial arts classes?
- Are martial arts classes are good for girls & what style is best for girls?
Beyond that, since most larger cities have dozens, if not hundreds of schools
How to choose a martial arts school
For starters, we need to understand that all martial arts classes will claim to instill some, if not all, of the following in your child:
- Self-Defense skills
- Core Strength
So take those things off the table for a moment.
How can you determine great martial arts classes from bad ones? Or (most likely) mediocre ones? What if what you find doesn’t align with your vision or parenting style? So before we get into how to choose a martial arts school, we need to look at our motivation.
What is the ultimate goal you have for your child?
To define our goals, we need to not only look at your child’s goals, but also your own as they may be different.
For your child, their age will be a big factor in what their motivation is.
They envision themselves spinning nunchuks,breaking boards or punching and kicking and simply think that would be awesome
In reality, to get good at spinning nunchuks (nunchaku in Japanese) or punching, kicking, rolling, etc, it can take years of practice to become really good.
The gimmicks some schools use to keep kids hooked
Some younger kids will lose interest when they don’t feel that instant gratification of not being able to do amazing moves 3 lessons in.
When they somehow don’t magically transform into Jackie Chan in a matter of weeks or months they will give up. Most schools combat this with a colored belt system & stripes on belts. Or maybe patches, board breaking, competitions/tournaments, medals, etc.
These and other things, which could be viewed as gimmicks, are designed to try and maintain interest.
Now, I’m not knocking those things per say; my school does many of those things too. However, we try and downplay those things as we believe they are all secondary to doing what we refer to as “living from your inner strength”.
By that I mean that a feeling of calm, well being and confidence trumps belt color any day of the week.
Does Chuck Norris need to walk down the street telling everyone he’s a black belt or does he just show that by his calm, steady and mindful presence?
— Timmy Facts (@timmyfacts) August 8, 2017
So when learning how to choose a martial arts school, look at the quality of the instruction more than the bells and whistles used to hold the kid’s attention.
Desperate parents sometimes look to martial arts for help with their kids
Parents often sign their kids up for karate because of behavioral issues at home or school. Maybe a recent divorce has caused their once perfect child to start acting out.
Or perhaps the kids are getting picked on or bullied (or are doing the bullying).
If you are looking for some tools to help your child develop self-regulation, you might take a moment and check out one of my most popular posts called Social Emotional Learning Games.
Social emotional learning, often called SEL, is a style of learning that helps kids learn to better regulate their emotions and reactions to the world around them.
Some parents are battling their own fears and insecurities. They may sign their kids up based on their own perceived dangers in the world.
Yet other parents, often the more macho dads, want their kids to “learn how to fight” as they see that as a sign of strength. In reality, in my humble opinion, the strongest of us rarely, if ever, actually have to resort to violence in order to achieve our goals.
So it’s important to not have your own insecurities be the driver in learning how to choose a martial arts school for your child.
The danger when your goals and your child’s goals don’t line up
It’s important to realize that if your goals are not aligned at least a little with your child’s goals, the child isn’t likely to stay enrolled beyond 6 months. It can also often become a battle to get them in uniform, through the door and on the mats.
I also think it’s important for us as parents to be aware of our own insecurities and not make decisions for our kids based on those.
Now, I’m not talking about eating broccoli or looking both ways before they cross the road.
There’s a keen difference in having your kids learn safe and healthy habits and pushing them into an extra-curricular activity that doesn’t interest them.
As a parent and someone who works with kids, I can tell you that much of a child’s life is completely out of their control. So when you can, allow them to make choices for themselves. Let them have a say in their life. That will build calm and peace in them and strengthen the bond between the two of you.
Kids feel powerless in much of their lives.
Empowering them, when and where it makes sense, builds confidence. Having said all of that, it’s also not uncommon, particularly in the 6-9 age range, for kids to take a break but later come back to martial arts.
So let your child decide whether joining a martial arts school is right for them
— GbrilliantQ™ (@GbrilliantQ) August 8, 2017
Let’s say, however, you have a child that starts lots of things but quits all of them a very short time in.
This is behavior that won’t serve them well as an adult and now is the time to curb this behavior. You don’t, however, curb it by forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. That will become stressful and tiresome for both of you.
In this case I suggest letting them know that they have to pick at least 1 after-school activity and they have to give it at least 6 months to determine if it’s right for them. But let them pick from a list of activities that the two of you compile.
With any after-school activity, I also suggest trying it out before you and they commit, but once they have tried it and committed to it, then they stick to their agreement.
You in turn, hold up your end of the agreement by allowing them to move to another activity in 6 months if their interest wanes.
Giving kids the freedom of choice, when and where it makes sense, is a great way to help them feel in control of their life. That, in turn, will make for a more harmonious life for all of you.
What is the best age to start martial arts?
At our school we take kids as young as 3, but only in a class they do with a parent or other adult of the family’s choosing. It’s a great, light-hearted & bonding time.
It’s also a great introduction to martial arts in a very non-threatening environment. And one where likelihood of injury is very minimal.
Bear in mind that with a small percentage of exceptions, most kids ages 3-5 aren’t likely to stick with any after-school activity for more than 8 months to 1 year.
They are heavily influenced by their friends and older siblings and it’s not uncommon for kids to jump from one activity to another. Eventually they’ll find something that resonates with them.
It’s also not uncommon for kids to quit for a while but eventually come back to martial arts classes.
But ANY age is a great time to introduce your kids to martial arts and ages 7-10 is often when it will really stick with them.
So, back to how to choose a martial arts school?
I would start by doing the following things:
- Google martial arts classes (to see who’s in your area)
- Cross reference those martial arts schools with Yelp and/or Facebook reviews (eliminate anyone under 4 stars)
- Read the reviews of the keepers (to see what people like about the school and see if that seems to fit with your and your child’s goals and vision)
- Go to the websites (for the martial arts school or schools you find that you like)
- Get a feel for what each school is like (by reading about their curriculum, testimonials and verify their class schedule (and fees if they show them) work for you)
- See if they offer a free trial class (or inexpensive trial period with no ongoing commitment)
Once you’ve done that you should have narrowed down the martial arts school choices by 50% or more.
At this point we need to get a little more personal. If you have friends involved in martial arts you’ll want to get their opinions.
You might ask parents or the PTA at your kid’s school if they have recommendations on a martial arts school. If your child attends therapy or physical therapy, those are great resources as well. How to choose a martial arts school for your child is best done with a support network you trust!
— Blackbelt Leaders (@BBLwarriors) November 22, 2016
What Makes a Great Martial Arts School?
As with any type of school, it’s all about the people; the instructors. The style of martial arts really isn’t that important and since most will claim their style is the best, it becomes a mute point.
Sure there are definite differences in martial arts styles. You can definitely tailor the school you pick and martial arts style they practice to your child’s goals.
That macho dad I mentioned above would most certainly end up at an MMA Gym (Mixed Martial Arts as is practiced in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Whereas a Montessori mom might go more for Tai Chi (Thai-chee) or Qigong (chee-gong).
But when learning how to choose a martial arts school, most parents will end up between those 2 extremes.
What is the best martial art for a child to learn?
Taekwondo teaches discipline, respect & how to hold yourself with pride. Adults & kid’s classes at Riverwood’s YMCA. pic.twitter.com/Pd7OD98Xom
— Riverwood VT (@RiverwoodVT) August 6, 2013
These are just a few of the more well known styles of martial arts.
And as I said above, I don’t want you focused on which style is best. The instructors and the quality of instruction will have a much larger difference in the life of your child than the style they practice. The people are the most important component of how to choose a martial arts school.
- Karate – From Japan (but inspired by China). Probably the most well known martial art. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of styles of karate ranging from Gōjū-ryu, Shotokan and many others). This art features a lot of kicking, punching, blocking and kata, which is a choreographed fighting form that is almost like a solo dance routine.
- Kung Fu – From China and similar to Karate. Bruce Li’s style, based on Wing Chun and referred to as Jeet Kune Do is considered a style of Kung Fu.
- Taekwondo – From Korea. Features an emphasis on kicking and is one of the only styles included in the Olympics.
- Jiu-jitsu– Based on Judo from Japan but brought to Brazil and popularized by the Gracie family, this features primarily ground movement much of which has roots in wrestling. One of the key concepts of this is the art is that a smaller, less muscular person can compete against a larger more muscular opponent by using these techniques.
Important considerations for your child:
- Does your child like to wrestle? If so, jiu-jitsu, sometimes call Brazilian Jiu-jitso or BJJ, is a great way to go. Sometimes kids, especially teenage girls, may not want to be wrestling boys, so take that into consideration too.
- Is your child good at remembering choreographed movements? If so, traditional Japanese katas are a large component of most styles of Karate. For me personally, I’m not great with those and much prefer the more free-form style of Systema.
- Does your child prefer kicking over other movements? If so, taekwondo might be a better approach as kicks factor heavily in their curriculum.
Of course there are dozens, if not hundreds of other styles. The purpose of this blog is not to write the history of martial arts and honestly that’s beyond my qualifications anyway.
I’m here to help parents on how to choose a martial arts school, and that’s something I do have a little experience in.
While not a significantly well-known style, as I mentioned above, I personally love the Russian Martial Art of Systema and if you have a Systema school in your area that teaches kids, they would be well worth exploring.
Systema takes the opposite approach of many schools; usually no belt system, no memorizing movements and students wear street clothes. It also focuses heavily on the breath and using the breath to regulate the body’s nervous system; especially in response to stress and tension. It’s fluid approach is also much healthier on our joints over time.
What is the best martial arts for girls?
Many parents are confused by whether martial arts is even for girls. Or if some styles of martial arts are better for girls than others.
In truth, ANY style of martial arts classes can be great for your daughter as long as you’re analyzing the classes in the ways I outline in this post.
Both of my daughters, as pictured in this post, have trained for a few years.
Martial arts classes might even be MORE important for girls than boys. Young women often face self-esteem and self-image issues. While young men can certainly have these too, it’s a lot more common with girls.
If you need help boosting self-esteem in your child, I highly recommend you take a moment and check out one of my most shared posts called 9 Amazing Self-Esteem Building Exercises for Your Kids.
So martial arts are definitely for girls.
And there isn’t one style that’s better than another. If your daughter isn’t sure, have her try several styles. They will all likely be very different and it could take time to find one that rings true with her.
The follow video from our school, Life Ki-do Martial Arts, gives you a glimpse into our philosophy and approach.
If you like what you see it can be a great starting point on how to choose a martial arts school for your child.
Now you’re ready to dive deep on how to choose a martial arts school!
- Do the work.
- Talk to friends and connections at school.
- Maybe even decide on a style of martial arts that resonates with you and your child.
NOW you need to talk to the instructors at the martial arts school or schools you’ve selected.
As I mentioned above, these are the people who make or break a school. And if you are entrusting your child to them, you need to meet them, talk to them and see how they teach a class.
Make no mistake; there’s no way to determine how to choose a martial arts school for your child until they actually take a class. However, the steps you take to find martial arts classes for your child are crucial!
Start by calling the martial arts school and asking some questions.
- How many instructors are there per class and what is the class size limit?
- Look for a class size ratio of students to instructors of about 8 to 1
- Some schools may have small classes and small rooms and others may have larger rooms with a lot of students and multiple instructors. So focus more on the ratio of students to instructors than actual head count
- Are all the primary instructors over 18?
- It’s not uncommon for schools to use students as instructors once they have a high belt level.
- Our school does have student leaders who can participate in class, but it’s almost always in conjunction with 2 and often 3 adult instructors
- Can parents watch the class?
- This is especially crucial for your child’s trial classes so you can gauge whether the school is a good fit. If they say you can’t stay, at least initially, keep looking
- You want to observe how they talk to the kids. Do they shame them? Embarrass them? Being strict and instilling discipline is one thing, but bullying kids is quite another
- Look for teachers who genuinely want to help these kids improve their lives. Someone who nurtures them and accepts them for where they are at. But a teacher who will also hold them accountable and challenge them appropriately
- Do you have to sign a contract?
- Contracts are (hopefully) becoming a thing of the past. Many of the more reputable schools (such as ours) simply bill month to month
- Especially for younger kids who may not stay beyond 6 months, you don’t want to get locked in for a long period of time
- Offering a discount for prepaying is fine, but I would stay away from long term agreements
- If you do have to sign a contact, what is the cancellation policy?
- If they lock you in but you can get out by paying a 30 day notice or something similar that’s fine. But if you have to pay the entire contract or some exorbitant amount if your kid loses interest, I would walk away
- Are there extra charges, hidden fees or other expenses beyond registration and tuition?
- It’s not uncommon for schools to charge for belt testing (although our school does not) or upsell programs often called Black Belt Clubs or maybe weapons classes
- I don’t have an issue with these per say but before you sign up you should be aware and the school should be transparent about it and not bait your kids in front of you
- If the school does sparring, it is also good to ask when they would need gear, how much the gear costs and if you have to buy it from them; you don’t want to spend $200 on gear only to have your kid lose interest a month later. In our school we encourage students to wait at least 6 months before purchasing gear and even then only if they are in 2nd grade or above
- Ask the instructor to explain their teaching style and ask them what they love about teaching kids
- These questions are designed to get them talking so you can hear what they are passionate about. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some great teachers who don’t have the gift of gab. So if they don’t have a lot to say, that’s not necessarily a red flag, but if they do like to talk this is a great way to get a feel for their personality
- How long does it take to earn a black belt in their martial arts school?
- Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want you or your child to focus excessively on belts, but some schools offer a black belt in as little as 2 years and if that’s the case, run; don’t walk, to the nearest exit
- Getting a black belt in just a couple of years will likely be VERY enticing to your child. However, it will mean a whole lot more if they truly earn it. To truly earn a black belt, in my opinion, should take a minimum of 6 years. And in many schools and arts, it can take up to 10 or longer
- A black belt in 2 years is a gimmick to attract kids. There is just no way to condition, coordinate and train your body and mind to that level in that short a period of time unless you’re training 5 days a week for hours a day. Even then you won’t get the benefit that comes from years of training, working with others, failing and learning from those mistakes.
- Schools that offer a black belt in a short period of time aren’t looking to develop amazing kids; they are looking to make money by keeping kid’s interest longer than they might otherwise. I’m not saying they won’t come away with some skill. But it’s the equivalent of handing a 10 year old a high school diploma
The answers to these questions should narrow your how to choose a martial arts school list down further.
Now you should have 1-3 schools you actually want to go to. At this point, it’s time to go and try a class or sign up for a trial program and physically test the waters.
You know how to choose a martial arts school, so let’s get to it!
So let’s wrap this up and review my . . .
7 Key Steps on How to Choose a Martial Arts School For Your Child
- Understand your goals for getting your kids into martial arts
- See how your goals and your child’s goals align and differ
- Use Google and Yelp to locate well rated schools in your area
- Get additional recommendations from friends, schools and therapists
- Check them out online and get a feel for their style, schedule and fees
- Call and talk to them and get to know their personality and approach
- Go in and physically try a class (ideally a free trial class or no strings trial promo)
Need more? My Ultimate Cheat Sheet on how to choose a martial arts school for your child gives you all the basic steps and questions in a quick-start format AND includes a lot of extras not covered in my post. Get it instantly for free!
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Photo credits (that aren’t mine or which require attribution):
Kid’s Karate by Diego Achío is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I Am *THE* Fat Panda! by Gopal Vijayaraghavan is licensed under CC BY 2.0
MLK by KellyB. is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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