Last week I took the night off from teaching and went to watch my 4 year old daughter at swim class. I rarely get to see Olivia swim because it conflicts with my teaching schedule, so I was excited to see her progress.
While we are waiting for the private lesson before us to finish up, I’m sitting there watching a young female instructor teaching her student. The little swimmer must have been 3 or 4 years old and had all but one task to complete – to jump into the pool unaided and “swim” to her instructor.
“Ok, Rachel jump to me”, says Sally and outstretches her arms so little Rachel has something to aim at.
Little Rachel stands on the edge of the pool, knees bent with her arms outstretched…
“Ok, Rachel. Jump!”, repeats Sally.
Rachel doesn’t move.
“C’mon Rachel, jump!”
Rachel reaches a little farther wanting Sally to take her hands and help her jump, but Sally won’t do that because that’s not what the kid is supposed to do.
Sally holds her arms out a little closer almost to the point where they can touch each other and repeats her command.
Rachel starts whimpering.
Sally gets frustrated.
“Jump!”, she says more sternly.
“JUMP! NOW! RACHEL! JUMP!”
At this point I think Rachel’s feet took root. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“RACHEL. YOU NEED TO JUMP, NOW!”, exasperates Sally, as she clenches her teeth.
Rachel ain’t goin’ nowhere today, Sally.
“Ok, Rachel. We’re done with class if you’re not going to jump. Is that what you want?”, she grumbles.
“Yes”, comes the reply.
I felt for Sally – and I’m sure you’ve been in a similar situation teaching karate. I know I sure have… but wait, here’s the kicker.
As soon as little Rachel replies “Yes”, Sally responds with “Ok, gimme 5! You did an awesome job today!!!”
I’m sure Sally didn’t realize what she just did, and if you missed it too like I once would have, Sally made an AWFUL mistake right at that point.
Sally just rewarded Rachel (high 5 and praise) for bad behavior (refusing to follow directions).
Of course she was praising her for the whole day, not the immediate situation, but what do you think was going through the 3 year old’s head at that point? She just learned that when she doesn’t follow directions, it’s ok… and perhaps she might even get a high 5!
Here’s another example.
You leave your gate open and your dog runs out into the neighbor’s yard.
You call your dog, “Fido!”. Fido runs around, takes a leak on a tree, and continues to sniff the bushes. “Fido!”, you call again but he ignores you.
You keep calling, he keeps ignoring, until he’s done…. which takes about 60 seconds. By this stage you’re more than a little ticked off and your face is beet red. You’re now screaming at your dog at the top of your lungs, and Fido finally comes back.
Because of your rage you start cursing, “You BAD dog! Fido, BAD DOG!! YOU BAD, BAD DOG!”. Fido cowers down and you give him a whack on the butt with your shoe. That’ll teach him, right!
Think about what’s going through Fido’s head… I just came back and I got punished.
If you were Fido, would you ever want to come back when that kind of thing happens? Next time you might as well sniff a bit longer before you get your punishment.
Now you can argue a dog might not be capable of such multiple complex thoughts, but they can immediately make an association between action and consequence. Remember that Pavlov guy?
In both these examples, the wrong consequence followed the action or inaction.
Sally shouldn’t have praised Rachel for not following directions.
And you, our fictitious dog owner shouldn’t have punished Fido for finally obeying your commands.
When teaching karate or anything for that matter, be careful what you say and what you do next.
If a student disobeys, don’t give them praise (even if it’s for something else). Give them the appropriate corrective action. Time out, push-ups, expulsion, or demotion depending on the severity of the situation.
Of course in Sally’s case at the pool a time-out wouldn’t be appropriate at the end of the class for a 3 year old not following directions because she was fearful. However, instead Sally could withhold praise and the usual after-class reward since Rachel refused to complete her task and ignore directions.
And when a wayward karate student obeys, or sets a good example, praise them up! Create good associations with paying attention, following directions and achievement.
These kinds of small rewards strengthen the associations between good actions and positive consequences, and build respectful, attentive students.