Proven ways to transform a fledgling bully back into a nice kid?
May 11, 2015 7:36 AM   Subscribe

A six year old in martial arts class has just started to do and say mean things. Small stuff so far: unprovoked shoving, telling other kids they're doing it wrong, mild name calling like "big baby" and "dumb shoes." Coach is starting to crack down on the behavior, but now the mean stuff is getting said softly so it isn't caught. Will this pass as an age-related blip? Are there ways to inspire the kid to be friendly again?

The coach sometimes makes appeals to friendship, "Hey! We don't shove our friends!" but that tends to lead to the kid shouting, "We aren't friends!"

Would an appeal to a sense of team spirit help?

What about an abstract concept like respect?

Does this kid need more cheering on and championing, or more scolding?

(This is not my kid, by the way. Mine's another student in this small class of just 2-3 kids.) The class doesn't currently have any spiritual/mental component -- just skills.
posted by xo to Human Relations (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What about a screening of Karate Kid?
posted by appleses at 7:42 AM on May 11, 2015

Can you get to the bottom of what changed in his life around the same time the mean stuff started happening? That should provide some useful direction, I'd think.
posted by zug at 7:44 AM on May 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

The coach needs to stop plugging holes in the dam so to speak and get to the heart of why this kid is lashing out at their peers. If it were me, I'd take the kid aside before class and ask them what it looks like to be a member of the dojo. I'd ask what we do, what we don't do, and how sensei and the others will know that the child understands the rules. Then I'd ask what's making the kid so upset that he can't demonstrate his knowledge of those rules to see what he says.

If the child knows what's up and says so, or if the child can't really articulate it, I'd let them know that we need to try something new. If the child gets upset with a peer, the child can go into another room without asking to cool down. If the child elects to take out their anger physically or verbally even once, they go home. Period. No chances. Then they come back the next time to try again. If the kid's behavior continues, that child can't come to class anymore.

Boundaries matter, especially in a dojo. Sensei might have better luck curbing this behavior by setting an empathetic 0 tolerance policy.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:44 AM on May 11, 2015 [16 favorites]

Well if you're not the parent I don't see what you can do, but I think the emotional skill at issue here is empathy. Neither cheering nor scolding, but modelling and asking: How does it make people feel when you do x? How would you feel if someone did X to you? How do you think Person Y feels when you do that? Is that a nice way to feel? What can you do differently so person Y doesn't feel [person Y's likely feelings].
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:44 AM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Would an appeal to a sense of team spirit help? What about an abstract concept like respect?

No way.

As a functional adult who was once a kid who shoved other kids and told them they were doing it wrong: I was a kid who knew I was smart and other people were dumb, and had no idea why the hell everyone else didn't accept this as well. If someone did something wrong (or something my tiny 5 year old brain perceived as wrong), I felt duty-bound to correct it because it's important to be right about things! And if people didn't listen? Well, I've tried reasoning with them, now the only path lest to me is violence!

What I figured out later, and what I wish someone had tried to teach me then, is that being right and being smart are not the only things of value in a person. Different people have different things to offer, and rather than trying to assert myself by showing everyone how much better I was (because I really did think this was the only way to make people like me - by being very obviously the smartest), I should be proud of my own positive qualities while also noticing other peoples', even if they were very different from mine.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:48 AM on May 11, 2015 [34 favorites]

Another solution: kid hits or is unkind? Kid sits out the rest of the lesson and doesn't get to participate. At the end of the lesson, kid gets asked, "You had a pretty boring day today, huh? If you hit, if you are unkind, you are going to keep having boring days here. Next time you have a choice to make. Boring day? Or good day?" And hold true to that system. Some little kids cannot grok empathy and never will. But put them in a position where they have to be on their best behavior to avoid boredom? Oh man, they shape up so fast. YMMV.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2015 [18 favorites]

If it's a class of just 2-3 kids, you need to tell the coach that if he doesn't take a harder stance on the bullying problem (which he knows about), you're going to pull your kid. He may be forced to cancel the class if he loses just one more kid. Hit him right in the wallet.
posted by juniperesque at 8:11 AM on May 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

Parents have varying motivations for sending their kids to martial arts classes. I'd explore what's going on at home (but you can't, I would imagine). With a six-year-old, it's rarely (never?) the kid in isolation.

Alternatively, perhaps this six-year-old needs to be taught about metaphor. "We're only pretending to kill people in this class. You're not really supposed to hurt anybody." Children learn metaphor at different rates/stages. Perhaps he's just a bit behind the rest of the class.
posted by DMelanogaster at 8:23 AM on May 11, 2015

Make the rules and consequences clear, and then follow through on them.

This shouldn't a negotiation between the coach and the kid. It shouldn't be about showing him the light, or helping him realize that nice is better than mean. It's just enforcing boundaries.

Eventually the kid will learn to respect the boundaries or he won't be able to come to class anymore.

Coach should also talk to the kid's parents, to let them know what's going on and get their feedback and support.
posted by alms at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Switch him to an Aikido class. ;)
posted by kschang at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Sounds like he's nervous about how well he's doing in comparison to the rest of the class. I'm not sure how you go about this, but he needs to learn that this is an activity in which he's measured against himself, not the other kids. The mental component is vital, I think, and he's not too young to start to understand that. And yes, maybe Karate Kid.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:46 AM on May 11, 2015

Best answer: If he's saying these things so quietly the coach can't hear, he needs to stand right next to the coach for the entire lesson. (In addition to the physical proximity hopefully cutting down on some of the misbehavior, it will also make the kid feel special and give him some attention which, if he's six and acting out like this, could be something the kid feels like he needs.)

If the coach isn't willing to do that, life is too short, find another class.
posted by kate blank at 8:47 AM on May 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Chances are, he has an older sibling or someone at school who is doing this to him. Pull his mother aside and alert her to the problem. She probably doesn't realized that her baby has been bullied and is now acting out on it.
posted by myselfasme at 9:11 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The coach needs to tell the kids : "We don't have to like each other, but we DO need to treat each other with respect", and give a list of behaviors which are forbidden in class. If the kid won't stop the bullying, he loses the privilege of being in the class.
posted by brujita at 9:43 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

What has worked for me on soccer teams is setting a broad policy and using that as the basis for correcting behavior. Something like, "Everybody came here to have fun. Nobody came here to feel bad. So, nobody on my team is allowed to say or do anything to make anyone, including yourself, feel bad." Then, I would try to keep an eye on the team, and correct based on the policy. So not "We don't push our friends." because all kids are natural lawyers and will look for the "But we're not friends" loophole. But, "Pushing can make people feel bad, so do not push people in my class." And, yes, the child will say, "I was just kidding. I didn't mean to make him feel bad." And the response is "I don't care about your intentions, pushing people often makes them sad and you could not be sure that it wouldn't make that person sad, so do not do it in my class."

But, your coach will not see everything. So he also needs to talk about the concept in the abstract all the time. I did it at almost every practice. Just a quick, 30 second reminder of my expectations. Also, if I got a report that Kid X did something that I did not see, I would make a generic example of the behavior "Some of you might think it's ok to call someone a name because you were joking and didn't really mean it, but you cannot know that the other person will take it as joke, so do not call names, even as a joke."

I was really, really, surprised by how well it worked. What I realized was that they were kids and they thought I was an adult and that I had some idea of what I was doing they really wanted my approval . So, if I made what I approved and disapproved of very clear, kids modified their behavior to match.

I've more than a couple kids go from being jerks to being genuinely nice people, at least when they were with me, so while the approach isn't "proven", it did work for me.
posted by qldaddy at 9:55 AM on May 11, 2015 [17 favorites]

This is something that my dojo's classes for children specifically addresses: anti-bullying, respect for the people you train with, the fact that you are all learning together. Kids that push or get mouthy with their classmates get a warning and if the behavior continues, they then get to go sit in the back corner of the mat and also a discussion about it with the sensei after class, and the sensei also tries to keep himself very available so if a student is getting quietly bullied, they can discuss it with him and he'll be on higher alert for it during class. This approach gets combined with a lot of praise and direct attention when they do well during an ordinary class, plus bonus praise when they get their belt stripes, plus extra super bonus praise when they take their belt tests. The balance tends to work pretty well. The ethics of working together with your partner are repeated over and over again to really make it an integral part of class. I've seen some jerky kids turned around by it as well.

With such a small class, I'm surprised that even whispered insults are not getting caught. Isn't the instructor right there when class is happening?
posted by PussKillian at 10:00 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The coach sometimes makes appeals to friendship, "Hey! We don't shove our friends!" but that tends to lead to the kid shouting, "We aren't friends!"

In other words, the coach rewarded and reinforced the kid's negative behaviors by giving him attention. Well, no wonder the problem persists despite the fact that coach "is starting to crack down on the behavior." Coach does not get it.

The correct adult response to the kid's retort of "We aren't friends!" should have been to remove that child from the class immediately, and then speak with the child's parents that same day to let them know if there are any more incidents from this kid that disrupt the learning of the other kids in the class that s/he will drop the kid from the class without refund. (How do I know this works? My husband coaches kids' baseball, and this works like a charm. But the coach has to follow through.)

Bottom line: you're paying money for your kid to be subjected to this nonsense? No. Give the coach an ultimatum that you will be taking your business elsewhere if there are any further incidents from this kid. Nope. My 7.5 and 5.5 year olds' karate teachers do not have these issues in their classes because they know how to discipline. Sorry, I know you mean well but you should not have to teach discipline best practices to a businessperson to whom you are paying money to coach your child.
posted by hush at 4:45 PM on May 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

When I was a mouthy kid taking martial arts classes, not only was the dojo big on formal respect with talking frowned upon unless explicitly asked a question, a combination of laps, kneeling and fall practice was enough to distract any bullies. The other thing that was consistent was the message that there's always someone bigger than you, and that you were there in part for a healthy outlet to aggression.
posted by klangklangston at 11:28 PM on May 11, 2015

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