Tips & Tricks

Teaching young kids is hard

When you’ve been training capoeira for some years, you often get the opportunity (or sometimes duty) to start teaching yourself. Most often you start by helping out in the kids’ classes or you get to start your own group for kids. For me it was a bit different, I started as an assistant for my mestre in the adult classes and eventually got the opportunity to take over the studio together with my friend. I’ve been teaching or helping teach adults for ten years now. Next to that I’ve also done several summer camps and workshops for kids over the years, but I’ve only occasionally taught recurring children’s classes.

I had never been enthusiastic about teaching young kids. Mainly because I didn’t have the patience and couldn’t lower my expectations, compared to adults. Teenagers are okay though, they’re old enough to carry out an assignment and do the exercises you give them. Even though I’ve been asked multiple times to take over a group in the past few years, I’ve never accepted the offers. Until this year. My wife had been teaching a small group of ~10 kids, and continued to teach during her pregnancy. Only in her final trimester it became too exhausting, so I offered to fill in for the rest of the season. And so I got to teach a children’s class for five months.

Currently I’m back to teaching adults only because it was too difficult combining everything with my work and personal life. Nonetheless, I ended up enjoying (or maybe “not minding to do it”, still not sure how I feel about it) teaching that group and I wanted to take the time and reflect on what I’ve learned.

To give you a bit more insight, the group averaged between 8 and 12 students. The youngest capoeiristas were 5 years old (only by a few months) and the eldest was maybe 9. The class was held once a week and lasted an hour. I’ve never had any (formal) training in teaching kids or in pedagogy. For those who are teaching children, this probably all sounds obvious but to me it was definitely a learning process, and it still is.

First approach: teach them like you’d teach adults

For the first few weeks, I tried to do a simplified version of the adult classes. But it very quickly became clear that this did not work. You cannot shout “Alright let’s make 4 lines facing the mirror and start ginga” and expect them to do that. When you’ve finally put everyone in the right spot and they’re standing in the ginga position, you can’t just practice a move or sequence and assume everyone will follow along or even stay in the same spot. An even bigger disaster was letting them practice in pairs for a given exercise. Within minutes, everyone was distracted and playing around. Total chaos.

Conclusion: treat kids like kids

Children have a short attention span by their nature, so organize your class to their needs. For me, it meant adding fun and games to the mix. I started introducing challenges and goals which they had to conquer. Using more materials like cones, markers and hoops also worked.

Punishing with push-ups

When someone misbehaves, you as a teacher have to make clear that a certain rule or limit was crossed, and maybe add a consequence. Something that I’ve seen a lot is making the child do a physical exercise like push-ups, or even make the whole group do the exercise to add a bit of peer pressure. Even though I’m not a fan of this anymore, I’ve done push-up punishments in the past.

For me, there are two main reasons why this does not work:

  • The child (or group) wants to get it over with as quickly as possible and therefore doesn’t to do exercise correctly. This can result in mistraining or injury.
  • Oddly enough, they never seemed to mind doing push-ups (or whatever the exercise was) and almost cheered for getting to do a set. That meant that it didn’t register as a punishment and therefore had no effect at all.

Conclusion: discipline accordingly

I’m trying to stay away from these kinds of punishments and make misbehaving children sit out an exercise. But honestly, I haven’t found the right approach yet. The pedagogues amongst you are probably throwing their textbooks at me right now.

But I also must admit that even though I started out being very strict (although I didn’t want to be a tyrant), I let it go quite fast as I realized that constantly telling the kids “no” and “stop that” wasn’t going to get me -and them- anywhere. That brings me to my next point…

Embrace the chaos

Children will run and shout and do everything except what you’ve just asked. In the first two or three weeks I came home stressed out and with a sore throat after trying to keep everyone in line for a full hour. The next class, I changed my mindset and let them a bit looser. In combination with the points above (especially introducing fun exercises that don’t feel like exercises), we had a great class and the hour flew by.

I didn’t worry about some kids running off or doing stuff that wasn’t strictly in the assignment. As long as they didn’t endanger themselves or others, I was fine with some monkeying around. I learned that when the chaos increases, it means that they need a new thing to do because they maybe got bored with the current activity. Sometimes it was enough to give a bit of feedback and encourage them to keep trying.

Lower those expectations

I came in expecting to teach a queixada and once they got it, they’d execute it perfectly. Most of the times, the kick they threw resembled a queixada, but it wasn’t quite it yet. I kept focusing on details like “land in the position of ginga”, “don’t jump”, “keep your arm in this position”, … No matter how many times I repeated my feedback, it didn’t seem to register.

The thing I learned here is that those details actually don’t matter. First of all, kids don’t understand yet why all these details are important, to them it feels like they’re doing exactly the same as what the teacher is doing. Second, with a bit of luck you’ll have years to perfect their moves so don’t sweat them. And third, kids are kids, they should have fun doing capoeira. If you keep stressing they’re not doing it right, you’ll take the fun out of coming to class.

The same goes for making exact lines or a perfect circle for the roda. Does it all really matter? It is worth investing 10 minutes of your precious hour to get them in a certain formation? What value does it add?

I stepped away from perfection as a goal and moved more toward the Just Barely Good Enough principle from the agile methodology (the name says it all). If I can bring across the main idea behind something, that’s sufficient. The details will follow later.

While writing this I realize that it also applies to adults. I’ve always been able to more or less manage my expectations with adults and I’ve applied to above princples for years. But I don’t know, with kids it seems as I expect them to learn a lot quicker.

Think long term

There is a big difference in teaching capoeira to a bunch of 5 year olds, or a group of 12 year olds. I quickly noticed that the youngest kids of the group weren’t even capable yet of doing very simple PE exercises like jumping on one leg, or running on hands and feet. Their motor and body coordination skills simply haven’t developed fully yet. Then how could I expect to teach them complex movements like a meia lua de compasso?

That is when I realized I should not focus on short term development of skills. With only an hour of capoeira a week, it’s quite impossible to have them learn a move in a class or two and consider it “explained and learned”. Instead, I started introducing exercises to work on the most simple forms of capoeira movements, allowing the youngest students to develop their motor skills step by step. Thinking long term, I would’ve focused on those types of exercises for one to two years, slowly building up everything to resemble more and more the capoeira movements we know. For each age group (5-6, 7-8, 9-10, …), you can set different expectations and give them assignments accordingly.

The hard part is that you’ll invest a lot of time in helping the 5 year olds build basic skills and not really doing a lot of capoeira, while you have absolutely no guarantee that anyone of them will stick around long enough to become a trained capoeirista. You should definitely ask yourself why you want to teach young children and which goals you want to reach.

Final thoughts

Just recently, I signed up for Mestre Ferradura’s course for teachers. It’s an updated version from the Brincadeira de Angola methodology that he and the IBCE developed. I’m curious whether I’ll be able to draw some parallels between his teaching methods and the learnings I got from my own experience.

But for now, is teaching young kids really that difficult? Compared to adults, definitely. At least, that’s how I feel about it. Even though I learned how to better approach a training with kids, I still find it way easier to organize a class for adults. I don’t have to find yet another way to gamify an exercise and it doesn’t take half an hour to form a roda. That being said, it’s probably just a matter of experience combined with patience and creativity. Props to everyone teaching kids, you are shaping the next generation of capoeiras!

— Vinho

3 thoughts on “Teaching young kids is hard

  1. Mestre Cueuca is teaching his kids online course right now, it’s his level 2 course. You should message him, especially if you too the level 1 class prior.

    Also, as a schoolteacher, and somebody who has worked with kids for 18 years now, I know it’s really hard to get started. This course d very high quality and the best place to get started in my opinion.

    1. Hi Lagosta, thanks for the tip! I’ve heard about Mestre Cueca’s courses but I haven’t checked them out yet.

  2. Hi, thanks for sharing your experience!
    I have recently started combined parent-kid classes, and I encountered some of the challenges you described.
    I have done a course from mestre Tete and another from mestre Ferradura and obtained some invaluable advice on pedagogy that I am currently incorporating into my work and is helping a lot!!! I strongly recommend those courses!
    Mestre Cueca’s one is next!

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